Tennis, it used to be said, was Hollywood's game.
In one of the funniest exhibition matches ever played, the partnership of Groucho Marx and Ellsworth Vines met and beat Charlie Chaplin and Fred Perry. Alice Marble and her coach, Eleanor Tennant, used to play with such movie personalities as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard. And the big star who didn't occupy a front-row box at the Pacific Southwest tennis tournament sometime during the autumn week was pretty well obliged to turn in his sunglasses and unlisted phone number and find another occupation. Occasional rebels like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope preferred golf, but the Establishment of Hollywood took its athletic pleasures on the tennis courts until the whole place was wiped out by a deluge of video tape circa 1950.
All this has something to do with a man named Charles David Farrell. Charlie was very, very big in Hollywood in 1927, the year he appeared as Chico opposite Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven. Just about everyone connected with that movie won an Oscar—everyone, that is, except Charlie. Janet Gaynor won one as the best actress, Frank Borzage as the best director and Benjamin Glazer for writing the adaptation. Yet the one thing everyone remembers about Seventh Heaven is the scene where Chico is stumbling blindly through the sewers of Paris, groping his way back to the tenement he came from and into the arms of Janet, his love. In those days Charlie was probably the handsomest hunk of movie flesh ever to step in front of a silent camera. Seventh Heaven started a series of 12 Charles Farrell-Janet Gaynor love idylls that just about broke America's heart, or what was left of it after the Great Depression had done its dirty work.
Then, as far as Des Moines, Sioux Falls, Scranton and the like were concerned, Charlie Farrell disappeared—but as far as Hollywood, Palm Springs and tennis were concerned he was as big as ever, for after he left the screen he founded what has become a kind of sporting institution, and he is still very much around. Today you will find him at the place he built and ran, the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, Calif. He no longer owns it outright, although he retains a sizable first mortgage on it representing roughly 80% of the $1.2 million for which he sold it four years ago. But Charlie Farrell's personality has dominated the club ever since he and his wife, Virginia, and Ralph Bellamy, the actor, started it in a moment of exasperation 29 years ago when they were having trouble finding a place to play tennis with their friends. (Charlie's present title is chairman of the board, although he isn't exactly sure what that means.)
For most of the years since its modest beginning, the Racquet Club has been an institution in southern California roughly equivalent in prestige to the Coliseum, Caltech, M-G-M and the Hollywood Bowl. Sometimes it has even seemed to reflect all the glow and achievement of these other institutions. On its tennis courts and in its swimming pool and at its Saturday night dances you might once have found John McCormack, Ginger Rogers and the president of the Standard Oil Co. Elliott Roosevelt courted one of his wives at the Racquet Club bar while his father was still President of the U.S. Today another president, David McDonald of the United Steel Workers of America, spends his winter months around the Racquet Club. So does Dinah Shore. Your partner in a doubles match might, if you look at him closely, turn out to be Bo Belinsky, or an evil-eyed killer who almost did in Marshal Dillon of Dodge City in last week's episode, or a fellow who just finished splitting an atom.
There is the story about the time some years back when a lady visitor from the East sat herself on a stool at the bar, ordered a cocktail and asked Tex Gregg, the bartender, if there were any movie celebrities around. Tex cased the room, then turned to Clark Gable, who was also seated at the bar, and asked, "Have you seen any movie stars around?"
"Nope," said Gable. "Haven't seen a single one."
The Racquet Club has a reputation, only partially deserved, of being one of the most exclusive compounds in the state of California. It is not unusual for a big shot from the East who is planning to visit Palm Springs on a vacation to have his secretary or someone phone the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce and ask if Mr. Big could possibly arrange to have a guest card to the Racquet Club. For several years Jack Benny used to have an annual skit on his weekly radio program called "Murder at the Racquet Club." In one such, Benny, as the sheriff of Riverside County, drove up to the front gate of the Racquet Club and demanded admittance so he could investigate the homicide. "Are you a member?" intoned a voice over the club's public-address system.
"No," answered Sheriff Benny.
"Then you can't come in," said the voice.