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By Lindsay Blake
The city of Palm Springs is world-renowned for a plethora of reasons – its balmy winter weather and ubiquitous sunny skies, its long-standing reputation as being a storied playground of the rich and famous and, perhaps most notably, its Modernism Week festival, an 11-day affair celebrating “midcentury modern design, architecture, art, fashion and culture.” The popular event (the largest of its kind worldwide) takes place annually each February, with this year’s festivities kicking off last Thursday and wrapping up this weekend with a slew of retro-themed lectures, tours and soirees scheduled across the idyllic desert landscape. Well-heeled attendees heading to town hoping for a fully-immersive MCM experience should look no further than the Parker for accommodations. The luxury five-star lodging, nestled on a bucolic lot about four miles southeast of the city’s bustling downtown at 4200 E. Palm Canyon Dr., is not only a darling of design and architecture but boasts a fabled celebrity history stretching back more than six decades.
The ultra-exclusive resort began life as the 200th outpost of the popular Holiday Inn of America chain and has the distinction of being the first to be built in the state of California. A franchise property, it was commissioned by local businessmen Milt Hicks, Jack Sargent and Bill McComas. Designed by Leonard J. Lundgren and Edward J. Maurer of the Austin, Texas-based Lundgren and Maurer architectural firm, construction of the 106-room lodging got underway in June 1960 and was completed the following year to the tune of $1.5 million. Boasting a canopied lobby and a 100-by-40-foot pool, baseball star Mickey Mantle was on hand for the site’s October 1961 grand opening festivities, which were met with much fanfare.
The Inn’s tenure was short-lived, though. Just two years after its inception, Gene Autry purchased the hotel for the primary purpose of housing his newly-acquired baseball team, the California Angels, during Spring Training, which was then taking place at nearby Angels Stadium. The singing cowboy rebranded the property “Melody Ranch” (it was also commonly referred to as The Autry Hotel) and added several new amenities, including a second swimming pool, multiple tennis courts, a bar and a handful of restaurants. The actor’s silver-trimmed saddle was also given prominent placement in the lobby. It did not take long for the place to become a celebrity haven, a status that remains firmly intact today.
While the lodging continued to be popular, especially with the Hollywood set, Autry decided to hang up his hospitality spurs in 1995, selling Melody Ranch to his longtime hotel manager, Rose Narva, who set about thoroughly remodeling the premises into a French-themed resort with Parisian-inspired buildings, bloom-filled gardens and a premier wellness center. The new Givenchy Hotel and Spa opened its doors in January 1996. Despite the sale, Gene and his wife, Jackie, continued living on the property in a private two-bedroom, two-bath pad at the rear of the grounds. (The dwelling still stands today, serving as the Parker’s presidential suite, known as the Gene Autry Residence.)
The hotel subsequently came into the hands of Merv Griffin in 1998 and was renamed Merv Griffin’s Resort Hotel and Givenchy Spa. The site grew into an even bigger celebrity hotspot at the hands of the legendary television host, with everyone from Brooke Shields to Lauren Bacall to Gregory Peck checking in for some R&R. It was during Griffin’s tenure, in fact, that Robert Downey Jr. was famously arrested over Thanksgiving weekend 2000 after police received an anonymous 911 tip that the actor, who was then starring on “Ally McBeal” and had just been released from a stint in state prison, had drugs in his possession. Upon discovering cocaine and methamphetamine in his room, Downey was handcuffed, removed from the resort by four armed officers and jailed overnight, landing the typically discreet hotel squarely in the national headlines.
It was not until Jack Parker purchased the place in 2003 that it really hit its stride, though. Upon taking over the property that summer, the hotelier promptly hired Jonathan Adler, whom Palm Springs Life describes as “a darling of midcentury modern décor and global pop art,” to overhaul the exterior and interior with his decidedly unique styling. And the famed designer certainly delivered, keeping many original elements intact while adding such whimsical adornments as Zebra print rugs, suits of armor, a vintage pharmacy sign spelling out “DRUGS,” a misty yellow-hued lemonade stand and a 23-foot brise soleil entrance with vibrant orange double doors. Melding the Givenchy Resort’s previous French-themed aesthetic with the property’s retro roots, The Desert Sun called the vibe “a chic fusion of eras and cultures, with a nod to the midcentury, of course.” (Adler also returned in 2017 for an additional reboot, during which he outfitted the hotel with carpet inspired by “The Shining,” a gallery of paintings featuring bright pink lips and a massive statue of a golden banana.)
The finished product, which cost a whopping $27 million to execute, was unveiled to the public in 2004. The city’s first and only five-story resort at the time, the property offered the ultimate in guest experiences. As The Desert Sun detailed following its grand opening, “The Parker is trying to attract the high-profile, big-spender, celebrity tourists Palm Springs hasn’t seen in 20 or 30 years by becoming the Coachella Valley’s first hotel to offer five-star level service. To do that means going the extra mile, which in the Parker’s case includes such outrageous amenities as shuttle service from the resort to the door of your private jet, frozen pool towels and staff trained to pamper your every whim, even whims you haven’t yet had.”
Nearly two decades later, the 13-acre resort, which boasts 131 rooms and 12 villas, remains one of Palm Springs’ most exclusive. Today, lucky guests can partake of such perks as petanque and croquet courts, three pools, 24-hour room service, two onsite restaurants (Norma’s and Mister Parker’s, the latter of which just reopened following an extensive refresh), a bar, a lobby lounge, an 18-hole executive golf course, multiple fire pits and grassy expanses and a 16,500-square-foot world-class spa known as the Yacht Club.
Secluded, bucolic and insanely upscale, the hotel’s celebrity following has never waned. Just a few of the well-knowns to pop by in recent years include Drew Barrymore, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Beyonce, Gwen Stefani and Leonardo DiCaprio. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie also famously stayed on the premises – at opposite ends of the property, as their publicists were apt to note – in March 2005 while shooting the “Domestic Bliss” cover story for W Magazine at the nearby Kenaston Residence. According to Robb Report, the duo, who at the time were ferociously fighting rumors of an illicit affair, checked in under the aliases Jasmine and Bryce Pilaf.
Location managers have, of course, found their way to the hotel, as well.
The Parker most recently played host to the new Netflix comedy “You People,” serving as the site of Amira Mohammed’s (Lauren London) bachelorette party, where the betrothed parties with her overbearing mother, Fatima (Nia Long), and overcompensating mother-in-law, Shelley Cohen (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), during a rather awkward but comical weekend.
The short-lived 2007 Bravo reality series “Welcome to the Parker” centers entirely around the resort, taking an in-depth look at the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the much-beleaguered staff.
Actress Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) vacations with her husband, Mark Berman (Damian Young), at the Parker – and fights with fellow guests over the hoarding of chaise lounges at the pool – in the season one episode of “The Comeback” titled “Valerie Relaxes in Palm Springs.”
Kim Kardashian and her sisters check in to the Gene Autry Residence in the hopes of reliving old memories in the season 13 episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” titled “Classic Cars and Vintage Eggs.”
And the property plays the Palms Club Hotel where Leigh Shaw (Elizabeth Olsen) heads for a spontaneous getaway – and meets a handsome stranger named Tripp (Luke Kirby) – in the season one episode of the Facebook Watch series “Sorry for Your Loss” titled “Welcome to Palm Springs.”
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