Musical Racquet

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: March 2014
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When Elton John had staff lug an upright piano to center court, graduates of the week-long clinic at John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch probably suspected they wouldn't be treated to a traditional rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance." As his fellow tennis alumni sipped champagne, John performed "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," perhaps to get competitive juices flowing for the afternoon's matches. "Elton was just crazy about tennis," Horst Falger says. "He spent lots of time here and gave us a wonderful surprise once with an impromptu concert. When he was later interviewed on the TV show 60 Minutes, he was wearing our logo on his jacket. Our phone rang off the hook for a week."

The flamboyant piano player had shown up soon after the resort opened to improve his tennis game. "I remember my dad calling me up and saying, 'There's this guy here named Elton John who wears really big glasses and wants to rent a casa, have you heard of him?'" Thomas Gardiner recalls with a laugh. The musician returned on many occasions, including 1975, when he brought an entourage including bandmates, a chef, and, one suspects, a few groupies. "The whole time he was staying at our resort, his personalized 'Elton Rocks the Westies' 707 jet was parked at Sky Harbor for everyone to gawk at," Gardiner recalls.

The English performer treated the staff wonderfully, lavished gifts on the tennis pros, and inadvertently changed the clubhouse's formal dress code. "Elton came in and our hostess offered him a jacket, telling him he needed to wear one in the dining room," former resort employee Dallas Borntrager says. "Elton became indignant and exclaimed, 'I paid $150 for this shirt!' but put it on. We relaxed the dress policy the next day unbeknownst to Elton, who wore a dark purple tuxedo to dinner."