Celebrities

Stars of the Past in 29 Palms

Esther Williams
Movie Star

MGM movie actress and American swimming star Esther Williams (1921-2013) was part of the history of Twentynine Palms. The former competitive swimmer became known for her films in the 1940s to early 1950s and her TV swimming specials in the late 1950s, which featured elaborate synchronized swimming and diving performances. Esther often visited her uncle, plumber El Gilpin, and her brother, Dave Williams, who moved to the desert for his asthma in 1943 and built a large home with a swimming pool in Twentynine Palms in the early days. Esther and her second husband, Ben Gage, became active in community affairs in the late 1940s. In fact, she was proclaimed Honorary Mayor of Twentynine Palms on March 7, 1948, by Chamber of Commerce President M.G. “Watty” Watkins in a ceremony at the Oasis of Mara, followed by an American Legion barbecue, a fashion show at the Condor Field swimming pool, a reception at the Leonard Wikoff home, dinner at El Adobe Hotel, and an inaugural ball hosted by the Junior Women’s Club.
She also learned to ride a horse in Twentynine Palms (a skill needed for one of her film roles) with the help of colorful local resident and switchboard operator Blanche Loomis Ellis and the 29 Palms Saddle Club at the Flying W Stables, located at what is now Campbell House historic inn. Esther Williams died in Los Angeles on June 6, 2013 at age 91.

[Honorary Mayor Esther Williams. Photo by Eddie Adams, 1948.]
[Esther Williams and 29 Palms Saddle Club at Flying W Stables. Photo by Eddie Adams, 1948.]


Allie Wrubel

Academy Award-Winning Composer

Hollywood composer and songwriter Allie Wrubel (1905-1973) won a 1947 Academy Award for “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” his song written with lyricist Ray Gilbert for the Walt Disney movie Song of the South. Twentynine Palms locals held a rousing community celebration at his Flying W Stables and Café at Campbell Ranch upon his return home. Wrubel produced contract music for Warner Bros., including Busby Berkeley movies, before moving to Disney in 1947; he contributed music to many films and collaborated with numerous lyricists over the years; and he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. His best-known songs included “Gone with the Wind” and “The Lady from 29 Palms,” the latter of which has caused much speculation among desert residents throughout the decades as to the identity of the mysterious lady in the song. Wrubel and his wife, Wanda, lived for two decades in the only mansion in Twentynine Palms, the manor house at Campbell Ranch, now Campbell House historic inn, where they often hosted moonlight rides and rousing parties for friends and entertained visiting musicians like Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, and actors James Cagney and Jimmy Durante over the years. Wrubel died in 1973 at age 68 in Twentynine Palms.

[Allie Wrubel was celebrated at Flying W Stables in Twentynine Palms after winning the 1947 Academy Award for his song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Photo by Eddie Adams.]
[“The Lady from 29 Palms,” words and music by Allie Wrubel, was published by Martin Music in Hollywood in 1947, introduced by Tony Martin, and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and the Andrews Sisters.]


James Cagney & John Hilton

The 29 Palms Connection

Movie star, Academy Award winning actor, and artist James Cagney (1899-1986) had a desert retreat home in Twentynine Palms. When he visited the desert, Cagney was often heard playing piano at the 29 Palms Inn while enjoying a few cocktails, and he attended art receptions and gatherings at the 29 Palms Art Gallery. Cagney also spent time in the 1950s-1960s studying and practicing art in the studio of his artistic mentor and friend, famed desert landscape painter John W. Hilton (1904-1983). In this rare local photograph, from a series shot by photographer Burton Frasher, Cagney (left) is sketching Hilton (right), while Hilton is at his easel painting one of his famous desert landscape oils, known for their pink sunset skies and palette-knife texture. Cagney enjoyed sketching and painting and is claimed to have said in his autobiography that he might have been happier as a painter than a movie star, if somewhat poorer. The remnants of Cagney’s desert getaway still stand on a site off Amboy Road in Twentynine Palms.

