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RIP Mel Haber, a prince of old Palm Springs, owner of Melvyn's, 80

by Elina Shatkin | Off-Ramp®

Mel Haber at his corner table at Melvyn's restaurant in Palm Springs. Photograph by Elina Shatkin

UPDATE: Mel Haber, Palm Springs' old school restaurateur, died Tuesday at 80 of lung cancer. According to The Desert Sun, Melvyn's is in the process of being sold: "The restaurant was put up for sale when Haber's health began to fail. It is now in escrow, Ellis said, and is being sold to a group of investors from San Francisco including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom."

It’s a typical Saturday night here at Melvyn’s, one of the oldest and most iconic restaurants in Palm Springs. The bar is packed, a piano player belts out covers, couples fill the dance floor. And every weekend, you'll find Melvyn Haber roaming the restaurant.

"I am best known for the fact on my opening night, I chased away Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, who were on a motorcycle, not realizing who they were. That was the first of one thousand foot-in-mouth experiences that I’ve had here," says Haber.

The 79-year-old Haber — he goes by Mel — is the owner and proprietor of one of Palm Springs's oldest hotels, the Ingleside Inn, and its restaurant, Melvyn’s, which he named after himself. Forty years ago, Haber was a Long Island businessman looking for the good life. He was tired of selling fuzzy dice and other automotive tchotchkes. With no experience in the hospitality business, he came out west. 

"I was going through a midlife crisis, stumbled out to Palm Springs and wound up buying this property," Haber says.

The compound was originally built in 1925 as the private estate of the Humphrey Birge family, owners of the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company. In 1935, they sold it to Ruth Hardy who ran it as a private hotel until 1965. "She had the who’s who of the world here, from Howard Hughes to Herbert Hoover to Clark Gable to Gianini who built the Bank of America," Haber says.

But by the time he bought the place in 1974, it had seen better days. "It was as shabby as could be," Haber says. "There was no air conditioning. The jacuzzi was cracked. The carpet was threadbare." It also wasn't open to the public.

Haber decided to make a go of it, improving the property, revamping the rooms and opening it up to anyone who wanted to rent a room. With no connections or experience, Haber did it through sheer brute force: "Fortunately, nothing was happening in town. Palm Springs was a small village. The opening and closing of the racquet club determined the social season. And people flocked here."

Did they ever. Locals came looking for a bit of glamour, celebrities came seeking privacy, writers came in search of a soothing retreat. Four decades later, Melvyn’s hasn’t changed much. The maître d’ and some waiters have been here 40 years. They still do tableside preparation, with a chafing dish and flames. It’s old school.

"In those days, everybody in Palm Springs was somebody. Right after I came here, Palm Springs became the symbol of the rich and famous. Gerald Ford, the president, just moved here. [Bob] Hope was here. Annenberg was here. Robin Leach was here doing shows. And I appeared on all of them. Why? Because I had a hot saloon in Palm Springs," Haber says. 

Melvyn's became a celebrity magnet attracting Debbie Reynolds, David Hasselhoff, John Travolta and Carol Burnett, among others. One day, Haber spotted regulars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell at the front desk. 

"I say, 'How come you’re here? I didn’t know you were coming.' Kurt Russell had just gotten a brand new plane and he was a pilot," Haber says. "They were looking for some place to fly for an excuse. They said, what could be better than flying to Palm Springs and having lunch at Melvyn’s by the pool?" 

Haber remembers one star with special warmth: Dinah Shore. "I don’t know how to explain this, there was something tremendously sensuous about her. You wanted to cuddle with her, you wanted to hug her. She was warm and fuzzy. She was as sweet and as nice as anybody I ever met. Without question, [she was] my favorite celebrity," Haber says. "I get some of the current celebrities but I don’t know who they are when I get them."

One celeb was bigger than all of them. 

"Sinatra, incidentally, was awesome," Haber says. "When he came in, I would leave. There was an aura about him of power that I cannot describe. He’s the only person I’ve ever been intimidated by."

One day, Frank Sinatra asked Haber what kind of caviar he had: "I don’t have a clue but I figure there's black and gray. I got a 50% chance of guessing. I said we have black caviar."

Mel must’ve guessed right — Frank Sinatra held the reception for his 1976 wedding to his fourth and final wife, Barbara, at Melvyn’s.

"Comes the night of the party, I ask Sinatra if he wants me to close the whole restaurant. He says no, you can keep the patio open to the public as long as they don't disturb my party. About 7 o'clock, two guys come in with cameras strung around their neck, with these hats on with a sign that says Enquirer. I couldn't believe how obvious they were. So, of course, we escort them off the property." 

Later, at midnight, as the party is winding down, Haber and his manager are walking Frank and Barbara out to a brand new Rolls Royce. As the newlyweds drive away, two men jump out from behind a tree and snap a picture of Sinatra through the windshield. 

"Jilly Rizzo runs up, rips the camera out of the guy's hand, takes the film out of the guy's camera and throws it on the floor. Monday morning, the picture appeared in the Enquirer. The two guys that were sent in that said Enquirer were sent in to throw us off base. Decoys. The two guys, beautifully dressed who were here with two women having dinner on the patio. When they jumped out from behind the tree and took the picture, that camera goes back in the pocket and the camera for ripping and throwing away is out there for Jilly Rizzo to grab. That's how good they are," Haber says. 

"At the end of the night, I said to him, 'Mr. S, I can't tell you what an honor it is for you to have your party here. He said, c'mon kid, you’re meshpuchah. In Jewish, the word meshpuchah means family."

Mel has no intention of ever retiring or ever selling. He’ll be the first one to tell you his success is unlikely. And he knows he has something special on his hands.

"People who love this kind of property, love it. They hate the big box hotels. When I travel, I go to big box hotels. I am everything that’s wrong for this business," he says. "I am not a foodie. I am not a wine connoisseur. I can’t cook a hamburger, make a Bloody Mary or open a cash register drawer. And I’m not into quaint charming hotels. However, this property happens to be unique by itself. There’s a magic ambiance about it that I’ve come to appreciate. I am the great American story. Don’t ask me how or why. I keep saying: The guy upstairs has me confused with somebody else."

How long can Mel Haber keep going? For as long as he can still put on a suit jacket and spin a great story.

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