C.E. “Smitty” Smith and the Glory Days of the Palm Springs Desert Museum

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Ed. note: Like many museums in the pandemic era, the Palm Springs Art Museum (formerly Desert Museum) has been struggling of late. When things are wobbly, it often helps to return to bedrock. What did we first love? What was the ur-spark? In these excerpts from a paper by E. Breck Parkman you’ll hear about the early days of the Museum and its leaders including Clarence Smith, anthropologist Lowell Bean and opera conductor William Norman Jupe. Nature and history propelled the museum then; those themes might recharge the institution even today. In Part Two, Parkman will reveal more about the Museum’s links to mystical best-selling author Carlos Castaneda. E. Breck Parkman is the former senior archaeologist for the state of California.

Clarence “Smitty” Smith at Pleasanton Meadows excavation, 1974. Smitty was director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1953-1964. All images courtesy of Breck Parkman.

 On January 31, 1975, California State University-East Bay – then known as CSU-Hayward – lost one of its most beloved professors, Dr. Clarence Ernest Smith, Jr. (January 18, 1915 – January 31, 1975). Dr. Smith, or “Smitty” as many of us knew him, had just turned 60 two weeks earlier. He taught courses in archaeology and museology and was an original member of the university’s Anthropology faculty. I took every course I could from Smitty and he served as my undergraduate advisor as well. The C.E. Smith Museum of Anthropology at CSU-East Bay was named after him.

As fate would have it, just three days before he died, Dr. Smith was appointed director of a museum that didn’t yet exist. When he was hired in 1964, there was to have been a museum built on campus within three years of his hiring. Unfortunately, the museum never materialized. In a story in The Desert Sun announcing his departure from Palm Springs, Smitty described what was in store for him at Cal State Hayward:

He will become Associate Professor of Anthropology for California State College at Hayward, where he will also collect and plan for its museum and become the director when it is completed in about three years….Dr. Smith told The Desert Sun today that his new job offers him “a magnificent opportunity, as well as a substantial salary increase”.

Smitty with kids at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1961. Westways Magazine.

Prior to coming to Hayward, Dr. Smith was the Director of the Desert Museum in Palm Springs. He was selected from over 50 candidates for that position. Smitty did a good job from the start. Two years later, the Museum’s Board gave him a raise, bringing his salary up to $500 per month.  At $6,000 a year, Smitty’s income in 1955 was substantially higher than the average income – $3,400 – for men in the U.S. After Smitty departed for Hayward the Museum began featuring more fine arts. It was repurposed as the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2005. However, during Smitty’s time in Palm Springs, the Desert Museum was dedicated to the natural and cultural history of the Sonoran Desert. Smitty was successful in growing the Museum while he was there. By 1962, he had participated in a successful effort to move the Museum to a newly-constructed state-of-the-art building with twice the size of the original structure and including a 360-seat auditorium. As of 1963, the Museum had 590 members and had received 85,000 visitors the year before.

Smitty curates an exhibit at the Palm Springs Desert Museum. Courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society.

When Smitty started working at the Desert Museum, the exhibits ranged from a pet kangaroo rat (Dipodomys deserti) and baby sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes) in their individual cases, to a display of Cahuilla Indian baskets. Two months later, the exhibits were joined by one devoted to Christmas, but with a desert twist:

There will be displayed the Greatest Story Ever Told – the Nativity Scene. A great majority of people associate Christmas with snow scenes but the true Christmas took place in the desert and the Museum brings this divine picture in a factual setting. Of course, the mascot, the Road Runner, will be dressed as Santa and will bring an added cheer to the Museum’s Christmas display.

A story in The Desert Sun described the Museum’s purpose in its earlier days: “An extensive program is planned at the Museum this season, including such activities as visual education through evening programs, study groups for children and adults in bird life, rocks, stars and the like; field trips to acquaint Villagers and visitors with the desert; educational displays; collection, classification and display of local flora and fauna, and promotion of desert research.”

Anthropologist Lowell Bean at a reception, Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1962. At right is Mrs. Austin McManus, from a Palm Springs pioneer family. At left is Museum trustee Patricia Moorten, wife of Chester “Slim” Moorten of Moorten’s Botanical Garden fame.

Smitty served as the Director of the Desert Museum from September 1, 1953 – July 30, 1964. He replaced the Museum’s former director, Lloyd Mason Smith, who had resigned in the spring of 1953. Following Smith’s resignation, William Norman Jupe, a Museum trustee, was made the acting director until someone could be brought aboard to permanently fill the position.

Jupe was a well-known bird photographer, and a former member of the Viennese Opera. He came to the U.S. in 1939, after retiring from British government service, work that had taken him to Vienna, Austria, and Durban, South Africa, among other places. Jupe had his 10-year-old son, Anthony, with him. He was divorced from his Austrian wife, Erna Marie, who was then living in Durban, South Africa. Jupe and his son sailed from England to New York aboard the S.S. Manhattan, on what was to be one of the ship’s final commercial voyages before being repurposed for the war effort. The passengers accompanying Norman and Anthony were mostly American citizens, fleeing the outbreak of war.

