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Palm Springs, His Way

Back in 1975, when Mel Haber first opened his Palm Springs restaurant, he waited for the call that would signal true success. Three months passed before it came: “He’s on his way over.”

The “he” was Frank Sinatra. 

In those days, said Haber, owner of Melvyn’s Restaurant (200 W. Ramon Road, Palm Springs), maître d’s alerted each other when Sinatra and his entourage left one restaurant night spot on the way to a next, which they often did. In a town full of megawatt stars, no one had an aura as powerful as Sinatra’s — not Gregory Peck or Marlon Brando, not even Ronald Reagan.

“When Mr. Sinatra came into the dining room, everything stopped. Silence came over this room,” said Brian Ellis, then and now maître d’ at Melvyn’s.

The star’s corner table is still there, as is much of the original staff. Bartender David Shunick can serve you Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and dining room captain Bobby Bolduc can prepare pepper steak for you tableside, just as they did for Sinatra.

Another Palm Springs eatery that looks the same as it did back when the star was a regular is Lord Fletcher’s (70385 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage). “He saw me grow up,” said Michael Fletcher, who started there as a busboy and now runs the restaurant his father, Ron, opened in 1966. 

Sinatra’s generosity was legendary, and one night after dinner, Fletcher recalled, Ol’ Blue Eyes tossed a $20 bill under the table. “Why did you do that?” one of his pals asked. “Just think of the expression of the guy vacuuming the carpet tomorrow,” Sinatra said. 

Perhaps most memorable of all was the night Sinatra came in with astronaut Alan Shepherd — and the two of them wound up behind the bar singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”

You can still enjoy Sinatra’s favorite dishes at Lord Fletcher’s — braised short ribs with red cabbage or pot roast with potato pancakes, followed by English rice pudding with raspberries for dessert. 

The Riviera Palm Springs (1600 N. Indian Canyon Drive, Palm Springs) was a major Rat Pack hangout back in the day, and the hotel has been revamped to reflect the era when Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. performed in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom. It’s worth a visit to the Circa 59 restaurant just to see the great black-and-white photos of those legendary hipsters in action.

The Rat Pack liked to lounge around the pool by day, then party all night in the presidential suite — where you can do the same for a mere $2,200 a night.

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

Sinatra had four wives — two for each of his desert homes. Twin Palms (1148 E. Alejo Road, Palm Springs) was built in 1947 for his first wife, Nancy Barbato, and survived his tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner — no worse for wear, the story goes, except for a sink chipped by bottle he threw. The home, a mid-century modern stunner, can be rented (chipped sink and all) for about $2,600 a night. 

His second desert home was The Compound (70588 Frank Sinatra Drive, Rancho Mirage), where he lived, in succession, with wives Mia Farrow and Barbara Marx. He built it to accommodate newly elected pal Jack Kennedy and his Secret Service agents. But the president never stayed there, reportedly because of Sinatra’s reputed connection to mobster Sam Giancana. The Compound is not open to the public, but it’s definitely worth a drive by.

About a half mile from The Compound is Michael S. Wolfson Park (70001 Frank Sinatra Drive), with a welcome Sinatra fans find especially fun. At the entrance is a pillar with a button at its center. Push it and Sinatra’s voice comes out of a nearby rock sounding so vibrant it’s almost like he’s standing next to you.

BODY AND SOUL

Probably few confessions had the sizzle of Sinatra’s, who attended two desert churches: St. Francis of Assisi Church (47225 Washington St., La Quinta) and St. Louis Catholic Church (68633 C St., Cathedral City), where daughter Nancy was wed. 

You can say farewell to the star at his final resting place in Desert Memorial Park (31705 Da Vall Drive, Cathedral City). For a man who lived so large, it’s a surprisingly modest grave near friends and family — just a simple bronze marker that reads: “The best is yet to come.” 

 

Maxine Nunes, Custom Publishing Writer

unes, Custom Publishing Writer

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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