Best Of :: Megalopolitan Life
"White Christmas." It's the ultimate holiday song. But did Irving Berlin really write this standard while poolside at Phoenix's Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa?
Long the playground of the Hollywood elite, the Biltmore played host to Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe, among a studio-full of other Tinseltown players, since its grand opening in 1929. Berlin was among the Biltmore's regular Golden Age guests, a fan, as he once told a newspaper reporter, of the sun that allowed him to write musical scores out-of-doors as early as 4 in the morning.
The story goes that Berlin was staying at the Biltmore in late 1939, having gone there to write a film score. Lounging by the pool one day, scribbling moon-in-June couplets for some Hollywood dame to sing, he began to feel homesick for New York. The weather here was gorgeous, toasty warm even in December, but nothing in the desert looked like Christmas to Berlin, who was a fan of the holiday.
If it's true that Berlin, a Russian Jew, was inspired to write the most famous and most-recorded Christmas song ever while lying poolside at our best-ever resort, then he must have either considered our cowtown too unglamorous to include in the song's lyric, or else he couldn't think of anything to rhyme with Phoenix. Thus, the song's oft-excised sectional verse, which rhapsodizes about warm winter weather and then laments, in part, "There's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A. / But it's December the 24th, and I'm longing to be up north / I'm dreaming of a White Christmas . . ."
Laurence Bergreen's biography of Berlin, As Thousands Cheer, has the composer completing the song in New York, with no mention of his frequent trips to the Biltmore resort; in Edward Jablonski's American Troubador, the author claims Berlin wrote the song while in sunny L.A.
We like to think they're wrong.
You've heard of the Arizona Canal Monster, right? Of course you have. She's a big serpentine, Lochness-like water creature that cruises Phoenix's 131 miles of canals and goes to sleep in the manmade water of Encanto Park every night. (See those bubbles? That's her.) Granted, there is no evidence to prove this, but there are more than 50 species of native and introduced fish in the canals, so there is plenty for the monster to eat — assuming, of course, she's not a vegetarian.
Though there are no reported sightings of the Canal Monster, you can rent a paddle boat at Encanto Park and check for yourself, or you can fish the canals (with a valid license, of course) and see if you snag her. It goes without saying that the canal could be home to some stranger things than old shopping carts.
Since 2007, the Salt River Project has been battling an invasive species, the quagga mussel, and if mussels can make their way into our waterways, then so can an unknown species of monster fish. It's about time the Canal Monster joins the ranks of other "famous" American water monsters: "Bessie" in Lake Erie, "Chessie" in the Chesapeake Bay, and Slimy Slim of Payette Lake Idaho. Hey, in the end, it's not totally ridiculous. Remember the time they found a shark almost three feet long in the canals in Yuma?
Here's one you likely haven't heard about Acquanetta, the buxom B-movie queen who starred in plenty of Hollywood schlock (Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, anyone?) before marrying local car dealer Jack Ross and settling in as a caftan-clad local celebrity of Scottsdale: Having once caught Jack philandering, she filled the interior of his Lincoln Continental convertible with cement.
It's not much of a story, especially when you consider all the other legends that swirled around this couple for decades. Like the time Jack was nearly stricken dead by the sight of Beelzebub at a local nightclub. Tripping the light fantastic (presumably with his wife, then the spokeswoman for a series of wildly flirtatious TV commercials for Jack Ross Lincoln Mercury) at a Latin dance club called Calderone's at 16th Street and Buckeye Road during the holy week of Easter, Jack spotted an especially handsome man on the floor, dancing with the club owner's beautiful daughter.
"I could see this man's bare feet," Jack told a news reporter from his hospital bed, "and he had cloven hooves where his feet should have been." Jack reportedly cried out at the sight of bare, cloven feet (it was, after all, a high holy week) and what appeared to be a pointy tail sticking out of the fellow's trousers, then fell to the dance floor in the throes of a heart attack.
Calderone's was closed shortly after, because, according to rumor, the devil had been there and now it was spoiled.
The mystery of the Phoenix Lights isn't so much "Why the heck would extraterrestrials want to visit Phoenix?" as much as "Were they actually here at all?"
One of the world's most documented UFO sightings, the Phoenix Lights appeared over the Valley on Thursday, March 13, 1997, and were also seen in parts of Nevada, the outskirts of Tucson, and in Sonora, Mexico. Lights of varying descriptions were witnessed by thousands of people between about 7:30 and 10:30 p.m.: a triangular formation of orbs and a series of stationary illuminations seen in the skies above Phoenix.
