(July 17, 1937 to
November 23, 2006)
by Maggie Abbott
If you visit Jerry at home, propped up
horizontally in his cushioned recliner, or see him sipping his one
daily cup of coffee early in the morning at The Sidewinder, that's
if it's one of his good days, you might be fooled into thinking this
is some old guy. Then he starts to talk in his rich dark humorous
voice, telling laconic yarns about the city he loves, and you can't
mistake the young mischievous spirit that's buoyed him along all his
His curiosity and involvement with the romance of Desert Hot Springs
took Jerry to become a photographer first, historian and archivist
eventually. We wouldn't be aware of the wealth of our city's history
without him. As well as the pictures he took himself, he collected
up all those fascinating photos on the walls at The Sidewinder, and
knows every moment of the ups and downs that continue to be the
story of DHS. Neither does he spare his edge when he pounces on the
bad mistakes and wrong turns which have brought the city down when
it could have continued to be a world renowned center for healing
and the enhancement of life. He gruffly condemns the guilty but is
still a believer.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jerry came to live in Desert Hot Springs
in April 1946 when his doctor advised Mr. and Mrs. Skuse to take
their son, sick with spinal tuberculosis, to a warm dry climate.
Their first summer they spent six months living in two army tents
where Ace Hardware is now. Moving on from their first house on 7th
Avenue, now Granada, which he also built, Dad was laying cement for
the foundations of their house on 4th Street, where Jerry still
lives, when the 1948 6.5 earthquake struck. The wet cement lashed
back and forth for a while, like an ocean, then Mr. Skuse just went
on building, merely deciding to fortify the walls with triple steel
L.W. Coffee's legendary hot mineral water Bath House opened on July
2nd 1942, and everyone had heard about the grand opening with 2000
people in attendance. So Jerry started swimming in those pools and
before you knew it he was running about like everyone else. That's
how he came to be a believer in the amazing healing powers of our
water. They also drank the mineral water in those days, didn't have
For a year school was one room on Pierson opposite where Casablanca
Studios is now. It was the town hall, church on Sunday, and 6th
grade grammar school for almost 40 kids, until it got to be too
many, then they were shipped off to the Palm Springs school, Frances
Stevens, which is now the arts center on Palm Canyon. The bus took
45 minutes to an hour to get there and get back home.
They were the children of families like Jim Haidet's who owned
stores and businesses here, and the owners of Two Bunch Palms
Resort, when it was just a small hotel in the middle of the sand
dunes, and one little pool made out of rock. The drug store was
built in 44, and Jerry's mother worked there in 48. "It was owned by
a guy named Sam, who put up a tall sign saying 'Sam Says Buy' on the
hotel next door, and a big red neon ball on top. You could see it
from all over the valley, it looked like a cat house."
Then in 48 they built our school, the DHS Elementary, across from
the water company, discovered there were three earthquake faults
under it, so they moved the school, and the land was sold for
condos. Jerry chuckles derisively at this irony of city business.
Jerry talks affectionately about the town in those days, From 46 to
62, it was a darn good place, everybody helped everybody, it was a
different world then, but the minute it became a city, forget it.
When his family arrived here all the streets were paved and the land
subdivided, water and electric in, one square mile, all done by L.W.Coffee, whose development was from 8th Street to 8th Avenue, and
Gus Wardman, 8th Street to Mission Lakes Boulevard, and over to West
Drive. They had a vision.
It was all about the hot mineral water during those years. Cabot
Yerxa and Coffee advertised all over the world, sending out
postcards acclaiming the healing benefits of the spas for arthritis
and many other physical ailments. Coffee called it "A Wealth of
He remembers a girl called Jackie, who was brought here on a
stretcher in 1949, so crippled with arthritis she couldn't do
anything except lay in bed. Jerry told her he went in the pool every
day, so they took her down, put her in the hot mineral water on the
stretcher, and six months later she was running around. There are
many stories like this, and witnesses to it in the spas every day.
That was the time when lots of people came and put in little hotels
and it was a spa city.
There was a place for dancing then, at Palm and Pierson, just below
1st Street, set back from the road, with a dining room and dance
floor. There was Horton's El Pueblo Market in the building that's
now Escapade. His partner was Paul Price. Horton bought him out and
Price moved to Indio. Then Horton built his market on the corner
where Rose Personified Gallery is, and after quite a few years he
built across the road, which is now Ace Hardware. But when Stater
Brothers opened he left town. He couldn't compete with the prices
and make what he was used to.
And in 48 the movie house came in. They brought the theater from
Palm Springs airport on the back of a truck - it took up all the
lanes, overhanging on both sides - and they constructed it on Palm
Drive between 2nd and 3rd. It's now the 7th Day Adventist Church.
More rich chuckling from Jerry as he recalls that later, in the
seventies, the theatre opened with Deep Throat one weekend, got
some complaints, opened the second weekend with Behind The Green
Door and got busted half way through the screening, with 8 sheriffs
there, calling Everybody out!
The DHS kids got used to being labeled as coming from the wrong side
of the tracks. We've always been a dirty little town that takes
care of Palm Springs. It got worse when they went to High School
there, which was started in 1934. It wasn't the teachers, but the
other kids looking down on them because they didn't have the money
to dress right.
