Film Awards Gala, Palm Springs Convention Center

Palm Springs basks in its enduring love affair with Old Hollywood

In the late 1980s, Sonny Bono had a vision for the city of Palm Springs. As mayor of the desert getaway, the former musician and entertainer implemented big plans to broaden Palm Springs’ appeal on the international stage by attracting media, tourists and film enthusiasts to participate in a widely acclaimed cultural event that would become a force in the film industry for years to come. It became the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“I feel certain that this annual event will continue to prosper, grow and take its place among the most significant international film festivals, marking another milestone in the cultural life, progress and prestige of our city,” Bono once said. “I have dedicated myself and this office to exploring new ways to enhance our city’s excellence and quality. The festival is part of our expanding vision for the future.”

sonny_bono_statue_in_palm_springs_californiaSonny Bono statue, Palm Springs

Today, Palm Springs International Film Festival has grown from a five-day gathering into a two-week extravaganza, drawing an audience of 135,000. With most attendees coming from outside of Coachella Valley, including Europe and Canada, it’s one of the most highly attended film festivals in the United States.

If Bono were alive today, he would see his dreams fulfilled. His intention was to fuel the local economy and hospitality industry by prolonging the tourism season and inviting visitors from all over the world to experience this iconic desert oasis.

With the support of public and private partnerships, including those with the city, and convention and visitors bureau, Palm Springs International Film Festival has done just that.

Film Festival Beginnings

camelot-outsideCamelot Theatre, Palm Springs

The event took off during its initial run in 1990, attracting major sponsors as well as prominent directors and producers. As time went on and the quality of films improved, it eventually became a launch pad for independent and foreign productions that could not compete with big box-office hits. By 1992, films such as Enchanted April, La Femme Nikita and Mediterraneo went on to win Oscars for Best Foreign Language film after premiering at the festival.

Nearing its third decade of success, next year’s gathering will take place Jan. 2–16. The Film Awards Gala, held every year inside Palm Springs Convention Center, is the pinnacle black tie event where Hollywood glitz and glamour are on full display, drawing A-list movie stars such as Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp.

palm-springs-art-museumPalm Springs Art Museum (Art Museum Interior Photography by David Chavkin)

It’s a rare moment when the rich and famous mingle freely with an audience of locals and film buffs before presenting on stage and receiving Gala awards, such as the Desert Palm Achievement, Director of the Year and Sonny Bono Visionary Awards.

Last year’s lineup featured more than 200 films from more than 60 countries. The film festival takes over downtown Palm Springs and several of its most historic theaters. Many films premiere at Camelot Theatres, an old-school art-house venue. Other locations include Annenberg Auditorium, UltraStar Mary Pickford Theater, Palm Canyon Theatre and Palm Springs Art Museum.

The Rat Pack Days

mountainsSan Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains

It was no coincidence that Palm Springs was determined the perfect location to host the star-studded event. As early as the 1920s, the vacation destination has beckoned Tinseltown with its arid desert climate and striking landscape of palm trees and rock formations jutting out against the San Jacinto Mountains.

Long before mobile phones, film stars were contractually obligated to remain within 120 miles of Los Angeles, easily available to Hollywood studios as soon as the call came for a particular casting, film or photo shoot. Palm Springs happened to fall within the bounds of the legendary two-hour rule, putting the city on the map as the perfect escape from showbiz hustle and bustle.

Luring famous film stars such as Gene Autry, Bob Hope, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, the Movie Colony neighborhood and surrounding areas turned into something of a celebrity playground where they could retreat from the glare of the spotlight. Throughout Greater Palm Springs, paparazzi were banned from photographing the glitterati without their permission, and the rule was well respected.

“Because the studios ruled Hollywood with an iron first, every photographer knew that if they crossed the studios, their careers would literally end that day,” explains Michael Stern, architecture tour guide and author of Julius Shulman: Palm Springs. “That allowed the stars to party in private, in a way that was not afforded to them elsewhere.”