Witnesses far and wide claimed to have seen what looked like a huge, V-shaped aircraft containing five spherical lights that hovered for minutes at a time over various parts of the Valley. Caught on videotape by dozens of civilians, the lights became an overnight international news story, one that the U.S. Air Force and local politicians alike quickly got busy debunking. The Air Force tried to pass off the lights as flares dropped by military aircraft on training exercises at the Barry Goldwater Range in southwest Arizona, while Governor Fife Symington held a press conference during which he announced that the UFOs were simply civilian flares, then brought out an aide dressed in a Martian costume.
But after another sighting in 2007 of a similarly shaped craft was reported over Phoenix skies, Symington recanted his jolly take on the 1997 Phoenix Lights, saying he'd "witnessed a craft of unknown origin, bigger than anything that I've ever seen. It remains a great mystery. Other people saw it, responsible people. I don't know why people would ridicule it. And it couldn't have been flares because it was too symmetrical. It had a geometric outline, a constant shape."
So what were the Phoenix Lights, then? "We may never know," Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Barwood said at the time. Barwood launched an investigation into the event shortly after it happened, and reported that of the more than 700 witnesses she spoke with, neither local nor national government ever interviewed a single one.
He's become our own personal cliché, the phoenix. Anytime anyone (well, anyone with no sense of style) starts yammering about a new reconstruction project or an overlay or a remodel, one braces oneself for a cheesy punch line about a phoenix "rising from the ashes." Insert groans here.
The story of the phoenix, originally a Greek myth, has been told and retold by everyone from Pliny the Elder to Bert Parks. Co-opted by early Christianity, the legend of the phoenix goes something like this:
One day, about a bazillion years ago, the sun looked down and saw a large, colorful bird with iridescent feathers sitting on top of a desert cactus. "Hey," said the sun to itself, "I want some of that!" Not satisfied with just owning a bird made of light and fire, the sun insisted that the poor creature live forever. And ever.
At first, the phoenix was thrilled: Immortality! But after a couple centuries of being dogged by people who wanted to stare at its beauty and maybe take home a tail feather or two as a souvenir, the phoenix took off for the East Coast, where the sun spent a lot less time. But the colder climes didn't agree with the bird and, after only a few hundred years, it began to feel tired and missed all the attention it got from its warm-weather fans. It headed back to the desert, where it called out to the sun, "Hey! Make me young and strong, again! And maybe get my old fan club back together again, while you're at it."
But the sun had gotten all ass-sore about the phoenix snubbing him, and instead of making the bird young again, the sun turned up its ultraviolet rays to full blast and fried the phoenix into a pile of ash. But our friend the phoenix apparently had taken some est seminars while living on the East Coast, because he quickly transformed himself into a new phoenix, rising from his own ashes into a bigger, prettier version of himself.
After giving the sun the finger, the phoenix took off for Heliopolis, the sun's hometown in Egypt, where he lives to this day, returning to our desert every 500 years or so to be reborn. And presumably to make sure we're still making reference to him every time we do a makeover on another strip mall.
Turns out, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio may not be the toughest sheriff after all.
Catherine Jones, born in 1879, was Cave Creek's deputy sheriff beginning in the mid-1920s and made her mark — sometimes literally. "Cattle Kate" was among the harshest gunslinging law-bringers of all time, according to Cave Creek Museum executive director Evelyn Johnson.
Jones wasn't known for her mercy, but she did have some creative ways of enforcing the law in her area. In one instance, Jones shot off the ear of a moonshiner to prove a point rather than just arrest him.
"When people would get a little too rowdy at the local bars, she would chain them up to a tree to let them get sober overnight," Johnson says. "Of course, back in those days, a lot of our wildlife wasn't too afraid of people, so they'd be out there trying to fend off all the rattlesnakes, coyotes, and more."
When Jones wasn't targeting moonshiners or indirectly torturing unruly drunks, she had another passion that most people take for granted these days: getting the mail.
According to Johnson, the rumor is that Jones would drive down to Phoenix to get the mail every day — but she may not have been the safest driver. Since Cave Creek Road wasn't paved at the time, people had a saying, "If you see a cloud of dust, get off the road, it's Catherine Jones."
Until Jones died in the 1970s, she could be seen wearing her gun belt everywhere she went, including to church. To this day, many believe that Jones represents the somewhat lawless and Western feel of Cave Creek better than anyone else throughout history.