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.
Many people know the Papago Park Military Reservation's history as a prisoner of war camp, but is it possible that it now houses a secret Dr. Evil-style lair?
During World War II, the military facility served as a POW camp mostly for German sailors captured from U-boats. By many accounts, life at the POW camp was far from terrible, but that didn't stop German prisoners from building a secret tunnel all the way to a nearby canal to plot an escape. The facts about the tunnel get hazy: Four months of digging under bathhouses, fences, and a patrol road ended in a tunnel somewhere between 125 to 400 feet long. Some say the tunnel even went under the canal. During a Christmas celebration in 1944, the prisoners used the noise of the party to plan their escape. Sources say as many as 25 men escaped — some captured, some assimilating into the local population uncaught, and some knocking on the doors of citizens in Tempe and south Scottsdale asking to be sent back to the POW camp (Arizona does get chilly in the winter, you know).
The Army got a call from local law enforcement officials who suspected prisoners may be on the loose. The Army, embarrassed that it didn't even know prisoners had escaped — let alone had been digging an escape route for months — used the story of the tunnel to do some hind covering. The Army supposedly masked its snafu by claiming it had built the tunnel, not the prisoners: A whole underground system (built by the U.S. for the U.S.) that just happened to be discovered by German prisoners and used to escape the camp.
Maybe the U.S. Army really did build those tunnels, or maybe the German prisoners started that underground tunnel and the Army later built it into a super-secret spy center, or maybe it really was nothing more than a prisoner-built escape tunnel. At the very least, we know that there were some underground shenanigans happening at Papago Park in the 1940s. The last piece of the POW camp was destroyed in 2005, and the camp is now home to the Arizona National Guard (and possibly that secret lair).
Who says no good deed goes unpunished? Not former president Bill Clinton, certainly. When Clinton pardoned former Arizona Governor Fife Symington in January 2001, wagging tongues said it was because Symington had long before saved a young Clinton from drowning — literally, not politically.
Legend has it that when they were college students in the 1960s — Symington at Harvard, Clinton at Georgetown — Fife saved young Billy at a beach party in Massachusetts, yanking him out of the water just as Clinton was being pulled away by a strong tide.
Nearly 40 years later, in September 1997, Symington was being indicted on 21 federal counts of extortion, making false financial statements, and bank fraud. Convicted of seven of those counts, Symington was forced to resign from office.
Two years later, the conviction was overturned when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a juror's dismissal during proceedings had violated Symington's right to a fair trial. Just as the government was revving up to retry Symington, Clinton sent the former governor a get-out-of-jail-free card, issuing a pardon that effectively terminated the opportunity for retrial.
In stories recounting the Clinton-Symington pardon, the watery rescue is almost always tagged on as a footnote. Let's hear it for water safety!
Only a few months after he painted a mural of his quirky, high-color stick figures on the Berlin Wall in 1986, artist Keith Haring, the story goes, also created a mural on the side of the old Hartfield's Dress Shop on the southeast corner of Adams Street and Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. And while many locals remember well the stunning 125-foot mural, no one seems to know what became of it.
In what's now a parking lot just west of Hanny's, the "comic caveman" mural was created while Haring was in Phoenix leading a drawing workshop at Phoenix Art Museum. He pitched a mural to city planners, who hooked up Haring with art students from South Mountain High School. The original plan was that Haring would sketch his traditionally playful outlined figures, and the students would paint them in. But when the students began improvising — adding images of their own and incorporating their names into the design — Haring encouraged them to continue. The result was a typically Haring-esque diorama of vibrant urban hieroglyphics, a bright spot on an otherwise dreary corner.
At a time when there were few other murals in our still-developing downtown, the prominent Haring display was a welcome addition. City Councilmember Mary Rose Wilcox announced plans to sell the Haring piece to fund a city mural project in 1991, but Haring shut down the sale, pointing out that his contract with the city stipulated that the mural be taken down and destroyed after one year. Having been graffitied, exposed to brutal weather, and otherwise abused, the mural — painted on untreated composition board attached to the side of the Hartfield's building — was a mess. Not long after Haring's death from AIDS-related illness in 1989, city of Phoenix workers tore it down and had it hauled to the dump, where it reportedly was destroyed.
