Desert Hot Springs

Historical Society







Jerry Skuse (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 life.

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 rods.

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 any choice.

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 Health."

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 tiny monkey.

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 fault.

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 something.

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.


Jerry Skuse

Here are a few of Jerry's Amazing Photographs