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Indain Wells (Master Series) California

The heart of Indian Wells is people
Tony surroundings harbor wide array of residents who cherish their desert lifestyle

Darrell Smith
The Desert Sun
March 15, 2006

INDIAN WELLS - Let's get this out of the way right now.

We in the Coachella Valley perceive the place as an exclusive enclave, a magnet for the super-rich, the valley's and, indeed, the nation's power elite.

Spread over 15 square miles, Indian Wells is synonymous with desert wealth and privilege and the signs are seemingly everywhere, the super-premium resorts and spas, private country clubs and walled estates.

Big names like computer tycoon Bill Gates, automaker Lee Iacocca and rock guitarist Brian Setzer have homes here.

In the city's earlier days, stars like Desi Arnaz, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and others gave the city its exclusive, desert playground persona.

The city is home to one of world's premier tennis facilities in the Indian Wells Tennis Garden and one of the sport's top events, this month's Pacific Life Open.

Its cash reserves are larger than some cities' budgets and with a median family income of more than $134,000, Indian Wells boasts the highest figure for any city in Riverside County, according to demographers Graphtek.

But in Indian Wells for the fourth installment of "Darrell in the Desert," The Desert Sun's tour of the Coachella Valley's nine incorporated cities, I hoped to look beyond the dollar signs to find the stories of the people and places that make this tony town of 4,433 unique.

A Polish-American raised on the jazz of his native Detroit who brought the symphony and a missionary's zeal for music to the desert and the city that embraced him.

The Wimbledon tennis champion whose love of tennis lives on in her work for the Pacific Life Open.

A family who thought the unthinkable in an earlier Indian Wells. They opened a restaurant.

The Orange Coast doctor whose love of the desert changed the way he thought about community and medicine.

"I've never come across anything like (Indian Wells)," said Mayor Ed Monarch. "I don't know of any city in the U.S. like it."

Monarch might be right, as much for the people as its more obvious trappings of wealth and privilege.

Musical missionary

Edwin Benachowski remembers with a laugh those first years at the baton - he was once mistaken for a waiter before one performance.
He served the drink, a glass of chardonnay, then took the podium.

"I didn't even get a tip," he joked.

But today, Benachowski's Indian Wells Desert Symphony has become a collection of musical missionaries bringing classical music to the Coachella Valley, extending the music's reach to the valley's youth and its burgeoning Latino communities, while programming a diverse mix of artists and repertoire from film music to country to jazz, pop and mariachi.

All, the maestro said, doing what music does best, breaking down barriers.

"We want to attract young people. (They're) our future. You must have diverse programming. They're shouldn't be a wall between the audience and the 70 musicians."

That relationship is a natural for someone who straddles the worlds of jazz and classical music, has deep roots in music education and a long love affair with the Coachella Valley.

Raised in Detroit's hard-charging bebop scene, trained at New York's famed Julliard School of Music, Benachowski's loves are here now: his musical partner and wife of 55 years, Marilyn; his music; his desert and, for the past 15 years, his beloved Indian Wells Desert Symphony.

Benachowski sees the power of music to entertain, to teach and to bring people together. And that the music needs a place to shine.

"(There) has to be someplace to go that's available and affordable. You'll spend a wonderful evening and you're not going to forget about it."

It's something that the symphony's host city looks on with pride.

"It's one of the better things we've had here," booster and Indian Wells Councilman Conrad Negron said of the symphony and the Benachowskis.

"They're doing more for the valley than just about anybody. We feel very proud."

Neighborhood favorite

If there's a neighborhood hang in Indian Wells, Vicky's of Santa Fe may be it. It seems to be early on a Tuesday evening, with a lively post-5 o'clock crowd crowding around the bar for cocktails and conversation.

The restaurant and bar have been a favorite here for nearly 20 years, guided by the Lalibertes: Vicky, the restaurant's namesake, and son Marc, the restaurant's manager.

Vicky's of Santa Fe opened in 1988.

Today, Marc Laliberte manages the restaurant. He's been at Vicky's since the beginning but hasn't forgotten what keeps him in the business.

"New people, new customers, new experiences, new friends," he said. "You've got to keep it fun. People come here to eat and to have a fun time. A restaurant's supposed to be fun."

Vicky's husband, Guy Laliberte, who also owned fellow Indian Wells landmark The Nest, died in 2004.

