By Denise Ortuno Neil
Now don’t panic, you didn’t miss massive elephants, furious tigers or dancing bears. The Desert Circus I’m talking about took place many moons ago…with the last moon being in 1986. No, this circus was a creation for fun and philanthropy in the times of classic Palm Springs, way before bars, restaurants and nightclubs lined Palm Canyon, which back then was still a two way street. It was a time when parades still had clout as entertainment, and the world was simple. As Palm Springs celebrates it’s75th anniversary, let’s take a look back at the Desert Circus.
It began back in 1934 when Palm Springs was known to the locals as the Village, a time when celebrities fled the limelight of Hollywood for the more clandestine resort area that Palm Springs represented. Hot spots like The Racquet Club, The Desert Inn and the El Mirador Hotel beckoned weary stars.
The purpose of starting what became the Desert Circus was as a fund raiser of sorts that would provide funds for a local church that was in dire need of financial assistance. But it was also a reason to celebrate the end of season in the spring…basically a reason to throw a big party. The powers that dominated decided to produce an old fashioned western themed celebration to do the job, and so the Desert Circus was born.
Palm Springs luminaries such as Desert Inn owner Nellie Coffman, Palm Springs Historical Society founder Melba Bennet, Frank Bogert and Alvah Hicks among many others were involved in the festivities.
Not all Palm Springs villagers agreed with the name Desert Circus, some suggesting a more appropriate moniker of “Fiesta”. However, the Desert Circus name prevailed and followed the celebration through the decades.
The western themed circus incorporated old time fun with parade clichés including proud mounted trotting horses, floats and an array of marching bands, and would even go as far as “arresting” those who didn’t don western garb. The circus bad guys (including western attire resistant Frank Sinatra) would be fined and the money would then go to the associated charity.
Grand Marshalls were selected every event year and roped in such Hollywood heavy hitters as Bob Hope, Walt Disney, Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.
The parade fun would end with the grand Desert Circus Big Top Ball usually held at the famous El Mirador Hotel, now the location of Desert Hospital.
The party grew to a whole week of village fun and came to include comedy skits produced by Melba Bennet of the Village Vanities and later, the Village Insanities. The productions were playful and often poked fun at village leaders.
The Desert Circus also gave birth in a way to The Palm Springs Rodeo of the Stars in 1940 led by Frank Bogert.
The Desert Circus gained popularity through the years and attracted tourists and locals becoming a warmly regarded and anticipated event. With each passing year, different charities would benefit from the delightful occasion.
The Desert Circus eventually lost steam and its proverbial tent came down in 1986. It had over fifty years of success as a desert mainstream event and fundraiser and is looked back upon with reverence by those who remember being involved in it, whether as active participants or joyous onlookers.
There are many events that have come and gone since the Desert Circus has passed, and as the city of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley continue to grow many more will surface. Perhaps not with the historical value and camaraderie that the Desert Circus provided, but a new village mentality may arise, still maintaining all of the magic and attraction that Palm Springs encompassed so many years ago. Happy Anniversary Palm Springs, here’s to another 75!
For more information about the history of Palm Springs visit www.pshistoricalsociety.org