We hadn’t been to Scottsdale and Phoenix for a couple of years, so going this year in May seemed like good timing, considering that the new Phoenix Musical Instrument had just opened. It was already getting sensational press from around the world.
We got a late start on the last Friday in May, 2010, and therefore spent the evening in Palm Springs at the beautiful Westin Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage. We arrived after nightfall, driving down a series of dark, winding roads till reaching the resort. Once there we were quite satisfied with our acommodations. The room was large and had a high ceiling. There was a patio that opened to the starry windswept night skies. There was also the most elegant of summer desert cool breezes, which we did not expect, but certainly enjoyed.
We decided to drive to Palm Springs boulevard, through the heart of Palm Springs, and just allow luck and good fortune to guide us to where we would eat that night. After walking the restaurant and bar corridor, nothing in particular stood out, so we settled on a simple meal of Mexican food and cocktails.
After dinner we took a ride through some of the back streets of Palm Springs. We happened upon the Orbit In, which was nestled against a low rise mountain that was covered in boulders. The hotel was a restored Mid-Century modern beauty. While we thoroughly enjoyed our room at the Westin, we can easily see coming out to Palm Springs and enjoying a weekend of 1950’s cool.
In the late morning we grabbed a quick bite to eat at Kona Koffee, then shot out of Palm Springs into Scottsdale, in about 3 and a half hours.
We got to the Hotel Valley Ho, where we would be staying, just as the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns were about to start a critical and possible season ending playoff game for the Suns. As we checked in we saw the dazzling Cafe ZuZu bar, all of our plans to go somewhere else to a sports bar went out the window. We were upgraded to a Tower Suite, and until we arrived there still had plans for seeing the game at the bar. Then we got to our condominium suite and felt as if we had fallen into a real world Scottsdale 1950’s fantasy. The suite was huge ! At 925 square feet, it had a full kitchen, a sub-zero refrigerator, a living room, a king size bed in the rear of the suit, and floor to ceiling glass windows. There was an electronically controlled light metal screen that could be raised or lowered as one desired. We sat down and popped a couple of beers and turned on the 42 inch digital television monitor and kicked back and enjoyed the fantastic NBA playoffs matchup. For a while we were reluctant to leave the suite at all – as it was a phenomenal encounter with beauty and elegance that offered countless rewards on its own. We watched the sunset behind the mountains, and heard the massive pool party downstairs that also featured a DJ. We were overwhelmed by the massive scale of the property. Our impression of the hotel was that it was akin to those along Las Cienegas boulevard in Los Angeles, but completely renovated as versus still forlorn and in want of a major makeover to return it to its place as a mid-century modern masterpiece. We later learned that the suite we were given was on the market for close to a cool two million dollars. We knew it felt and looked like a millionaire’s bachelor’s pad, and a bit of on-line research confirmed this.
The vast hotel/motel has a short but remarkable history. It opened in 1956 as the dream destination of Hollywood. The Tower Suite, where we stayed, was part of the original plans, but was only built during the renovation and expansion of the original and closed enormous motel structure. A prominent architecture firm prettied up the café bar, and a Trader Vics, with its authentic 1950’s Tiki culture mixed drinks, was built on the adjacent lot. The hotel has many events, from pool parties to a John Legend concert. The Phoenix artworld uses it for several of their events. The entire property is the 1950’s hipster cool world impeccably restored and re-energized as a 21st century social and cultural marvel. The Hotel Valley Ho deserves as much attention and praise as the Ace Hotel in New York has received at the beginning of 2010. Our 3 nights there were magical, and rendered us ready for another round of life in Los Angeles.
The Hotel Valley Ho has been such a success since it was reopened in 2006, that it is now adding about three dozen new rooms, another pool, parking, and more. We will be back. As much as we love the inordinate primal sensory encounter that is The Phoenician resort, which has the most remarkable landscaped desert garden necklace I’ve ever visited; we truly love the energy and pleasure, the soft mood lights, and even the way the hotel slowly winds down as people pair off and wind their way over to Trader Vics. We love the odd assortment of fabulous Scottsdale and Phoenix establishments that haunt the memories of those of us who are familiar with its necessary prohibitions.
Our Saturday night plans were to relax and then about 9PM make our way to the endlessly praised Pizzeria Bianco in Heritage Square in downtown Phoenix. The restaurant allows reservations only for parties of six or more. I had read to show up about an hour before closing time, to avoid the insane waiting times that couples endure, as group after group with reservations were offered the 40 seats in what was reputed to be the best pizza parlor in America. When we arrived, just after 9PM, we were placed on a waiting list and sent over to the lovely wine bar next door. It’s in a restored Victorian home and is a delicate affair that made us feel quite comfortable. It and the adjacent college-style bar across the property and opposite the pizza parlor, reminded me of what could have been done in downtown Los Angeles, as verses building this high-tech video world as Los Angeles mall entertainment center. What would have been so utterly delicious would have been to rebuild some of the glorious and aristocratic Victorian homes and even 1940’s neon motels, and turn downtown LA into a fantasy based on the history of its own reality. It would have immediately created a unique venue with real streets and corners and alleys, with real historical scenarios as architectural comments on the past. It would have created a remarkably intimate world, yet at once it would have created an actual new neighborhood in downtown LA.
