Today is the deadline for submissions for the 27th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival. The festival was the brainchild of Sonny Bono and continues to thrive today as part of his legacy as Mayor of Palm Springs, CA. My experience with Sonny was brief but memorable.
Sonny Bono was remodeling his namesake restaurant in Palm Springs when a zoning dispute over the establishment’s sign led to a series of events culminating in his running for Mayor. This would be Bono’s first foray into what wouldbecome a successful political career following in the footsteps of fellow Californians Clint Eastwood (who’s successful Carmel Mayoral campaign was also initiated by a zoning issue) and Ronald Reagan whom Bono had supported for president.
I got a call from an editor at Time to photograph Sonny Bono at his home in Palm Springs the morning after the election, win or lose. For the sake of the shoot I was hoping for a “win”. The evening before the shoot I loaded my gear into the car for an early exit the next morning and watched the news for election results. I was relieved when it was announced that Bono had won the election and went to sleep; had he lost I would have stayed awake anticipating a call canceling the shoot. I had never been to Palm Springs before and had scribbled his address and the directions I transcribed from a map (pre-internet days) on a sheet of paper. The drive from L.A. to the desert was just over 3 hours and I was told I would have 30 minutes to photograph him at 9:00 am. I was making good time, it was a Wednesday morning and there was a light drizzle. About 2 hours into the drive the windshield started fogging up so I rolled the passenger window down to clear the glass. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something take flight and looked down to where the paper with address had been. Like a scene from a road comedy, I pulled over and spent 20 minutes futilely combing the desert for a scrap of paper in the rain. This was my first assignment for the magazine, I set out for Palm Springs again, this time with a pit in my stomach and no specific destination.
By the time I got to Palm Springs I had something of a plan and started looking for the first gas station that might direct me to his restaurant, Bono’s, hopefully someone there would direct me to his home. Little did I know the small town atmosphere of Palm Springs, when I pulled into a gas station and explained my predicament the attendant supplied very detailed directions to Sonny’s home on Crestview Drive. Crisis averted.
I arrived at his spacious home at precisely 9am, the gate was closed, there were several chows barking at me but no one was answering the intercom buzzer. It was a beautiful home, he later told me it had been part of the historic King Gillette Estate. I drove around the property, to no avail, in search of an open service entrance. I went back to the gate and engaged with the dogs hoping that their barking would eventually alert someone to my presence. I gave myself until 9:30 and was considering my next move when the dogs stopped barking and a very pregnant woman stammered out in a white t-shirt yawning and wiping the sleep from her eyes.
I explained that I was from Time and that Mayor Bono was expecting me. She smiled upon hearing him addressed as “Mayor”, introduced herself as his wife Mary and apologized that it had been a late night celebrating as she led me to their bedroom where she climbed back under the covers with Sonny. A shirtless Sonny Bono sat up with a big smile and reached out to shake my rain-drenched hand. Yeah, this seemed odd, especially for the Mayor of Palm Springs but I reminded myself he was a love child from the 60’s so I just rolled with it. We started to make small talk, he was elated to have won the election, he admitted it was a little unorthodox but asked if we could just “do the interview” there in the bedroom as it had been a long night. I replied that “we would get more intimate and interesting photos here but I’m not sure that’s the image you want to…”. “PHOTOS!” he interrupted as he leapt out of bed in his underwear. At 53 he was very thin and fit, suddenly all of the jokes Cher had made about his diminutive stature hit home. He grabbed a robe and jumped into the shower while I determined where to set-up. The grounds were beautiful and I chose a spot by the pool with a view of the mountains in the distance but it was still drizzling so as a back-up I set up a shot in his dining room.
As we started shooting he immediately brought into focus that there was a lot more at stake with this election other than just the Mayoral office, something that I hadn’t considered: “Can you imagine the field day the press and late night talk shows would have if I couldn’t win a local election to people no one’s ever heard of while Cher walks away with the Oscar?” Just the day before his election Cher beat out fellow nominees Meryl Streep and Glenn Close for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role opposite Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck. Even though they had been divorced for almost 20 years, Sonny & Cher will always be linked in the minds of millions as one of the most popular and enduring acts of the 60’s and 70’s. Just months earlier they were in the press together when David Letterman had coaxed them into doing an impromptu performance of “I Got You, Babe” for the first time in more than a decade. Unfortunately it would prove to be the last time the two would perform together.
Sonny and Mary were gracious hosts in spite of the fact that neither was feeling particularly well, Mary was due in just a couple of days and Sonny opted for just the one set-up rather than waiting out the rain; I was happy to oblige.
Sonny went on to serve in Congress but died in 1998 from injuries he suffered when he struck a tree while skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort. Mary Bono was elected to fill the remainder of his Congressional term and was then elected seven more times to the same office. Bono was buried in the desert community he represented at Desert Memorial Park, the epitaph on his headstone reads: “And the Beat Goes On”.