Laud of the Springs

The Palm Springs Desert Museum

If the impending Labor Day holiday is a solemn reminder of the speed with which this year is hurtling by, take heart. There is still time to sneak in one last weekend getaway before closing the book on the summer of 1999. A short and scenic four-hour drive west of Phoenix will put you deep in the heart of the Coachella Valley, famed for Bugs Bunny's search for the "International Carrot Festival."

It may be considered the "off" season in Palm Springs, but it's an ideal time to take advantage of affordable room rates and of having the streets practically all to yourself for window shopping. Should you tire of the area's many outdoor attractions -- like the awesome beauty of Mount San Jacinto or the awesome campiness of the stars on the Walk of Fame (finally, a lasting tribute to the many contributions of Mr. Blackwell!) -- wander into Palm Springs Desert Museum.

Your first instinct may be to write this one off as just another tourist trap, but be assured that this museum is first-rate. On exhibit through Sunday, September 5, is the "June Wayne Retrospective in Printmaking," and, through January 23, anything and everything you could want to know about "The Roadrunner." The highlights of this exhibit are two living examples of the real thing -- Fran and Ollie -- both orphaned, hand-raised and now serving as ambassadors of their species.

Among the continuing permanent exhibits are selections from the William Holden collection, an eclectic mix of treasures amassed from the actor's extensive travels throughout Africa and the Far East. Also on display is "George Montgomery: Actor, Artist, Collector." The "Actor," perhaps best known for Riders of the Purple Sage and as the former husband of the late Dinah Shore, is best represented through a vast collection of his movie posters. The "Collector" is illustrated by a display of personal correspondence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Surprisingly, though, it's Montgomery the "Artist" that shines in this exhibition -- in addition to his bronze sculptures are his works in wood. These are no whittlings created on the set in between takes, but rather fine home furnishings with an Old West flavor, the most impressive of which includes a crib created for his daughter Melissa and a massive round dining surface suspended from the ceiling.

The museum also boasts a few other recognizable names like Renoir, Rodin and Matisse.

If your taste runs to the more contemporary or abstract, there's plenty to keep you busy on the museum's third level. And in the middle of it all is Dale Chihuly's can't-miss sculpture of colorful blown glass. Literally floor to ceiling, its beauty was only momentarily obscured by my perverse obsession with how the museum staff manages to keep it clean.

Probably the biggest, or should I say smallest, reason to visit the Palm Springs Desert Museum is to glimpse the Leo S. Singer Miniature Room Collection. Singer, president of the Miracle White Company, makers of Miracle White laundry detergent, commissioned artist Eugene J. Kupjack to create a series of miniatures "to show the place laundry played in people's lives in different times and in different countries." Toward that end, Kupjack meticulously crafted 12 diminutive environments at one-twelfth their actual sizes.

From the interior of the original Miracle White factory in 1960 Chicago to a Hong Kong waterfront in 1968 to a Victorian Nursery, circa 1890, little long johns and itty-bitty bloomers abound in historically accurate detail. With the help of theatrical lighting, each scene takes on a life of its own and appears to go on forever. The landscapes are visible through every window, and, despite some neck-wrenching contortions on my part, there are no telltale corners or dead ends. The best example of this may be Mrs. O'Leary's Kitchen, sometime prior to 1871. Just visible outside the rear window is the now-infamous cow said to have started the Great Chicago Fire by knocking over an oil lamp.

With all that it has to offer, and the anticipation of fall weather right around the corner, it hardly seems necessary to mention that the Palm Springs Desert Museum also happens to be air conditioned.

The Palm Springs Desert Museum is located at 101 Museum Drive (one block west of Palm Canyon Drive) in downtown Palm Springs, California. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Sunday, through September 21. Admission is $7.50; $6.50 for seniors; $3.50 for students, military and children 17 and younger; free for children 6 and younger. Call 1-706-325-0189.

 
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