In memoriam: Bruce Fessier looks back on local luminaries we lost in 2022

From philanthropists and entertainers to local characters, the desert has been blessed to be home to many who left an indelible mark on our community. Join us in looking back at a few we lost this past year.
Among those we lost in the desert in 2022 were Larry Bitonti (top left), Art Laboe (top right), Alice Sleight (bottom right), Kal David (Bottom left), and Rozene Supple (center, picture courtesy Joey English)

We’re ringing the bells this week for two angels who got their wings back when The Desert Sun had a whole staff of philanthropy writers chronicling the folks who gave us a wonderful life.

Rozene Supple and Peggy Cravens graced our society sections the way the Kardashians dominate Instagram. That’s why they top my annual “in memoriam” for local luminaries.

Here’s my 15 personal favorites in the order of the dates they passed in 2022, starting with:

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The Philanthropists

July 13: ROZENE SUPPLE, 97 of Palm Springs. Rozene was half of the desert’s supreme power couple, along with her husband, Ric, who died last year at 95. But, unlike past dynamic duos, where the man ran the business and the woman tended to the charities, Rozene pioneered a societal shift in the desert. Ric and Rozene each served separate terms as chairpersons of the Palm Springs International Film Society, and they launched new festivals at the Camelot Theatres together as a symbiotic team. But she ran the R&R Broadcasting empire; she guided the Camelot Theatre’s transition into a cultural center, and she helmed the couple’s ever-expanding charity endeavors. The Supples would not have been as successful without Ric’s managerial skills. But Rozene was the visionary and the force who never let you forget who the true monarch was. She revealed that to me with her regular phone calls. Ric would summon me to his office at KPSI and talk to me about the latest Arbitron ratings or their progress in making Palm Springs the film festival capital of America. Then, after we were done, I’d get a call at my office from Rozene, who just wanted to make sure I knew the significance of what they were doing. Whatever it was, it was never insignificant.

July 25: SALLY BERGER, 88, Rancho Mirage. Berger moved to the desert in 2006, after a successful business and political advisory career in Chicago. But she quickly became a force at Eisenhower Medical Center. She’s credited with starting the 24/7 program at Eisenhower, which gives donors of $250,000 or more special privileges. That’s a polite way of saying preferential treatment, but the money that program raised, and the many other donations she made, enabled the hospital to provide quality treatment to many people of varied incomes.

Sept. 16: ALICE SLEIGHT, 84, Palm Springs. Alice was a subtle power behind the throne when her husband, Fred Sleight, was one of the best executive directors ever at the now-Palm Springs Art Museum. She was a classical pianist who used her influence to help Mimi Rudulph start Sunday Afternoon Concerts at the museum. It became so phenomenally successful, it paved the way for the Annenberg Theater to be built in 1976 as a concert hall. She also started the docent program at the museum and promoted Palm Springs’ Community Concerts chapter. When her husband died of a heart attack in 1980, Sleight moved into mostly behind-the-scenes charity work. She was devoted to St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert.

This is the first year people will not receive their annual Christmas card from Peggy Cravens, who passed away in September.

Sept. 30: PEGGY CRAVENS, 91, Rancho Mirage. At her recent memorial service at St. Margaret’s, Peggy was remembered as someone even more caring, unselfish and, yes, controlling than she was known to be in public. But I always saw that perfectly made-up public face. She’d usually call or invite me to a get-together to supplement her publicist’s work. Her fundraising and activism for College of the Desert, the Palm Springs Air Museum, the Fred Waring (turned Palm Springs) International Piano Competition, ACT For MS and many more put her in a league of philanthropists with Rozene Supple, Jackie Lee Houston and Helene Galen. But, when we’d get together, she’d direct me to her late husband, Don Cravens, a photojournalist who shot Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley and the D-Day Invasion. She figured I’d have more fun talking to him than to her.

Controlling? She began planning events she knew she wouldn’t be here to manage at least 15 years ago. That’s when she asked me to write her advance obituary. I did a lot of that back in the day. But The Desert Sun had a habit of losing stories that went unpublished for many years. The company would change computer systems and — poof! — files disappeared. So Peggy had me give her a draft of my advance obit, and she put it on a CD and gave it to her probate attorney for safe-keeping. Unfortunately, Peggy died on a Friday night and I got a call Saturday morning asking if I knew what happened to her advance obituary. That’s when I learned Peggy had also persuaded the late Betty Francis to write an advance obit for her. Ann Greer told me they didn’t know what happened to that story. I said I wrote one that was given to her attorney. But her attorney said at Peggy’s memorial that it got lost! So, despite Peggy’s best-laid plans, her obituary had to be written on deadline. Somehow, her acolytes got The Desert Sun’s executive editor, Julie Makinen, to write the news obit instead of a weekend reporter, and it was damn good. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peggy had arranged for that contingency just in case her first two options fell through. That’s how well-organized Peggy Cravens was.