After our glasses of wine, we sat out on the porch of the Victorian house wine bar. Every so often we would be attended to, and asked how were we doing with our wait, and told that we would be invited in at about 11PM to dine. Fortunately the two hours passed as the wonderful desert air rewarded us for being out-of-doors that night. There were persons who told us they had waited since 6PM, who finally entered the restaurant after 10PM. There were several couples who abandoned ship and decided that they were not willing to surrender several more hours of their lives to eat pizza, even if it was made by God herself. At about ten minutes before 11PM we saw that there was a couple that was about to leave. The guy, in his late fifties, short and round, decided to spend the next several minutes congratulating every person associated with the restaurant, shaking hands and looking as if he were a taller Danny Devito, slapping backs and kissing the air until his wife forced him to leave. That was when we were whisked inside, to a tiny Paris sized table for two. In no time did our two pizzas arrive, as they are in the pizza oven for less than 90 seconds. They were light. The toppings were exceptional. But there was a problem. The pizza crust itself was wafer thin and tasteless. Perhaps we were not able to enjoy that form of pie crust after having the heavenly version at Pizzeria Mozza on three or four occasions over the past year. My partner complained that her crust was burned in far too many places. We were not impressed and said we would not be back, especially if the no reservations policy is sustained. There are too many tremendous pizza parlors in this country, from Mozza in LA (with Pulino’s supposedly expanding to Los Angeles!), to the planet of great pizzas in San Francisco and Oakland. Since we are in Northern California often enough, we would be more than willing to wait to check out the experiences in that part of the globe. And since we also are in New York City often enough, the same can be said, multiplied, with separate days needed for Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Connecticut to enjoy the divine pizza available in that part of our world.
On Sunday afternoon we ventured to find and see the former Wrigley estate and the world famous Arizona Biltmore resort. When we drove through the Biltmore property, we had the sense driving back into time. The enormous Biltmore hotel, seemingly formed whole from rock by a mythic architect in the Arizona desert, was both mausoleum-like, and museum-like at once. It was as if we could see into history by looking at the buildings. This effect disintegrated when we drove to see the surrounding estates that line the streets abutting the Biltmore’s historic lanes. After the relaxing and eye-opening drive, we made our way back to the Hotel Valley Ho to get a change of clothing and get ready to out for dinner.
As much as we adored our experience at the Hotel Valley Ho, there was a wholly rewarding and special cultural expression that awaited us in Greater Phoenix. It was the Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum, and it had recently debuted to tremendous acclaim in newspapers around the globe. We would have to wait until the morning to view the collection.
On Sunday evening we went to The Grind, a new burger bar in Phoenix on Camelback road. It recently was named one of the top ten new hamburger places in the U.S.
When we parked in the mini-mall lot and entered the place, we were met with a warm and discerning vibe that was part cool locals bar and part serious eating encounter meets the relaxed Phoenix lifestyle. Unlike out experience at Pizzeria Bianco, we did not wait more than 30 seconds to be seated. There were but a few seats and we slid into a couple of them, in a red-lighted booth reminiscent of a New Orléans parlor for love. Our food arrived in short order – great fries, a large, thick and juicy gourmet burger, and a skillet of macaroni and cheese. We had a nice round of local artisan beer, and thoroughly enjoyed our meal. I remember saying to my partner that it’s a good thing that Father’s Office has so little competition in Los Angeles. Father’s office offers a superb product – but so do many other places that are not getting a mountain of hype. But I digress….
Monday made its way into our lives in a gentle fashion. After a breakfast of savory poached eggs, toast and hash brown potatoes, we would our way through the immaculately manicured Scottsdale streets. Our destination was the brand new, 190,000 square foot, 250 million dollar Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum. It seems to have been able to open its doors in a matter of a few short years from concept to concrete. We arrived around noon and began our tour. The massive structure seemed to have gently settled into the landscape, and like all of Scottsdale, and much of Phoenix itself, it was perfectly in tune with its its native and landscaped natural surroundings.
Our first impression was that the Smithsonian had expanded into Arizona and opened a world-class musical instrument museum. My partner and I had read that the collection was built primarily from the former musical instrument collection of the Claremont University music department. There were many instruments attributed to that former collection, but we also noticed at least two other collections that had been harvested to compile what we were seeing today. There are about 280 musical worlds – countries, cultures, subcultures, and 250 digital monitors mounted in the various displays. They bring the instrument to life by offering a direct example of the particular instrument being played by musicians from a particular culture.
One of the most intriguing displays was the history of the Steinway piano. For the début of the museum, the first Steinway piano was on view. There were descriptions of astonishing inventions related to piano performance innovation that expressive in their description. There was also video of contemporary Steinway piano makers. For me the most exciting display was the collection of Fender guitars. Fender is a local Southern California cultural product. Fender guitar company had lent objects to the collection showcase, of the great music that came out of California. The irony of seeing this spectacular music museum, which also has a special exhibition hall and a 299 seat performance space, of a music collections from Southern California, and real music technology from the same region, reminded me that LA also has yet to build a museum of the film history of Hollywood and of Los Angeles.
As we drove back across the cooling Arizona desert, we thought about our great fortune of getting to stay in such a luxurious hotel, of getting to eat a top ten hamburger, of getting to see a rousing collection of instruments from around the planet. We wished that there were more museums in California that would rise up and offer the degree of wonder that we found on the outskirts of the latest round of development ringing greater Scottsdale. We look forward to returning and to going to a world music live concert at the musical instrument museum next go round.
Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles