Wednesday, October 22, 2014

O Brothers, Where Art Thou?

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0614PHMPF25Back in the early ‘60s, the recently razed Mountain Shadows Resort hosted a hokey – and now hugely obscure – syndicated detective show..

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But in 1960 and 1961, what happened in the resort playground of Paradise Valley aired on syndicated TV.  

At least that was the case when the recently razed Mountain Shadows Resort was used as the background for a short-lived – and now virtually forgotten – syndicated TV crime drama called The Brothers Brannagan, about a pair of sibling private eyes who ran around the luxurious property keeping the guests and citizens safe. Filmed on location in the Valley and featuring the Mountain Shadows Resort sign in every episode, the show was a Dragnet-era Simon & Simon, with Phoenix standing in for San Diego.

Once one of the Valley’s toniest resorts, the palm-studded Mountain Shadows Resort was bulldozed in February following a decade of financial turbulence. The aging facility – representative of the best in mid-century Palm Springs/Las Vegas-style architecture – had been vacant for 10 years, unable to compete with the flashier amenities of more modern tourist meccas in the Valley.

Where Liz Taylor once had her hair done, where syndicated columnist and What’s My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen interviewed Phoenix Romper Room hostess Sherri Finkbine about her landmark thalidomide abortion, where The Monkees conked out during a mid-‘60s concert tour – rats ran for a decade among the dead palm fronds on the ramshackle grounds.

“What happened here was really sad,” says Penny Spray, daughter of Jim Paul, the resort’s developer. (Southwest construction mogul Del Webb, who famously appended his name to the property some years later, bought into the development in the early ‘60s. The resort went on to have a series of owners over the years.) Spray’s daughter still lives in an exclusive, gated community surrounding the bygone site.

“The hotel was the center of this community,” Spray, now 73, recalls. “We could golf, swim and even order hotel room service from our homes. For many years, this was the place. Mountain Shadows had it all over the [nearby] Camelback Inn.”

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And thanks to Internet DVD sales marketed from old TV prints, The Brothers Brannagan provides a rare visual record of the storied desert spa that for many years was the last word in Valley vacation accommodations. Crime busters Mike and Bob Brannagan (portrayed by late actors Stephen Dunne and Mark Roberts, respectively) bustled about the property in lensed-on-location capers ranging from routine shootouts to smoking out a sickie who was sending mutilated Barbie dolls to scantily clad victims. Other Valley locations included the old Greyhound Park race track on east Washington Street, Downtown residential neighborhoods and the Maricopa County courthouse.

Pop historian James Reasoner, who has written about the series for his website Rough Edges – a celebration of dimly-remembered TV shows, pulp fiction and Western dime novels – charitably characterizes the program as a low-budget time killer whose protagonists ran around “fighting crooks, wearing narrow ties and tooling around in cars with fins.”

“You probably couldn’t call it a classic TV show,” he says. Reasoner was a young child when the show premiered, but recalls, “I still remember the theme song, so I must have watched it regularly. How it holds up today, I don’t know.”

As portrayed in the 39 half-hour episodes of the detective series, the then newly-opened Mountain Shadows Resort, nestled between Camelback and Mummy Mountains, appeared to be the most treacherous hostelry this side of the Bates Motel. The detectives ran their agency from the resort lobby, and “check-out time” was less a hotel occupancy mandate than a signal to call a mortician. Viewers of The Brothers Brannagan were treated to a parade of tough-talking early ‘60s guest stars like Burt Reynolds, James Coburn and Vic Morrow, who kept the Paradise Valley gem jumping with murder, extortion, forgery, blackmail, adultery and, in one of the later episodes, even a purloined poodle.

The shady shenanigans on the show contrasted sharply with the reality of Mountain Shadows, which offered such luxe resort staples as tanning, tennis, golf, wedding receptions, proms, bar mitzvahs and celebrity-ogling. Famous check-ins (none of whom ever actually appeared on the show) included Sammy Davis Jr., Lainie Kazan and regulars John Wayne and Bob Hope, who routinely stayed there during his annual outings to the Phoenix Open.

Undoubtedly, the typical Brannagan plot staple – such as getting drugged, pistol-whipped, facially scarred with acid or shoved into a car trunk during a high speed chase – made for more lively postcard reading than a description of basking poolside under a palm tree. However, such mayhem is not generally regarded as a desirable vacation pastime. Why anyone thought this inhospitable hospitality industry hodgepodge was a good way to market a new recreational desert Eden is a bigger mystery than any of the cases faced by the show’s sleuths. “I have no idea,” Spray says. “I was in boarding school when that happened. That show was nothing. Who cares? I wasn‘t impressed with that Hollywood stuff.”

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As it turned out, portraying the posh oasis as a fictional hotbed of crime didn’t affect the hotel’s occupancy rate one way or the other, mainly because few people were watching anyway. More than a half-century after the series disappeared into an unmarked grave in the TV boneyard, few other than aficionados of arcane TV history know about it, or care.

As ratings plummeted, not even the producers seemed to care; later episodes devolved into an almost surreal slush pile of by-the-numbers detective storylines laid in such unlikely settings as a Paradise Valley-adjacent gold mine, a forest, a Lincoln Drive spinach farm, and a trailer park atop South Mountain. By the time the series was winding down, one of the shows actually took place entirely in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and increasingly one or the other brothers was not even required to show up for work each week. The last episode aired on July 15, 1961, and lead actors Stephen Dunne and Mark Roberts died in 1977 and 2006, respectively.

With the Brothers’ former five-star stomping ground reduced to rubble, residents of homes surrounding the blighted property look forward to current owner Crown Development’s recently-announced plans to build a mixed-used residential/resort community that will include a luxury boutique hotel, a spa, restaurants, fitness facility, pools and other “world class facilities.”

And where, unlike the Brannagans’ crime-packed glory days, the shadiest things will presumably be cabanas, palm trees and, yes, Camelback Mountain shadows.

 

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