The Entertainers

June 15: MYVANWY JENN, 93 of Rancho Mirage. Myvanwy (pronounced Mah-von-way) was best known to friends as the late Kaye Ballard’s domestic partner. She appeared to wait on Kaye like a domestic servant in their home on Kaye Ballard Lane. But Kaye spoke glowingly of her and dedicated her memoir to Myvanwy and three others “with great love.” The celebrities who used their house as a hotel, as Gavin MacLeod used to say, adored Myvanwy as much as Kaye. But her friend, Hal Wingo, surprised most of us at her memorial service by playing a recording that revealed Myvanwy’s beautifully trained soprano. We knew she had serious theater credits. She toured Russia performing Chekov and appeared in London and Broadway productions of “Oh! What A Lovely War,” telling the story of the devastating British involvement in World War I. She also had many television roles. But we mostly knew Myvanwy as a dear, unassuming human being. We should have known Kaye only would have been attracted to an immense talent who also was respectful of her own unique skills.

A flyer for Phil Drucker’s memorial hosted by Democratic Women of the Desert.

July 16: PHIL DRUCKER, 63, La Quinta. Drucker was one of the pioneers of the L.A. post-punk scene with his band 17 Pygmies. Their 1984 LP, “Jedda By The Sea,” was promising and greatly influential. But its lack of commercial success only led to his frustration with the music industry. After years of touring, he gave up the music biz, got a law degree at La Verne University and became a constitutional law scholar and teacher at the California Desert Trial Academy in Indio. He ran unsuccessfully for California State Senator in 2014 but grew from a social media commenter to an ever-evolving author. He earned a Ph.D. with his book, “Race Does Not Exist.” I only met him in 2019 on stage at the Annenberg Theater when I moderated a panel discussion on the roots of desert destination music festivals after a screening of the film, “Desolation Center.” I wish I had gotten to know him better. He died all too young.

Aug. 16: KAL DAVID, 79, Palm Springs. I said Kal never got the recognition he deserved as a master blues and rock guitarist and vocalist. But the appreciation I wrote about him on Facebook was my most popular post of the year, receiving 80 shares from around the world and at least 15,000 views. I said he was “our” master shredder because he became a local celebrity with his opening of the Blue Guitar in his adopted home town of Palm Springs. But he had pockets of fan around the world who were just as devoted to him. Still, we must thank Kal and his wife, Laurie Bono, for not only revitalizing downtown Palm Springs, but bringing a little color to the neighborhood. Busloads of seniors used to roll up to see the almost all-white “Fabulous Palm Springs Follies” at the Plaza Theatre. But Kal was booking these authentic Black blues artists from Chicago and the South to play with his Real Deal band next door at the Blue Guitar. Pound for pound, the tiny Blue Guitar brought as much excitement to the desert as Coachella.

Sept. 10: BOBBY CRAIG of Rancho Mirage. Bobby definitely didn’t receive the recognition he deserved at the time of his death (when he was either 80 or 81). But that was because fame just wasn’t that important to him. Bobby was the king of desert rock ’n roll from the late ’60s through the early ’90s with his Fats Domino-Jerry Lee Lewis-type piano stylings. People used to stand in line for hours to see him play local nightclubs. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys all came to see him (although they probably didn’t stand in lines). He memorably played piano for Chuck Berry at the Palm Springs Convention Center and elicited a compliment from the guy who once slugged Keith Richards. He never had a hit record or toured with a famous band, but he told me in 1988 it was more important to him to generate enough money from his music to buy his 2,800-square-foot house in Rancho Mirage and pay his son’s $10,000 tuition to a private college. When playing in bars stopped being fun, he just stopped playing piano. But he never stopped enjoying his family.

Oct. 7: ART LABOE, 97, Palm Springs. Art established a Guinness world record for most consecutive years on the air, which finally ended after more than 70 years when he passed away from a battle with pneumonia. His second full-time radio job was with a Palm Springs station he outlived by 20 years. He did a radio marathon at that station in 1947 and Sinatra encountered him at the Plaza Theatre and told him he was a fan. More importantly, Elvis Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, was a fan. That enabled Art to head up L.A.’s first Elvis fan club. Art became famous for playing “oldies but goodies” from the ’50s and ’60s, and letting fans dedicate songs on the air to their loved ones. I grew up listening to him in Los Angeles and always dreamed of asking him for a dedication. I got the chance after I interviewed him at his little radio studio north of Vista Chino. I asked him to play Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” which I thought was a clever request since Green begins the recording by dedicating that song to his recently deceased cousin, Junior Parker. But Art didn’t recognize my ingenuity and, even more humbling, he mispronounced my name.

Stand-up comedian Gallagher smashes a cake during a performance aboard the USS Carl Vinson. (Photo: Nicolas C. Lopez)

Nov. 11: GALLAGHER, 76, Palm Springs. I didn’t know this famous prop comedian lived in Palm Springs until The Desert Sun’s Brian Blueskye told me Gallagher called him out of the blue and started rambling about an idea he had for playing in the safety of drive-in movie theaters. Brian told him that was a good idea, but people had been doing it throughout the pandemic. And, ah, now the pandemic’s over. It turned out, Gallagher didn’t live in Palm Springs for long. He spent his last days here with cancer. But he created a fond memory for my elder son, Clay, and me back when Gallagher played the McCallum Theatre on Martin Luther King Day in 1999. I figured Clay would get a kick out of seeing Gallagher smash watermelons with his Sledge-O-Matic mallet. The McCallum was so worried about its upholstery, it covered its first 30 rows with cellophane. But what was most memorable was the way Gallagher took shots at Jews, gays, Hispanics and Bill Clinton. Clay, at age 10, told me, “This is the wrong day to be prejudiced.”

