In memoriam: Local luminaries we lost in 2021
Palm Springs and the surrounding desert cities are well-known for celebrities and others who have left their mark both locally and internationally. Bruce Fessier has an encyclopedic knowledge of them all. Here he shares memories of some we lost in 2021.-
I’ve always felt it was important to know our neighbors and give them a sendoff when it’s time for them to go. Here are my remembrances of 15 local luminaries who got their final call in 2021:
Jimmie Rodgers, 87
Rodgers died Jan. 18 in Palm Desert from kidney disease compounded by COVID-19.
Rodgers was one of the biggest stars in rock and folk music in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, scoring top 10 hits with “Honeycomb” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” in 1957. But he told me in a 2008 interview he never wanted to be a star, and he lived to regret a deal he made with a devil who turned him into one. That was music publisher and Roulette Records owner Morris Levy, whose mob ties are well chronicled by Richard Carlin in “Morris Levy: Godfather of the Music Business.”
Levy was notorious for not paying artist royalties and when Rodgers walked away from his publishing contract and wrote a hit called “It’s Over” for Dot Records in 1966, he paid a near-fatal price. Rodgers told me Levy sent a mob-connected off-duty Los Angeles Police Officer to ambush him and fracture his skull. His wife, Mary, said, “His career was going well and they thought, ‘Oh, if we kill him now, look at how much money we could make if he’s on top again.’”
Rodgers earned a $250,000 settlement from the LAPD, but went through hell for the next 40 years. Doctors put a 24-square-inch titanium plate over the hole left in his head. Then he had dozens of surgeries for staph infections and complications from another head injury incurred while doing a stunt in a low-budget film. He experienced seizures and survived on pain pills until a friend told him about an Arkansas clinic that was doing experimental stem cell surgeries.
In what Rodgers and his doctor called a miracle, an injection of stem cells caused Rodgers’ skull to grow back over the hole in his head, allowing doctors to remove his steel plate. Rodgers recorded a cool album of jazz standards after that, but he no longer needed the limelight. He served as an assistant golf pro at Bermuda Dunes Country Club and sang for fun. He always had a voice that was, indeed, sweeter than wine.
Don Sutton, 75
Sutton died Jan. 19 at his home in Rancho Mirage from kidney cancer. I never met this pitching great. But, as a Los Angeles County native, I felt like I grew up with him.
I was 13 when Sutton joined a Dodgers pitching staff including fellow Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. That was when I first checked a vocational box saying I wanted to be a journalist, specifically a sports reporter. Sutton went on to win more games than Koufax, Drysdale and any other Dodger. He’s tied with Nolan Ryan for 14th on the all-time list with 324 wins for five different teams.
When he joined me as a Rancho Mirage resident, I penciled him in as the starting pitcher for my team of all-time great Rancho Mirage retirees, along with Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Ralph Kiner in the outfield and Al Rosen at third base.
Steve Maloney, 78
Maloney died Feb. 23 in a San Diego hospital while undergoing treatment for a lung ailment. This resident of Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs was a surprise choice to become the Palm Springs Art Museum chairman in 2018 because his primary home was in Rancho Santa Fe. But he’d been a museum board member since 2008 and he was that rare combination of successful business entrepreneur and artist.
He was best known for turning a U.S. Army HU-1 helicopter from the Vietnam War, known as a “Huey,” into a mixed media sculpture. The story of that air ambulance’s evolution inspired a documentary, titled “Take Me Home, Huey,” that won an audience award at the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival just weeks before Maloney was named museum board chairman.
Steve was instrumental in recruiting Louis Grachos to direct the museum on a mission to turn it from a regional museum reflecting the Coachella Valley’s cultural heritage into a nationally-recognized museum of fine art. It would have been interesting to see if he and Grachos could have achieved that transformation if the COVID epidemic hadn’t hit, forcing the museum to sell some of its art to meet to its financial challenges.
James Levine, 77
Levine died March 9 at his Palm Springs home of natural causes. Levine might have been the greatest American-born conductor of the late 20th century if you only looked at his work for the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But, like Bill Cosby, Levine’s criminally abusive sexual behavior will forever overshadow his positive contributions to our culture.