Celebrity Crash Pads

dinah-shore-estate_pool_and_view_of_main_houseThe Dinah Shore House, Palm Springs

Weekend homes consequently became the site of notorious parties, high-profile relationships and tumultuous affairs. Perhaps most notable is the estate of Frank Sinatra, nicknamed Twin Palms for the two lone trees that shoot up into the sky. Sinatra shared the home with his first wife, Nancy Barbato, and later with his second wife, Ava Gardner.

The architecturally spectacular home is built with nontraditional materials and long horizontal lines that section off each wing of the house, including the front entrance overlooking a piano-shaped pool. During the Insider Tour, Stern guides visitors through the house, noting the long crack in the bathroom sink caused by an epic argument between Gardner, Sinatra and a bottle of Champagne.

The four-bedroom private home is one of many significant stops during the Modern Tour, which is affiliated with Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. It is among a number of celebrity dwellings available for special events, and can comfortably host up to 150 within 4,500 sq. ft. of space. Stern offers customized private tours for small to midsize groups, and often ends with a swanky, throwback-era cocktail party.

“Having events at the stars’ homes creates an additional aura of glamour,” he says. “Cocktails at the Sinatra House offer the perfect melding of celebrity, architecture and drinks. The results are sublime.”

Another midcentury modern home is the Dinah Shore House, designed for the singer and actress by renowned architect Donald Wexler. The 7,000-square-foot residence, sitting on 1.3 acres in Old Las Palmas, was purchased by Leonardo DiCaprio as a rental property in 2014. With six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and a pool, tennis court and casita, events for up to 300 people are more than memorable.

“All the resorts and cities continue to remember this important part of our story through tours and celebrity homes available for holiday stays or events, and resorts and hotels pay homage through art,” says Joyce Kiehl, director of communications for Greater Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

elvis-houseThe Elvis Honeymoon House, Palm Springs

The Elvis Honeymoon House, also known as the House of Tomorrow, is one of the best places to take a photograph, with its sweeping roof and views of the Santa Rosa Mountains. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and his newlywed, Priscilla, honeymooned there in May 1967; exactly nine months later, their daughter was born. An unusual build, the three-story estate consists of four concentric circles in place of traditional square rooms. The circular motif runs throughout the 5,500-square-foot abode, and can host groups of about 100 people.

Expansive Estates

palmspringsconventioncenter_0Palm Springs Convention Center

Media mogul and television host Merv Griffin, who is the creator of television shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, constructed a palatial 39-acre equestrian property well-suited for incentive and corporate groups. The Merv Griffin Estate in La Quinta, surrounded by tall, white porticos, encompasses 13 bedrooms, a curved infinity pool, a 2.5-acre pond, a bocce ball court and an equestrian track. A sprawling event lawn and multiple paddocks add to the event spaces within the main house.

Noted for its secluded setting and having hosted international dignitaries and world leaders, the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands is the vision of late Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg. The Annenberg estate and Sunnylands Center and Gardens are spread across 200 acres, with an array of more than 50,000 arid desert plants hiding the expansive grounds.

The historic place was designed for high-level retreats on issues of national and international importance. Most recently, President Barack Obama hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during a landmark summit involving 10 heads of state. Foreign filmmakers regularly convene at Sunnylands, trading film and promotion strategies several days before the international film festival commences. The 25,000-square-foot house and surrounding gardens can also be toured by the public.

“Because Palm Springs is such a popular meeting and event destination, there are dozens of spectacularly beautiful homes that can be rented out for private events,” Stern says. “The mountain setting is scenically gorgeous, and the Hollywood connection is fascinating. Needless to say, the astonishing collection of midcentury modern architecture has made Palm Springs known throughout the world.”

