It's ten minutes until show time and the crowd pouring into the Royal Palms Inn's dining room is eagerly awaiting the entrance of "The Dear That Made Milwaukee Famous."
Befitting the East Camelback resort's reputation for "old-world elegance," the largely geriatric audience is decked out in debonair, if slightly dated, finery-- a look that shrieks of snowbird swank.
Furs, face-lifts and flashy gems are de rigueur for mesdames, while their steely haired and/or balding escorts sport dinner jackets, bola ties and golden golf-course tans. In short, it's exactly the sort of eveningwear you'd expect to see in the resort's Orange Tree Room--a hacienda-style dining hall featuring Spanish tiling, French paintings, pink swag draperies and, last but not least, twin palm trees popping through the roof. Fellini would have loved it.
While waiting for the show to begin, an aging fashion plate flutters her false eyelashes coquettishly as she fields compliments on her mink chapeau. At another table, an elderly ringsider in a huge blonde wig fusses with her stole while her somewhat younger companion, perhaps her son, furtively adjusts his own bathmat-size toupee. As the band winds up a stirring rendition of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Royal Palm Tree," couples who've been swirling around the dance floor head for their seats. Mismatched chandeliers that dot the ceiling dim briefly as a voice introduces tonight's featured attraction.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the incomparable Hildegarde!"
The Orange Tree reverberates with applause, oohs and ahhs as the veteran chanteuse sweeps into the room to the tune of "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," her signature theme. Beaming warmly, she acknowledges the faithful with a wave of her trademark lace hanky. Then she removes her glasses (her one apparent concession to advanced age) and gets down to business. It's a business Hildegarde knows well. Now approaching her 85th birthday, the woman Eleanor Roosevelt dubbed "The First Lady of the Supper Clubs" has had audiences eating out of her hand for the past 64 years.
"People are starved for Hildegarde's brand of entertainment," the performer's manager announces during a phone call earlier in the week. "Four years ago, she played Carnegie Hall and I'm happy to say people were swinging from the rafters." And while the Royal Palms audience has refrained from scaling the inn's ceiling beam, they are still an enthusiastic crowd. Subdued but appreciative, many sing along silently as she wends her way through an eclectic repertoire that ranges from WWII standards ("The Last Time I Saw Paris" and "I'll Be Seeing You") to a comedy ditty about infidelity and incest in a Trinidadian village. But she really has them in stitches when she jokes about cosmetic surgery, a subject evidently near and dear to many women in the crowd. "These are real," she announces, tapping her teeth with a gloved fingertip. Then, pointing to her hair, "But not this." She may be lying through her dentures but the audience loves her for it.
Alternately singing, bantering with the audience, and pounding the piano, the tireless trouper's sixty-minute set flies by all too quickly. And by evening's end, she's inadvertently drummed up a lot of new enthusiasm for the little- known nightspot nestled at the base of Camelback Mountain. "She was great! This place is great!" gushes one customer as she strolls through the moonlit grounds of the Valley's last "Old Phoenix" resort. No small praise, especially coming from a thirtysomething woman who, never having heard of Hildegarde, had earlier confused the entertainer with the comic-strip character Broomhilda.
A CHARMING THROWBACK to bygone days when clubby little supper clubs ruled the night, the Royal Palms is currently the only game in town for nightclubbers seeking a little low- wattage star power with their steak and martini. Drawing patronage mainly from winter guests who descend upon the sixty-room inn annually, the dining room currently features name entertainment two weeks out of every month of the season--a period that runs from mid-December through Easter.
If the star-studded dining room is one of Phoenix's best-kept secrets, that's probably because the inn that houses it is also one of the Valley's best hidden hideaways.
Drive through the gates of the long white wall surrounding the 48-acre resort at 52nd Street and Camelback Road and "It's Another World"--to quote the sign hanging over the lobby door. Surrounded by a nine-hole golf course on one side and Camelback Mountain on the other, the 42-year-old Royal Palms Inn features a series of low-slung Spanish-style buildings revolving around a private home built in 1930.
Despite its proximity to one of the Valley's busiest streets, this Edenesque retreat drips with gentility and tranquility. Small wonder, then, that general manager Patricia Ryan claims that every act that's ever played the dining room is dying to come back.