Four men in different states accused Levine of sexually molesting them from the ages of 16, 17, 17 and 20 years old from the 1960s to the 1990s. That was over the ages of consent in each state, but the Boston Symphony declared in December 2017 he would “never be employed or contracted by the BSO” again. The Met fired him on March 12, 2018 after an investigation revealing Levine had “engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct towards vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers.”
Levine sued for defamation and breach of contract three days later and won a reported settlement of $3.5 million — partly because he didn’t have a morals clause in his contract with the Met. I don’t know exactly when Levine moved to Palm Springs. He kept out of the media spotlight in the desert. But he continued a tradition of the Coachella Valley providing a place of refuge for subjects of scandals including the likes of Vice President Spiro Agnew, suspected SLA terrorist Patty Hearst, and tainted evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Marshall Gelfand, 93
Gelfand died April 1 in Los Angeles of natural causes. He liked to be known in the Coachella Valley for his efforts to bring new levels of professionalism to local charities as a CPA and business manager. He was one of Barbara Sinatra’s earliest business advisors for the development of her Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, and he championed research and treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease as a founder of the Judy Fund, named after his late first wife, Judy Gelfand.
But, in Los Angeles, Gelfand was renowned as a music industry giant who brought his accounting and business skills to some of the biggest names in show biz and sports. His first three clients — back when his business was based in New York — were Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Peter, Paul & Mary. And, like his colleagues at the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, his associates remained friends and clients until the end. Dylan reportedly donated $600,000 to the Judy Fund.
Marshall never talked about his business. But, when you’re dealing with people like Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr and Shaquille O’Neal, word gets around.
The Pat Rizo Band
April was a horrible month for the local jazz scene. Singer-saxophonist Pat Rizzo led various local jazz bands for more than 40 years, but singer Mike Costley and bass player Jim DeJulio were key members. And they all died in a 20-day period — Rizzo April 15 in Rancho Mirage at age 79, DeJulio April 11 in Riverside at 83, and Costley April 29 in the same Rancho Mirage medical center as Rizzo at 71.
Pat was a big-hearted character that Costley called a musical genius. He graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and went on to play rock with a nationally touring band called the Cufflinks, Latin jazz with the great Tito Puente, and swing with his own big band featuring a teenage trumpeter named Steve Madaio.
Riz got a steady job at Jilly’s Saloon in New York, run by Frank Sinatra’s right-hand man, Jilly Rizzo. That led to positions with the funk-rock pioneers Sly & the Family Stone and Sinatra’s orchestra. Further attesting to his versatility, he then played native Hawaiian music, blues, Tex-Mex and roots rock with Ry Cooder, and a unique amalgam of L.A. street music with War.
Bebop jazz was his first love and he had two jazz clubs in Palm Springs, one of which introduced Sinatra to Sarah Vaughn. One of my favorite memories of Pat came when my wife, Jane, chaired a 20th anniversary of Rancho Mirage celebration for her Parks and Recreation Commission. She wanted it to reflect the music of the people who used the park venue, so she signed Mark Guerrero to play his original Latino music and Rizzo to orchestrate it with a jazzy horn section. But we had to convince Pat to take the four-figure stipend the city was offering to pay for his services. That was Pat. Crazy good and always willing to contribute his services for a good cause.
DeJulio, like Pat, had many lucrative recording jobs with Los Angeles studios, but his true love was bebop. He was raised in Pittsburgh and named to the Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame along with one of his bass heroes, Ray Brown. He made his name in Philadelphia and New York before migrating to Southern California to play in Sinatra’s orchestra. He helped create the “Philly sound” as a bass player for the O’Jays, the Spinners and the Stylistics, and he played with jazz greats such as Chet Baker, Sunny Stitt and Dorothy Donegan in New York. He toured the country several times with Ella Fitzgerald and the Paul Smith trio. But he seemed just as happy playing Vicky’s of Santa Fe with Rizzo’s quartet.
When Pat asked me to write lyrics to a song that became the title track to his CD, “It’s Not You, It’s We,” I included a shout-out to Pat’s “best friend, Jim,” because I knew it would elicit one of Jim’s heart-warming smiles every time he heard it. He was a beautiful man.