Jerry went to college to be an electronic engineer but it didn't
work out, so he went into business and took a side course in
photography to see what that was all about, because he always loved
taking pictures. He got hooked on it and went off to major in
photography at a school in Pasadena. His career was sidetracked by
the draft just when he graduated. He spent a year in the Air Force,
in Texas and Oregon where they put him in the Air Police as a crash
photographer. When he reported to the medic for a severe cold,
Jerry's records were pulled up by a new and diligent captain, and
revealed tuberculosis of the spine. After an amazed "What the hell
are you doing here?" reaction they told Jerry he obviously couldn't
be in the Air Police, so they offered him the options of base
commander's chauffeur, fire watch or discharge.
Jerry took the discharge, came home and got a job in Palm Springs
with a man called Bill Anderson. He was the hottest photographer in
the valley, and some of his collection was recently shown at the
Palm Springs Museum, many candid shots of famous celebrities and
movie stars at play in the resorts where he had an exclusive
account. The Racquet Club, Tennis Club, Thunderbird, Eldorado, plus
every party and social event in town.
We had to be there, so we'd be there. It would be Fritz Lowe's
house, then the next day Gene Autry's house, and it would be the
same people as the day before, they never quit partying. You could
always tell when Bob Hope was in town, the whole two block area
round his house, which was three blocks behind the hospital, you couldn't
find a parking space.
Jerry worked for Bill Anderson from 61 to August 69, and took a lot
of the pictures himself, like the one of Charlie Farrell with the
With all his charm and cheerful attitude, you'd be right in assuming
that a lot of the action in Jerry's life involved women. He's had
three wives and can tell some circuitous stories of their comings
and goings over the years, when he helped bring up five children of
one wife, and has two sons of his own. Two young grandchildren make
Christmas worthwhile for Jerry, but it's also clear that he has a
great relationship with animals.
After a divorce, he moved to Brownsville, Texas, taking his two
boys, to work as a still photographer for Patti Patane, who was
making educational films there. He met Gladys Porter, a very rich
lady, used to be J.C. Penney's wife, who built a breeding zoo. Jerry
got friendly with the staff and spent a lot of time there
photographing the animals. The results were a very appealing book of
animal studies he put together, and his brief friendship with a baby
gorilla who had to be taken from his mother and looked after. The
baby was incredibly strong for his age, he could lift a heavy chair
with one arm at the age of 9 months, but eventually died of
pneumonia, which gorillas are susceptible to.
There was a very lucrative and busy time for three years when Jerry
had his own studio in Indio with a contract to photograph all the
students at Coachella Valley and Indio High Schools, and the Indio
County Fair every year. Then someone came along with a good color
company, giving away 8 by 10's for promotion, and wiping out the
whole valley. Jerry couldn't compete and came back to work freelance
out of his house in Desert Hot Springs, which caused another
conflict with City regulations. They said it would cause a traffic
jam, Jerry says with a sarcastic smile.
Somewhere in there Jerry ran camera stores in Palm Springs and Palm
Desert and was asked to teach photography at College of the Desert
when it first happened. But he couldn't do that. In those days you
really had to know how to use the camera, but if you didn't have the
eye for a picture you couldn't be taught. If you can't see it, you
can't take it.
There's a nostalgia for the early history of Desert Hot Springs,
when Cabot Yerxa dug his first hot water well by bottom left side of
Miracle Hill, where he built Eagle's Nest, then found the cold water
aquifer on the flat land a quarter of a mile beyond it just because
he had unintentionally dug on the other side of the earthquake
There's no bitterness about the decline in the state of his home
town, or his own fortunes, although he admits he has been negative
in the past because of his ill health. He lived comfortably for 15
years with two of his wives and all those children in a tiny house
behind Haidet's on 1st Street, and doesn't complain personally about
much, but is very grateful he owns his house in this economic
climate. This town is not known for its rich and idle, it's always
been for people like me, on social security. And it bothers me, the
condition of the world. I don't trust who's out there.
Jerry was active for a while in the volunteer Fire Department, but
he was never interested in getting involved with local politics,
neither was he invited to. But he did join the Historical Society,
he says, because he wanted all his material to go somewhere
creative, and he likes their idea of putting together a historical
tour of Desert Hot Springs. It's the only time he ever joined
He does get irritated with the loud sirens and red flashing lights
on fire trucks and ambulances as they roar through empty streets in
the middle of the night and early in the morning. What for? People
come here for the simple life, the space and the quiet. And because
they know the mineral water's good for them, he adds.
He regrets the huge growth and waste of money out there between
Cathedral City and Indio, including La Quinta. Used to be I could
go anywhere and didn't feel out of place. Now I feel like a rundown
mountain man that's been kicked out of Desert Hot Springs, what the
hell am I doing here? He has a good laugh as he remembers when the
smells from the cattle feed yard in Coachella and the Salton Sea
permeated the whole area. There was no Palm Desert, just Shadow
Mountain Club, and you can't find that any more.
He also regrets the demolition of L.W. Coffee's original spa. If I
won the lottery I'd rebuild the sucker, he says with relish.
So does this cynic see a happy future for Desert Hot Springs? Can we
recreate the spirit and the mood of the past? If it becomes a Spa
City, like it was supposed to be the first time. There's been an
improvement in the last two years with some innovative spa owners,
and more new people coming in and renovating the old spas, like
Emerald Springs, The Moors, the Monte Carlo, which was a disaster.
We have the best healing water in the world, the best climate and
views to go with it, and we need to advertise it more. Not just to
celebrities, but to the bank president from freezing Idaho, who
comes here to warm up. Give him an image of sitting in the hot pool,
being served a martini by a girl in a bikini, enjoying himself. It's
worth a million dollars.
Here are a few of Jerry's Amazing