Jackie Autry a Valley Pillar
Her Contributions to the Area Are Massive
Posted December 15, 2008
Ever wonder about Jackie Autry's connection to Palm Springs, California? This article from the Desert Sun sums it up nicely!
By Debra Gruszecki
Palm Springs, California, December 14, 2008
Gene Autry's legacy may be inextricably woven in Palm Springs history, and his stars may line the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But Jackie Autry's contributions are as integral to the region as “America's Favorite Singing Cowboy” has been to the culture of the West.
Jackie's resume reads like an all-star playbook for the California Angels, the professional baseball team she and Gene once owned, the team he brought to Palm Springs for spring-training in 1961.
Yet, few know it.
This luminaire tends to throw her game-winning pitches from the dugout.
“You get more done that way,'' she said, admitting that the name Gene Autry still opens doors. “When I talk to a senator or a congressman, it seems to open doors and get the job done.”
As the steward of Gene Autry's memory unveiled the prototype for a bronze statue she hopes to put outside a $17.5 million shopping plaza now under construction in Palm Springs, Jackie recapped a career that began as a switchboard operator for Security National Bank in Palm Springs in 1959 and evolved to top executive-level posts in banking, entertainment and Major League Baseball arenas.
She shared her thoughts on business, Gene and the Palm Springs scene.
QUESTION: How did the Gene Autry Plaza get its name?
ANSWER: I was approached by Milt Jones to get naming rights. Normally, you need to get a license for the use of Gene's name.
Because I've known Milt for so many years, and I know the developer (George Nicholas), we hit it off right away. In exchange, George told me he would pay tribute to Gene with a statue.
What is it about Gene Autry that resonates for George, and others like him?
He was the first superstar in Hollywood. Like the Beatles, any place in the world Gene went he was mobbed by fans.
He also did a lot for his country. He entered the military service at the age of 34, and gave up his career to do it: Everyone knows there would not have been a Roy Rogers if Gene had not done that.
Then there are all the things he did in the world of broadcasting, not to mention what was done from a charitable standpoint here — to name a few — Eisenhower Medical Center's Autry Tower, Barbara Sinatra Children's Center and Mizelle Senior Center. He also provided donations to the Community Blood Bank. I was president of the CBB when we married in 1981.
You had a role in getting the Community Blood Bank built, can you tell us about it?
I was president of the American Red Cross at one time. I kept hearing the cries, “We need blood. We need blood,” which we still do. So I found out why we had a shortage of blood, and found the CBB was located in the basement of the old Desert Hospital. That was in 1975-76. It lacked visibility.
Next, I spoke to some of my friends at Eisenhower. I asked, “Do you have a piece of property you could provide to get more public focus on it?” Everyone knew it was needed because the CBB serves seven hospitals from Indio to Beaumont. So, they provided land at $1 a year and we got funding from trustees at Eisenhower to get our blood bank built.
I'm very proud of it, by the way.
We were the first standalone blood center to start freezing blood in the country, and the first to get an Apheresis machine that separates blood cells from red. The World Health Organization came to visit. We were years ahead of everyone else in large measure, due to the work of Dr. Charles McCammon, the (founding) medical director. He had the foresight to see where we were going into the future.
How did Gene get into the hotel business in Palm Springs?
The Angels brought him in. Gene had been in the hotel business for years and decided if he would bring his team to Palm Springs, he'd put them up someplace.
I met Gene in 1963 when he bought the old Holiday Inn, which became Melody Ranch, then the Gene Autry Hotel; then the Autry Resort ... and now, The Parker Palm Springs. I was at Security Pacific National Bank at the time, the bank that handled the escrow.
He told us he bought it by way of the Ocotillo Lodge — said he'd fixed the hotel up so beautifully he couldn't afford to keep the California Angels there.
What was business like at the time?
Extremely good. We were known for our high-quality Mexican food. We won numerous awards for our food. It was outstanding. People loved it, came out of their way and off I-10 for it.