Over the years, Jupe gave numerous public lectures on the topics of local birds and classical music at the Museum and even founded a music appreciation society in Palm Springs. Credited by IMDb as a cinematographer, Jupe provided some of the film footage used in Walt Disney’s award-winning film, Nature’s Half Acre. At the 1952 Academy Awards ceremony, the film won the Oscar for “Best Short Subject, Two Reel.” And in 1953, it was nominated for a BAFTA Award for “Best Documentary Film, USA.”

On July 19, 1953, Norman Jupe committed suicide. This was just two weeks after Smitty had been hired, and before he had reported to work. According to the coroner’s report, Jupe came home to discover that his 23-year-old son, Anthony, with whom he had recently been quarreling, had committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Soon after discovering his son’s lifeless body, the grief-stricken father killed himself in the same manner as his son, by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

Norman Jupe had been well-liked at the Desert Museum and within the Palm Springs community. Dr. Smith assumed responsibility for the Museum’s operation in the immediate aftermath of this family tragedy. Smitty was the perfect person to help bring the staff and community together in their time of shock and grief. Immediately before he joined the Desert Museum, Smitty had spent the summer working as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. Before that, he spent three years as an Assistant Professor at San Francisco State College. During his time at San Francisco State, he was also an Assistant Curator of Ethnology at the prestigious DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. In 1957, while he was with the Desert Museum, Smitty taught an extension course on “California Indians” at the University of California at Riverside. When the museum at Cal State Hayward failed to materialize, Dr. Smith was kept busy with a fulltime teaching schedule. Hired as an Associate Professor in 1964, he was promoted to Full Professor in 1969. I took my first classes from him in 1973.

Lowell Bean, as a young student in Cahuillaland.

Lowell Bean, at right. Lyle Smith (left) was the wife of Clarence “Smitty” Smith and a skilled weaver.

In 1962, while Director of the Desert Museum, Smitty hired Lowell Bean to work as his Curator of Ethnology. At that time, Lowell was a part-time anthropology instructor at Pasadena City College and a graduate student at UCLA. Born in St. James, Minnesota, in 1931, Lowell moved to California shortly after graduating from high school. He was a former Marine and had served in Korea during the Korean War. Using the G.I. Bill, Lowell attended UCLA, where he earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees. While stationed in Korea and Japan, Lowell became interested in Asian culture and decided to make ethnology his life’s study.  A newspaper article from 1963 described how Lowell, who has never driven, rode the bus 720 miles a week, commuting between Pasadena and Palm Springs. Lowell left the Desert Museum in 1966, two years after Smitty departed. That same year, Smitty helped bring Lowell to Hayward, where he became one of the university’s most distinguished professors. When I was his student, Lowell lived in an apartment on Oakland’s Lake Merritt and commuted to Hayward every day. He also had a home in Palm Springs. Lowell retired from teaching in 1992 and now lives fulltime in Palm Springs, where he continues to do research and publish the results of his many years of ethnographic work. Two of Smitty’s greatest contributions to anthropology were his hiring of Lowell to be the Desert Museum’s Curator of Ethnology in 1962, and CSU-Hayward’s Assistant Professor of Anthropology in 1966.

Smitty’s Last Dig

During the Spring Quarter of 1974, Smitty taught Field Archaeology and I was excited to take the class. This proved to be my first excavation experience. It was the early years of what is today known as “Cultural Resource Management.” As a result, we worked on a site in the Livermore Valley that was slated for development. The site was officially recorded as CA-ALA-394, but we knew it as the “Pleasanton Meadows Site.” Pleasanton Meadows was the name of the large housing development being constructed on and around the site.

E. Breck Parkman as a student at Cal State Hayward, 1974

As we neared the end of the 1974 Summer Quarter, Smitty started to complain of stomach pain. Some days were worse for him than others. On bad days, he would go home early, unable to keep office hours. During Fall Quarter, he learned that he had advanced cancer of the stomach. He closed his blinds and then closed and locked his office door, went home, and never returned to campus. We lost him a few months later. Oddly enough, my experience at Pleasanton Meadows reinforced my desire to become an archaeologist, which is exactly what I did. In 2017, I retired as a Senior State Archaeologist with California State Parks, after spending almost 40 years as an archaeologist with the State. At Pleasanton Meadows, I realized that it wasn’t so much what you find but rather what you do with what you find that matters most. That includes the story you allow the site to tell. In the classroom and in the field, Smitty helped show me the importance of doing that. He also showed me the value of being a storyteller. The Pleasanton Meadows Site had its own story. If Smitty had lived, I would have enjoyed exploring that story with him.