But their success nearly wasn't so. Vicky Laliberte remembered a time in the city when commercial development was discouraged. Indian Wells was going to be different from Palm Springs or Palm Desert, an oasis from the retail that drove those cities, leaders at the time said.

However, a parcel of land was available next to the Miramonte on Highway 111 and Club Drive. The Lalibertes' jumped at the opportunity with support from townsfolk.

"We had the opportunity to buy the property and (residents) said, 'We want Guy. We want him to open a restaurant.' That meant a lot. It meant a lot."

Western Wimbledon

It was day two of the Pacific Life Open and the practice courts and players' lounge were already buzzing.

There was perennial top-seed Lindsay Davenport going through her paces before a four-deep crowd on one practice court. Turn around and Roger Federer, the game's top male player, heading back to the lounge. On another court, the Spaniard Carlos Moya was sharpening his game before another big crowd.

It was mid-afternoon, but it had already been a busy day for Peggy Michel, the open's longtime vice president of sales. She'd planned to reward herself with a trip to the tournament store for a few outfits before we waylaid her for a brief tour of the tourney's home, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

No matter. She'd stay out here all day if she could. Michel loves this sport, loves this tournament in equal measure.

"All the people who work here have a real passion for the game of tennis," she said.

Michel's passion goes back to her days on the tour in the early and mid-1970s.

On this day, a modest Michel only doles it out in bits and pieces. That she played on the women's professional tour. That she played for five years.

That, paired with the legendary Australian Evonne Goolagong, she won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1974 and the Australian Open title in 1974 and 1975.

Making our way from the bustling players' lounge to the Garden's sweeping grounds, she talked about where her passions lie now.

"There's Wimbledon, the Australian, but this tournament is one of the best in the world. We work really hard to make this one of the best we can," Michel said. "We always wanted to call it the Wimbledon of the west."

The good life

I was drifting in and out of consciousness while massage therapist Michele Langley, late of Spokane, Wash., now of Hemet, kneaded my body into bread dough on the massage table.
Soon would come the sage sugar scrub and I would struggle to remember my name.

This was the good life, swaddled in a bath robe amid the serenity of Agua Serena Spa at the elegant, super-premium Hyatt Grand Champions Resort.

"This is a place to escape," the spa's director Matthew Lee explained. "You're escaping the everyday rigors of life."

And in a city whose motto is "Find Your Oasis," the good life is big business for the so-called "Big Four" - the Hyatt Grand Champions, Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa, Miramonte Resort and Spa, and Indian Wells Resort Hotel - and for Indian Wells.

"We make our living here through (transient occupancy tax)," Monarch said.

Tourism is this city's life blood. Fully half of Indian Wells' general fund revenues are tourism-based, say city officials, with more than $56.2 million in total gross hotel sales from the "Big Four" alone in fiscal year 2005. That lifeblood pumps through the Pacific Life Open, too. Tennis' "fifth Grand Slam" and one of the sport's premier events in one of its most desired locales, it also means a $140 million economic impact on the Coachella Valley

That wasn't lost on the city when tennis legends Pete Sampras, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King saved the event with a multimillion-dollar buyout plan that kept the tourney in the desert through 2026.

Big players, big stakes in a city long accustomed to big names.

Only, it seems, in Indian Wells.

'Feels like home'

The good life in Indian Wells is life blood, but it's also what drew Dr. Richard Foxx to the desert a dozen years ago.
Now the medical director at Agua Serena Spa, he was a polo-playing gynecologist with a practice, home and family in Newport Beach, when the desert bug first bit him 22 years ago.

"I fell in love with the place, the remarkable beauty of it," Foxx said from his suite of offices at the spa. "I'd come down here and didn't want to leave on Sunday night. It gets under your skin."

Though gynecology was Foxx's specialty, his family's move to the desert coincided with his growing interest in what he calls "curative" and alternative medicine.

As the field evolved, he said he found that that and the desert were where his heart lay. Soon, he was working in the evolving fields of cosmetic dermatology and hormone therapy.

When Foxx found Hyatt had designs on a spa in Indian Wells, he'd found his opportunity, submitting a proposal and winning the go-ahead to open offices on the site.

Today, he uses his new practice as a platform for community talks on medicine and other outreach.

"I'm happier than any time in my life," he said. "I spent a lot of years in Newport Beach - 24, 25 years. I lived there, raised my kids there, but this is the first place that feels like home."

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