Costley was the epitome of a local legend, although he was just as renowned in his home town of Buffalo, and also had success in Orange County and Vegas. He started as a rock singer but delved deeper and deeper into jazz while hanging with the likes of Rizzo, DeJulio and Keely Smith. He got to the point where legends like Jack Jones and Ernie Andrews wanted to duet with him because he challenged them to raise their game.
When Jack made his first personal appearance since the start of the COVID pandemic earlier this month at a memorial service for former Rancho Mirage City Councilman Arthur Newman, he also remembered Costley. That’s who he thought of when he was about to sing for the first time in almost two years.
Ric Supple, 95
Supple died May 4 at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs of natural causes. This big, John Wayne-like businessman was an equal partner in R&R Broadcasting with his wife, Rozene. But, in many ways, he was the man behind the curtain directing the activity in Oz.
Rozene comes from a big broadcasting family and she always seemed to be calling the shots. She’d sometimes call me at work to ruminate on an issue of the day. Then I’d talk to Ric and he’d explain what they were doing about it. He was a voice of reason, but he was much more. He worked to realize dreams for charities such as the Desert Healthcare District & Foundation and dreams Rozene envisioned for the desert. Together, they dominated the local broadcasting industry. They owned the first station to appeal to a hip youth market, KPSI Power 100.5; an oldies stations geared to the middle-aged market, KDES AM and FM; an easy-listening station appealing to seniors, KWXY, and a conservative talk station that became KKGO.
Ric succeeded Rozene as chairman of the Palm Springs International Film Society at a time when ShortFest was being added to its festival menu. Then, after leaving the festival board following a disagreement of how the Camelot Theatres should be utilized, Ric found a new audience for the Camelot and created additional film festivals under the umbrella of the Palm Springs Cultural Center.
Rozene had the vision to expand the American Film Institute (AFI) into Palm Springs. But Ric, in partnership with Rozene, used that audience to build more festivals, including the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, Cinema Diverse and the horror fest, Feartastic.
In addition to the Palm Springs International Film Festival they helped develop under Sonny Bono, their boutique events turned Palm Springs into a film festival capital of the world.
Gavin MacLeod, 90
MacLeod died May 29 at a home in Palm Desert of natural causes. I’ve been blessed to meet many people who were bigger than life to me as a kid growing up in Whittier. Gavin was one of them. My dad rarely talked about his days as a World War II frogman, operating off PT boats in the Pacific Ocean. But he never laughed harder than he did while watching the hi jinx of the cast of “McHale’s Navy” serving a fictional PT boat.
Gavin was part of the “McHale’s Navy” cast that helped me understand my dad. By the time I started studying journalism, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was generating laughs about my chosen field and Gavin’s character, Murray, was the reporter I most identified with. He wasn’t in the spotlight in many episodes, but he always had the best quips.
In the 1980s, when I was writing about stars from the golden age of cinema for The Desert Sun, Gavin was hosting many of those stars every week as the affable captain of “The Love Boat.” No television show celebrated Hollywood’s golden age like “Love Boat.”
I got to know Gavin after he presented an award to one of those golden age stars, Francis Lederer, at the first Desert Theatre League awards show in 1988. He shouted at show producer Ruth Gibson for not writing him a speech, and that was all my fault because I told her he didn’t need one. But I never heard a cross word from Gavin again. He was a huge supporter of local theater, especially CVRep, Dezart Performs and Coyote Stageworks. He also was a fan of my wife Jane’s efforts to teach youths the rudiments of theater. With all those connections, how could I not love him?
Annette Bloch, 94
Bloch died July 17 at her home in Kansas City after a battle with cancer. I often walked my dogs at The Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Park on Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. It was not only a monument to the H&R Bloch partner’s battle with cancer, it was a reminder of how Annette Bloch turned tough situations into lemonade.
The Blochs founded the RA Bloch Cancer Foundation in 1980 after Richard recovered from a diagnosis of terminal cancer. That probably helped inspire her to donate more than $4 million to the Desert AIDS Project. She identified with patients who had received what they thought were death sentences. And when the AIDS pandemic became manageable, Bloch helped DAP broaden its medical care in ways that seemed like a natural evolution.