 

 

The works of artist and author John Hilton are collected worldwide, and several of his paintings are in the permanent collection of the 29 Palms Art Gallery. Hilton was a co-founder of the 29 Palms Artists Guild in 1951-52 and served as its first president.
The Guild purchased a historic adobe at the Oasis of Mara in 1963 (former home of western pulp fiction author Tom Hopkins), which continues to serve as the 29 Palms Art Gallery and houses a bust of Hilton that contains his ashes. Hilton’s desert home, which he shared with his second wife, Barbara, with its art studio and large mineral-water pool, was the site of many pool parties for desert friends, visiting artists and celebrities, even generals from the neighboring Marine Base. After Barbara’s death in 1976, John’s daughter and artist Kathi Hilton moved into the house and began her painting career. John Hilton moved to Hawaii, where he died in 1986. The property fell into disrepair was recently purchased and is being refurbished.

[Actor James Cagney (left) sketching painter John Hilton. Photo by Burton Frasher, circa 1960s.]
[Celebrating the 12th anniversary of 29 Palms Artists’ Guild with (left to right) Los Angeles Times columnist Ed Ainsworth, gallery president Lee Lukes Pickering, wife Barbara Hilton, actor and writer Will Rogers Jr., and artist John W. Hilton. Photo by Burton Frasher, circa 1960s.]


Huell Howser

California’s Gold TV Hero

TV personality and Twentynine Palms resident Huell Howser (1945-2013) was producer and host of the popular “California’s Gold,” along with “Visiting with Huell Howser” and other documentary series, for PBS/KCET-TV in Los Angeles. For 25 years, he traveled the State of California, visiting towns, restaurants, parks, historical sites, and cultural arts venues, introducing the public to hidden gems in the golden state. In 1992, at the urging of local resident and friend Ginny Salisbury, he came to the desert to film the Twentynine Palms Historical Society’s memorable move of the city’s original one-room schoolhouse to National Park Drive, where it is now the Old Schoolhouse Museum. Intrigued by the friendly community, he returned to film episodes featuring Joshua Tree National Park, the Oasis of Murals, and the annual Weed Show at the museum. In 1997, Howser purchased a home in Twentynine Palms and transformed the 1953 house, swimming pool, and large entertainment patio into a mid-century modern showcase, complete with period furniture, found objects and original artwork. While he still maintained a condo in LA for his work, he was proud to call Twentynine Palms his first permanent home and his voting residence. The 80-acre property is now a vacation rental, The Wheelhouse, owned by LA artist Joan Robey, who has maintained and enhanced its vintage style with some of her own art. Born on Oct. 18, 1945, in Tennessee, he was named Huell, after his lawyer father, Harold, and his homemaker mother, Jewell. He passed away in Palm Springs on Jan. 7, 2013, at age 67. He was our friend.


[Huell Howser gives a thumbs-up to desert living. Photo by Vickie Waite.]
[Huell Howser and cameraman Luis Fuerte filmed the Oasis of Murals for an episode of “Visiting with Huell Howser” and interviewed locals Dave Meyer and Beth Owens at the wall of Mural 5, Desert Storm Homecoming & Victory Parade. Photo by Vickie Waite, 1996.]


U2

At Harmony MotelIn the 1980s, a little known Irish rock band named “U2” made its foray into the Mojave Desert while developing its (now world famous) album, The Joshua Tree, which was released in 1987. On a bus trip from Reno, Nevada, to Joshua Tree National Park and ultimately Twentynine Palms with their photographer, Anton Corbijn, they shot photos for the album at Bodie ghost town, at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Monument (now park), and on Highway 190 outside Death Valley where they spotted and posed with the lone Joshua tree that inspired the album’s name. Although the signature tree fell in 2000, another album photo icon lives on, the sign at the Harmony Motel in Twentynine Palms. Continuing their photo shoot journey after Death Valley, the band ended up at the Harmony Motel, staying there partly because of its name and the iconic sign with the musical notes.
Theoretically, they rented all of the rooms and used Room #4 as the group gathering spot. They shot dozens of photographs in front of the Harmony Motel sign, one of which ended up as a permanent part of the album. In 2011, the Harmony’s owner since 2004, Ash Maharaj, had the original sign refurbished and resurrected on the property to honor its musical legacy in the community. The photographs taken during the Mojave Desert photo shoot and the photo at Harmony Motel continue to be used in promoting the band at U2 concerts and in memorabilia, and U2 fans and other musicians continue to stop at the motel to capture their own photo in front of the iconic sign.

[U2 and the famous Harmony Motel sign in Twentynine Palms. U2 rock band members (left to right) The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., Bono, Adam Clayton.]