The Bob Hope Classic was also starting about that time. Nothing was down valley to accommodate the golfers, much less the celebrities. We were always oversold for the Classic, and for the spring-training games with the Angels in Palm Springs.
What was it like to be affiliated with the Angels in Palm Springs?
Gene got the team in December 1960. He owned the club for 38 years before we sold the Angels to Walt Disney Co. in 1998.
When the franchise was started, the team practiced in Arizona. It would break camp and come here for two weeks before the start of baseball season. It was a wonderful time in Palm Springs' history.
What led to the decision to stop the games here?
A variety of reasons. One was, it put our team at a disadvantage having the players go between here and Arizona.
The city also didn't have the resources to put in what was needed: A better field, lighting at night and more practice fields.
A lot of people felt the city didn't treat us right; I would like to dispel that thought.
The city did the best it could, given its financial resources.
What's your take on the state of tourism in Palm Springs?
There are more people going down valley, and (there) appears to be less interest in Palm Springs. The other side of the valley has more to do. It has wonderful golf courses, beautiful homes and wonderful businesses.
The problem with Palm Canyon Drive is it doesn't invite anyone other than T-shirt shoppers. That's not to say I think El Paseo in Palm Desert is doing well with high end.
Here, we get a lot of foot traffic. On any given night, you can walk downtown and enjoy the sidewalk cafes, but people don't spend a lot of money here because there's nothing to buy.
A lot of stores have closed; and it may get worse in this current environment.
You've weathered recession before. What's ahead?
The valley has many diverse businesses, and each will face their own set of problems. It's tough to predict, but I think people will be thinking about putting food on the table ... and ... (high-scale) restaurants could be seriously affected.
We are fortunate we live in an affluent area, but be assured there are those who hold a stock portfolio that has lost half its value or more in the last few months.
Drawing on your banking expertise, what's your view of the housing situation?
I'm concerned. The market has not hit bottom.
The banks to bail people out (do not seem to be) bailing out anyone. ... I've been trying to help a friend work out an arrangement to keep from losing their home, and I'm getting no cooperation; and I'm very tenacious.
You talk to a different person every time; no one knows what to do. If I can't get things done as a former banking executive who knows all the ropes, how can the average citizen do it?
What's your investment philosophy?
A belt-and-suspenders approach. I want to make sure I get my principal back — if nothing else and, hopefully, a reasonable return on my investment.
Name a recent project you're proud of.
It's the Autry National Center in Griffith Park. It holds the finest Western artifact collection in the world; I'm chairman emeritus. I built it, and now the trustees have taken over.
We merged with other museums: Women of the West in Denver and the first museum in Los Angeles that started in 1907 called the Southwest Museum.
It houses 250,000 Native American artifacts, and a research library on Native American information that is probably second-to-none. We'd been talking about expansion. Unfortunately, with the economic environment, we have had to put it on a temporary hold.
You present the annual American League Championship Trophy, so I'm wondering if baseball is as important to you as it was to Gene.
Yes, and to others as well. There's an interesting story behind how the Angels came to Palm Springs. Frank Bogert (then mayor) and Jimmy Cooper (heading Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce) approached and convinced him to have spring training here for two weeks.
Frank and Jimmy felt if they could get a Palm Springs byline it would be worth $1 million in publicity to tourism. And they were right.
Once it started here, more and more people came. Pretty soon, the valley grew by leaps and bounds. Those two had the foresight to see that it's a great place to visit and live.
What part of baseball do like the most?
Baseball, in the spring: It's hope that springs eternal. As it moves along, you know how it'll go. Some people say it's like watching paint dry, but I love the game. You can sit there, and half manage the game, wondering what'll happen: Why they did, or didn't do something. It's great.
It gets you outdoors. It's America's pastime.
Nothing smells better than fresh-cut grass and hot dogs.
And your take on Palm Springs Power, the valley's collegiate-level baseball team?
Baseball is good, no matter where it's played.
I'll be in the stands on Jan. 31, when Palm Springs Power honors us in the Winter League by having a Gene Autry Day.