Annette also was a major donor to the Annenberg Theater Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum, Jewish Family Services and Gilda’s Club of Palm Desert, which fought another battle against cancer. She was named “outstanding philanthropist” by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in 2012, and she could have won it in almost any subsequent year.
Irma Kalish, 96
Kalish died Sept. 3 in Woodland Hills of natural causes. Irma was not only one of TV’s pioneering female comedy writers (along with Madelyn Pugh, portrayed by the desert’s own Alia Shawkat in “Being the Ricardos,” and Selma Diamond from Sid Caesar’s great writing teams), she was instrumental in developing what was probably the desert’s first privately owned and operated theater for live productions.
Irma married her childhood sweetheart, Austin “Rocky” Kalish in 1948. She had studied journalism at Syracuse University and he wrote jokes for comics. He parlayed that into a writing gig for the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis radio show and she worked with him, eventually coming up with the original ideas for most of the TV shows they wrote together, starting with an episode of “The Millionaire” in 1955. Subsequent TV credits ranged from “F Troop” and “My Three Sons” to “Too Close For Comfort” and “Oh Madeline” with Madeline Kahn.
She and Rocky were key writers on such groundbreaking shows as “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Good Times.” She got producer credits on the latter show, plus “Too Close For Comfort,” “The Facts of Life” and “Valerie,” starting Valerie Harper. She originated the ideas for such historic “women-oriented” episodes as “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which the title character of “Maude” decides to get an abortion after becoming pregnant at age 47; “Gloria the Victim,” in which the daughter in “All in the Family” survives a rape attempt and wrestles over whether to testify against her attacker, and “Edith’s Christmas Story,” in which the mother on that sitcom finds a lump in her breast.
Irma was a vice president of the Writers Guild of America and a president of Women in Film and Television. She received major awards from both organizations.
In 1993, the Kalishes founded their own desert theater company, called Next Stop Broadway, with the plan to develop new theatrical material. It started in a ballroom of the old Gene Autry Hotel and moved the next year to a bank at 67-777 Highway 111 in Cathedral City, which they converted into a 97-seat theater. It was called the Desert Rose Theatre after Rocky’s aunt, his first benefactor. They premiered a critically-acclaimed play called “A Hatful of Snow” by playwright Matthew Breindel in 1995.
But running a theater and writing original scripts was a big challenge for a couple in their 70s. They workshopped comedy scenes in local venues after that and proposed a bilingual theater company in Indio in 2003. But they had to call it quits after a few staged readings. Comedy writers often work from a place of repressed anger. But the Kalishes were delightful. They complemented each other beautifully, brimming with positive energy. Ill health forced them to move into the Motion Picture and Television retirement home in Woodland Hills before Rocky’s death in 2016, but I’m sure they made life there more enjoyable for everyone.
Mort Sahl, 94
Sahl died Oct. 26 at his home in Mill Valley. This pioneering political satirist never had a permanent home in the desert. But I got to know him while he was trying to find a local base of operations.
Sahl introduced his comedic style of riffing on current events while working the hungry I nightclub in San Francisco in 1953 — well before Lenny Bruce became the father of modern comedy for using a less improvisational style. He became a national institution during the John F. Kennedy administration, often writing jokes for Kennedy and launching zingers about him in his act.
I became his fan in the early ‘70s when Sahl was hired to counter conservative newsman George Putnam on a show on KTLA in Los Angeles called “Talk Back.” Putnam was a pompous, dynamic force, but Sahl would cut him to shreds him with left-winged barbs that would leave Putnam muttering. I loved it so much, I went to one of their live broadcasts.
In 1998, Sahl got a season-long gig at the old Sorrentino’s Steak & Lobster House in Palm Springs. I’d watch him perform on the patio, where he’d ad lib about the news several nights a week. He loved the desert and wanted to buy a home here, but he started drawing miniscule crowds. That’s when he came to me with an idea he thought would be mutually beneficial. Sahl proposed writing a weekly column for The Desert Sun, finding humor in the local and national news. In exchange, he’d plug his gig at the end of every column.
It was a great idea except for one problem. His sample columns weren’t funny. I can’t recall why we rejected his proposal. I supervised many freelance writers, but I couldn’t make the decision to give or deny Sahl a column without consulting our editor, who unfortunately can’t recall Sahl’s offer. The bottom line is, Sahl never became a Desert Sun columnist and he didn’t make it through the season at Sorrentino’s. He moved to another venue, but he just wasn’t as funny as when his was making mincemeat of George Putnam or JFK.
He moved to Mill Valley and continued working even through the pandemic via social media.
Anne Rice, 80
Rice died Dec. 11 at her home in Rancho Mirage from complications from a stroke. This best-selling author’s home in Thunderbird Heights was adorned with hundreds of dolls from New Orleans when I first interviewed her in 2010. Valuable figurines were in plexiglass cases. Russian dolls were on a bookshelf. And then there was a Pee Wee Herman doll.
Rice revived the vampire fad in 1976 by writing “Interview with the Vampire” after her 6-year-old daughter died of a rare blood disease. She told me, “As a grieving person and a guilt-ridden atheist, I could identify with that vampire from the darkness and longing. Then the characters took on life and the story took on a momentum of its own.”
She wrote two more novels in the ‘80s from the point of view of her main vampire, Lestat, changing the direction of vampire stories from the perspective of the victims. She moved from the Bay Area to her native, mystical New Orleans in 1988 and began creating a whole mythology around vampires. Then she rediscovered Catholicism, her husband died, and she moved to the sunny, environmentally harmonious Rancho Mirage. She said she could no longer write about vampires there because “vampires are atheists.”
But, just five months after our interview, Rice announced she was abandoning the Christian religion but not her belief in Christ. When I interviewed her again in 2017, she was making plans with her son, Christopher, to turn “Interview with the Vampire” into a major TV series with the production values of “Game of Thrones.” The property bounced from one streamer to another after that, but, just before she died, AMC announced it would launch an eight-episode season of “Interview with the Vampire” in 2022. Rice left enough material to run 10 seasons.
Terry Masters, 66
Masters died Dec. 24 of a heart attack in Joshua Tree. This affable child of the desert may be best remembered by young folks as an instructor at the Desert Art Center and one of the leading plein air artists in the Coachella Valley. But, under the supervision of Ric and Rozene Supple, Terry changed the desert’s culture in the early 1980s.
It’s hard to explain to people under 30 how significant the debut of KPSI FM and the morning team of Terry and Bill Kasal were to the desert’s cultural evolution. Back in the day when kids like me came to Palm Springs to sit in Jacuzzis and ride horses in the canyons, the soundtrack of the desert was KWXY with its elevator music. Top 40 songs could be heard on KDES, but that was an AM station and AM had stopped being relevant in the early ‘70s.KPSI came along with a mix of pop hits and new wave music and it was a breath of fresh air to young listeners. Terry and Bill, who were called Bob and Bill for reasons best explained by Kasal at http://billkasal.com/my-friend-terry, were the desert’s first modern, irreverent morning radio team.
Terry gave up being a radio personality to become a GM for the Supples, but he and Bill opened the door for morning duos like Barry and Andy (Andy Taylor and Barry Donovan, who sadly died May 6 at age 52), Jimmy Kimmel and Carson Daly, and Casey Dolan and his subsequent wife, Kristen.
Terry evolved from the desert as surely as Josh Homme and the ’80s desert rockers. He could talk about growing up with Elvis Presley as a neighbor. His KPSI engineer was Dave Hassinger, who beguiled Terry with stories about engineering for the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. Those were the golden days of desert radio. And when they started to be disrupted by the static of corporate interference, Terry got back to the gardens, where he could capture his inspiration with a paint brush.
Terry reflected the spirit of the desert. And that spirit flows on through our memories with no static at all.
Bruce Fessier is a legendary entertainment journalist and columnist who has been enthralling audiences in Palm Springs and beyond for more than four decades, earning more accolades than The Post has space to list. His writing appears here with permission. For more from Bruce, make sure to follow him on Facebook here.