Major Meeting Venues

Greater Palm Springs

Ace Hotel & Swim Club

176 guest rooms; close to downtown, Joshua Tree National Park, Salton Sea and Salvation Mountain; Feel Good Spa; free Wi-Fi; fitness center; 7,500 sq. ft. of event space, including 4,000-square-foot Clubhouse.

Courtyard Palm Desert

More than 30 golf courses, area casinos and El Paseo shopping district nearby; views of Santa Rosa Mountains; 145 guest rooms; complimentary Wi-Fi; 1,524 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Doubletree by Hilton Palm Springs Area

Recently renovated resort with mountain views; 27-hole championship golf course; 289 guest rooms and suites; close to downtown area and Palm Springs International Airport; 23,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.

Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs


Music-themed resort with classic guitars and amps available to jam; 163 guest rooms; more than 27,000 sq. ft. of function space; 9,504-square-foot ballroom; business center.

Hilton Palm Springs

Located at the base of San Jacinto Mountains; 257 guest rooms; full-service Elements Spa; Precor fitness center; Terrace Restaurant; free airport shuttle service; more than 33,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Hyatt Palm Springs

Within walking distance of Palm Springs Convention Center and Palm Springs Art Museum; 197 guest rooms; more than 12,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; complimentary Wi-Fi; shuttle service from Palm Springs International Airport.

Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort & Spa

Nestled on 45 acres of lush gardens; 530 guest rooms with mountain, golf or pool views; 88,000 sq. ft. of function space; access to golf course at Indian Wells Golf Resort; free Wi-Fi.

JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa

Set on 400 acres of man-made lakes; 884 guest rooms; 232,660 sq. ft. of meeting space divided among 28 rooms; two championship golf courses; five pools.

La Quinta Resort & Club, A Waldorf Astoria Resort


Historic resort opened in 1926; 796 guest rooms; seven restaurants; 41 pools; 53 hot tubs; 23 tennis courts; five golf courses; more than 190,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

Miramonte Indian Wells Resort & Spa

AAA Four Diamond Mediterranean resort; situated on base of the Santa Rosa Mountains; 24-hour fitness room; award-winning services at 12,000-square-foot Well Spa; 215 guest rooms; more than 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa

Located in Rancho Mirage; 444 guest rooms; restaurant; golf course; swimming pool; full-service spa; 82,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 28 rooms.

Palm Springs Convention Center

Less than 2 miles from Palm Springs International Airport; walking distance to more than 1,600 guest rooms; 261,000 sq. ft. of event space divided among 20 rooms.

Parker Palm Springs

Chic, upscale resort set on a 13-acre complex; features decor by designer Jonathan Adler; 144 guest rooms; 11,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa

Massive resort with 560 guest rooms; multiple restaurants; sandy beach; golf courses; 213,439 sq. ft. of meetings space divided among 55 meeting rooms; 60,000-square-foot conference center.

Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel

Attached to Palm Springs Convention Center; 410 guest rooms; restaurant; two bars; full-service spa; 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.

Saguaro Palm Springs

Brightly colored Joie de Vivre boutique hotel located 2 miles from convention center; 245 guest rooms; 24-hour business center; Olympic-size swimming pool; spa; 10,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space.

The Ritz-Carlton, Rancho Mirage

Deluxe resort with 244 guest rooms; 24-hour business center; nearly 31,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including 12 meeting rooms.

The Riviera Palm Springs


Stunning midcentury modern landmark currently undergoing a complete renovation that will add a wedding venue and pool bar; 398 guest rooms; 45,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, divided among 27 meeting rooms.

The Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort & Spa

AAA Four Diamond resort; located 6 miles from Palm Springs International Airport; more than 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 512 guest rooms; two award-winning championship Troon golf courses.

Two Bunch Palms Spa Resort

Legendary resort offering holistic spa experiences across 77 acres; 70 guest rooms; 6,321 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space; vintage rooms and natural spring waters in the Grotto; meditation and movement classes; energy-efficient design.