By Steve Bergsman
To track down Elvis Presley in Palm Springs, California, I first visited Donna Loren, the former "Dr. Pepper Girl" and the featured female soloist on the television show "Shindig" in the early 1960s. A music contemporary of Elvis, she lives here now in a home designed by John Lautner, one of great midcentury architects who worked in Southern California.
"I only have one Elvis story," she told me. "When I turned 18, Elvis sent a limousine to fetch me." She had not met him, but obviously, Elvis knew about the beautiful brunette who could sing rock 'n' roll. "I heard about Elvis and his limousines for young ladies and decided that wasn't for me. I told the limousine driver, 'No, I'm not going.'"
One woman who didn't say no to Elvis was Priscilla Ann (nee Wagner) Beaulieu, whom Elvis met when he was a soldier in Europe. They were married in 1967, and Elvis leased a house on Ladera Circle from 1966 through 1967. Today, the house is called the "Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway," and I arranged for a tour of the property.
Elvis owned a number of places in Palm Springs and even built a home at 845 W. Chino Canyon, which became known as Graceland West. However, the house on Ladera Circle is the most well-known property associated with Elvis, even though he and Priscilla only lived in it for a year after they were married. That's because it was famous even before Elvis.
The Alexander Co. constructed 2,200 homes in the Palm Springs area, and the surviving properties are considered quintessentially midcentury modern. At the end of the 1950s, it undertook the construction of the house on Ladera Circle. When it was finished in 1960, Robert and Helene Alexander moved in. The house boasted 5,000 square feet, five bedrooms, five baths, five sides and a pool. The innovative design element was that the house's footprint featured five circles. A 1962 Look magazine article about the Alexanders and their house dubbed it "the House of the Tomorrow."
The Alexanders' glorious Palm Springs world ended suddenly when they died in a 1965 plane crash. The house went into probate. Elvis' manager, the notorious Colonel Parker, lived nearby and induced Elvis into leasing the house for a year, which he did for $21,000.
At first glance, the house doesn't look extraordinary, but then you get closer and see the first sensory feature, a stepped rise to the entry gate. The steps are large cement circles above pools of water dribbling down from the higher elevation to the property's street front. As I waited for my guide to arrive, I realized this water feature was very karmic, like listening to "Love Me Tender."
Inside, the most beautiful and striking room is the signatory living room, with its curved stone wall and attached sitting area that follows the contour of rocks and beyond. Before the sofa are large hassocks and tables of different sizes. At the opposite end of the circular room are floor-to-ceiling windows. In the middle of this extraordinary indoor-outdoor living space sits a pop-up fireplace with a rounded detached vent above.
The second most interesting feature is the round island in the kitchen, with its burners and a large barbecue cooking oven with a hooded top. Other unusual architectural features are low door handles, horizontal sockets and the low ceiling in the main hallway, designed to instigate entry into the large rooms.
With most architectural tours, the guide's first words are "don't touch." For this tour, we were able sit anywhere, touch everything. That allowed my wife and me to comfort-test Elvis and Priscilla's honeymoon bed, get photographed on the living room sofa and even strum an "Elvis" guitar.
Afterward, we returned to our accommodations at the Riviera Palm Springs, which was the place to be in the 1960s, when the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack hung out here. By the early 1960s, Elvis became a frequent visitor, using the Riviera are as a refuge from the music business. Where the spa is today was the famous nightclub called the Mediterranean Room, which Elvis used as rehearsal space for his band before leaving for tours.
Now the hotel decor harkens back to its midcentury roots, and the pool scene is still happening as it was in the 1963 movie "Palm Spring Weekend." This is no "Heartbreak Hotel."
WHEN YOU GO
Elvis Presley Honeymoon Hideaway: www.elvishoneymoon.com
Riviera Palms Springs: www.rivierapalmsprings.com
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The Palm Springs, California, house where Elvis and Priscilla Presley spent their honeymoon features this romantic bedroom. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.