Or was it? Rumors abound, nearly 30 years later, about what really became of this large — and now valuable, if it still exists — work of art. One story places at least part of the mural at the Faux Café, a long-gone art gallery/coffee shop right around the corner from the mural's original home. Another story goes that the late Bruce Kurtz, former curator of 20th-century art for the Phoenix Art Museum, had arranged to have the mural shipped to his home in Paris. (Impossible — Kurtz went public on several occasions about the fact that the Haring mural was "valueless" because it was done in collaboration with kids, unsigned by Haring, and in terrible shape.)
We may never know what became of the mural, but in the meantime, we can watch its creation, via a video that South Mountain High School art instructor Mike Prepsky made at the time and keep our fingers crossed that at least some of its 125 feet will turn up one day in the future.
Maria Baier: She attended law school and passed the bar; worked for more than a decade in the Governor's Office writing speeches for, among others, Fife Symington; was a flack for Arizona's attorney general; was once commissioner of the Arizona State Land Department, and works now as vice dresident of development and communications for Great Hearts Academies, a charter school in the Phoenix area.
But for people who knew her in the '80s, back when she was Maria Khan, she's the former wildcat gal pal of the late Hunter S. Thompson. The story that's dogged Baier for decades starts out in different locales: In one version, she was a reporter for ASU's State Press sent to cover a speech by Thompson, afterwards disappearing with him for weeks. In another version, Baier met Thompson while she was a cub and he was a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, and they began a brief but reportedly torrid affair. All versions of the story end with Baier, who reportedly came from a super-conservative background, getting a giant tattoo of a panther on her back before being dumped by Thompson.
Is it true? Well, Baier, the daughter of golf pro Frank Kahn and brother of fire chief Bob Kahn, does appear as a talking head in The Crazy Never Die, a 1988 documentary about Thompson. She features prominently in his story collection Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s, published the same year, which the author dedicated to her and which includes his essay "Saturday Night in the City," a story that commences with the line, "I dropped Maria off in front of the tattoo parlor just before midnight."
Fact or fiction? You decide. Baier didn't return our calls. But we know people who know people who swear they've seen that tattoo.
In October 1947, legend has it that a UFO crashed in North Phoenix. Many believe it crashed at what is now the site of the Dreamy Draw Dam and that the dam was built to cover up the crash.
That's not true, as the dam wasn't built until 1973, but believers have a different theory on what might've happened:
The Cave Creek version of the legend says that the UFO initially crashed a little to the south of where Carefree Highway is now. Considering that the location was relatively rural at the time, the government had plenty of time to come up with a cover-up, so they decided to place the Cave Creek landfill over the site of the crash.
Allegedly, large groups of government officials could be found in Cave Creek's hotels and restaurants toward the end of the 1940s, including groups driving along Carefree Highway to and from the landfill.
One possible combination of the two crash-site options is that some of the debris from the crashed spaceship was moved and buried under the Dreamy Draw Dam after more people began moving to Cave Creek in the 1970s, making it a less desirable place for the government to hide an alien spacecraft.
The landfill is now closed, and a recycling center servicing both Cave Creek and Carefree is located at the same site, but the landfill certainly had its fair share of questionable issues during its run. Reports of toxicity, water contamination, and radiation coming from the landfill for years surrounding its closing, and though many attribute these issues to normal trash buildup, those who believe in the crash say that the landfill closed after it was found to have been contaminated by fluids leaking from the wreckage approximately six decades after the initial impact.
While no one has proof that a UFO ever crashed in Cave Creek, it's never been debunked like its Dreamy Draw counterpart. That's good enough to be seen as a part of the area's history by most lifelong residents.