Dec. 10: GEORGIA HOLT, 96, Malibu. Georgia told me her daughter, Cher, never really liked the desert. But Georgia loved living in Palm Desert, where she was close friends with Carson Daly’s mother, the late, great Pattie Daly Caruso. Georgia was a sweet, soulful kind-of gal who redefined what it meant to be a celebrity mom. Yes, she was the mother of a huge star, but that didn’t mean she was a stage mom. She had her own identity and skills as a singer, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t devoted to her daughter. She co-wrote a book titled “Star Mothers: The Moms Behind the Celebrities,” which enabled her to have a disparate circle of friends including the mothers of Sylvester Stallone, Ron Howard and Tom Selleck. She used to feed me information for my column about Cher, and even gave me insights about her former son-in-law, Sonny Bono, with whom she maintained a warm relationship. She once offered my wife, Jane, and me tickets to Cher’s “farewell concert” in San Diego. When we got to the box office, I was handed an envelope with four tickets in it, which enabled me to give away two of them to make somebody’s night. But it turned out that was the first of many final farewell concerts for Cher.

Local characters

April 5: NEHEMIAH PERSOFF, 102, San Luis Obispo. “Nicky” Persoff never owned a home in the Coachella Valley, but he worked here for most of the 1980s, doing as much as anyone I’ve ever met to build a desert audience for professional theater. He was best known for his major film roles as Barbra Streisand’s father in “Yentl” and the scientist whose experiments produced Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in “Twins.” He guest-starred in hundreds of TV shows after being part of the first graduating class of the Actor’s Studio with Marlon Brando, Cloris Leachman, Julie Harris and James Whitmore. But even while making “Yentl,” his heart was in working with young professional and student actors from College of the Desert in plays and musicals such as “Man of La Mancha,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Oliver” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Jane co-starred in the first three of those shows, and we were both inspired and entertained by his enormous personality. I once checked out a library book on Sholem Aleichem to prepare for an interview on how Nicky developed his one-man show on that famed Yiddish humorist. When we were done, he asked if he could buy the book from me. I said, “No. It’s a library book!” He was a great actor and an even more interesting real-life character.

May 26: LARRY BITONTI, Cathedral City. Larry was a Palm Canyon Drive fixture. He opened Churchill’s Fish and Chips next to the Palm Springs Car Wash in 1972 and became president of the Greater Palm Springs Bar and Restaurant Association. Churchill’s was my first go-to lunch spot because it was just a short walk from the old Desert Sun office in the Sun Center. But I got to know Larry in the mid-’80s when he became a bartender and co-owner of Hair of Dog, a saloon that had three locations on Palm Canyon Drive over a 35-year span. Larry was a character of the first magnitude who would stand in front of his saloon and do commentary about the many parades passing by. But really, he just loved tending bar. He kept the price of beer low, and that made it a favorite hangout of Desert Sun writers like Richard Guzman, Nelsy Rodriguez and Darrell Smith, who all wrote about the place. Larry was a natural raconteur, and that made him a legendary bartender.

July 10: BERNIE GARTLAND, 82, Palm Desert. Bernie’s many TV and radio commercials for his Gartland Group law firm made him the Cal Worthington of desert lawyers. I think because of that (and perhaps Dave Frishberg’s witty jazz song) I always wanted to introduce Gartland as “my attorney, Bernie.” Unfortunately, he was a bankruptcy lawyer, and I never quite had a need for him. But I had friends who did. Bernie told one of them he didn’t have enough debt to qualify for bankruptcy. So this impoverished friend went on a shopping spree! Gartland considered himself “a social worker with a law degree” because he helped so many troubled individuals take on the IRS. He was the slingshot David took into battle with Goliath. But he also had a great sense of humor, street smarts and a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. All of that made him a superhero for the poor and litigation-inclined.

Oct. 13: JACK LYONS, 90, Desert Hot Springs. I used to call Jack the Will Rogers of theater critics. He was never hurtful, even while being critical, and that was just what this community theater community needed. Honestly, I never met anyone as devoted to writing about local theater as Jack. Even in his late 80s, he was tireless. He participated in community theater in the 1960s in Los Angeles as an actor, producer and publicist. He went on to make industrial films and serve as a corporate vice president of communications. But he never lost his admiration for actors who had the courage to bare their emotions on stage – even when they didn’t have the best directors or surrounding casts. I can’t say I had as much empathy as Jack, and he let me know that was a weakness — in the kind way only Jack could manage. He often told me I was the best music critic in the desert. But he always told me that while we were at a theater to review a play! I enjoyed hanging out at intermissions with Jack, and I thought his long marriage to actress Jeannette Lyons was one of the strongest I’ve ever seen.

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