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Fire destroys part of historic Racquet Club in Palm Springs

Fire destroys portion of historic Palm Springs Racquet Club, where Hollywood stars once went to play

The historic Racquet Club in Palm Springs, which in its heyday was a popular getaway for Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, was partially burned down in a fire this week.

Local historians say the fire could mean a big loss to a giant of local lore, where Tinseltown’s upper crust could often be found during the height of Hollywood glamor.

Flames tore through a large portion of the complex around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, gutting a two-story building and spreading to several others and torching palm trees nearby.

It took firefighters 45 minutes to knock down the fire, and several nearby homes were evacuated as a precaution, the Palm Springs Fire Department said. No other injuries or damage was reported.

“There aren’t many places that are more Palm Springs than the Racquet Club,” said Nicolette Wenzell, a curator at the Palm Springs Historical Society. “It was a glamorous escape … a place where everyone from Hollywood came to hang out.”

Built in 1934 by silent film star Charlie Farrell and actor Ralph Bellamy, the club became an exclusive desert destination where Lana Turner and Artie Shaw honeymooned, Clark Gable and Natalie Wood could often be found lounging, and where Marilyn Monroe, 22, was said to have been discovered by a William Morris agent while sunbathing poolside.

Reminiscing to The Times in 1988, Bellamy, then 83, recalled how he and Farrell, having been kicked off the tennis courts at the El Mirador hotel, bought 53 sandy acres in the desert and built courts of their own.

Hoping to make some of their investment back, Bellamy said, they formed a club and invited Hollywood friends to join for a low fee. There were no takers.

Then, they began to raise their dues by $25 at a time. “When the fees got to $650, we had a waiting list,” Bellamy said.

Farrell, his partner, later became the city’s mayor from 1947 to 1955, and sold the property in 1959. He died in 1990, after which the property stood vacant, said Wenzell.

A new owner recently bought the property, Wenzell said, and was planning an ambitious redevelopment.

Wenzell says two other historic buildings in Palm Springs have been lost to recent fires. The town’s Community Church, built in 1930, was destroyed by fire last year, as was the town’s Carnell Building in 2012.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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