 The Renaissance Man

During the summer of 1974, as I continued to excavate my unit at Pleasanton Meadows, I took several classes on campus. The class I remember most was Smitty’s “Archaeology of North America.” Smitty assigned us the textbook, Prehistory of North America by Jesse Jennings. I still have my copy of the book, complete with carefully highlighted sections and penciled-in notes. The subject matter of the class excited me, but what really captured my imagination, and what I most remember about it now, was the manner in which Smitty taught the subject matter. At the start of class each day, he asked if anyone had a question. Invariably, someone would always raise their hand. Smitty took the first question asked and from there would launch into his lecture. No matter what the question, Smitty’s answer always served to segue into what it was he wanted to teach us that day. His knowledge was impressive and he had an innate ability to convey it in such a way as to inspire those listening to him. Years earlier, while he was in Palm Springs, he had given talks to countless civic, business, educational, and government groups. Prior to one of his talks, a reporter wrote that, “Dr. Smith is noted for his witty and interesting talks on his varied studies and experiences”. After that talk, the reporter described Smitty as being “Silver Tongued”. Smitty could talk about anything.

When he was hired by the Desert Museum, the local paper noted that he was skilled in, “archaeology, geology, history, geography and paleontology….has had museum experience” and that his hobbies included photography and lapidary work. I can certainly attest to Smitty’s interest in photography. A few days after he died, his wife, Lyle Smith, asked fellow student, Benjamin Ananian (1947-2006), and me to go through Smitty’s campus office and sort through his belongings. She asked that we box-up his personal effects and bring them to her. Smitty’s door was closed and locked and had been since the day he went home months before. We opened the door and went inside. It was dark and cold inside the room. Ben and I spent several hours going through Smitty’s office and it was truly a bittersweet experience. I don’t recall most of what we found, but there are a few things that do stand out in my memory. The most striking were photographs. In one of the desk drawers, I found numerous boxes of color slides. Almost all of them depicted sunrises and sunsets Smitty had photographed in Mexico. They were beautiful. There were also some slides of various archaeological sites he had found there. Smitty enjoyed photography and he loved Mexico.

A sketch of the early Palm Springs Desert Museum by Robert Linskey, The Desert Sun.

As the Director of the Desert Museum, Smitty had to put all of his skills and experiences to work, including photography. The Desert Sun published literally scores of stories about Smitty’s exploits in Palm Springs, and no two of the stories are exactly the same. Smitty wasn’t so much the typical museum curator as he was a “Renaissance man.” In a letter he wrote to a newspaper columnist who had written about the community’s art scene, Smitty said, “We are not a rusty-dusty-rocks-and-stuffed-birds museum”. Indeed, the Desert Museum was not. The Desert Sun reported:

The administrative director of the Museum is quick to correct the use of “curator” as his title. “A curator is someone who knows all about a special field,” he says, “and in this job you must know a little bit about a lot of things. I don’t ‘curate” anything.” Smitty’s job as the head of the Desert Museum was wide-ranging and really did require that he be a jack-of-all-trades. As The Desert Sun noted: “He also directs the many projects of the Museum including supervision of its wildlife sanctuary in Palm Desert, setting up nature study and bird study walks and nature workshops, and keeps tabs on the many displays at the Museum which are continually [sic] the process of negotiation, arrival, preparation, display, or removal.”

Smitty was constantly being called on by members of the press and others to explain all kinds of things found in the natural world. There were numerous stories in The Desert Sun where he was asked to weigh in on everything from sidewinders and snake bites to the local occurrence of spiders, caterpillars, crickets, birds, and wildflowers. His public talks were just as diverse as his newspaper interviews. He spoke about a diversity of topics, including ancient rock art and the tribal art of the Pacific Northwest, the geology of Mt. San Jacinto and the plants of Andreas Canyon, and the lore and flowers of the Sonoran Desert. Prior to one of his talks, Smitty told a reporter that he was “not an educator but interested in educating”. He also led numerous educational tours through the Desert Museum and out into the desert.

In 1956, The Desert Sun reported that, according to Smitty, the top four areas of interest as expressed by visitors to the Museum were water (where does Palm Springs get its water from?), the Salton Sea, snakes (are they poisonous?), and the local geological formations. Smitty was often asked to explain these topics and more, regardless who asked. For example, an October 3, 1962 photo in The Desert Sun shows Smitty giving Senator Thomas Kuchel a tour of the Desert Museum. At the time, Senator Kuchel , a moderate Republican U.S. Senator from California, was the minority whip in the Senate. Kuchel served as the minority whip from 1959-1969 and as such, was the co-manager on the floor for both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both which he supported. And on November 29, 1958, another photo in The Desert Sun showed Smitty giving a tour to about 25 Cub Scouts from Troop 80. And yet another photo, from April 13, 1957, shows him giving a tour to a mother and her three adult daughters, who were identically dressed, identical triplets. Perhaps my favorite photo shows Smitty teaching children about turtles. It appeared in The Desert Sun on May 14, 1959, and includes Smitty’s 12-year-old daughter, Vicka, holding one of the turtles, while Smitty held the other. The Desert Museum was a community museum and it was considered an important asset of Palm Springs.

Smitty showing kids a desert tortoise. Desert Sun photo.

Lynn Emrick, one of Smitty’s assistants, described the Museum this way: The purposes of the Museum are a hundredfold. With a pinch of humor Dr. C. E. Smith, Museum Director, and I made a list of Museum activities. We are an information bureau, an employment office, taxi, post office, meeting place, repair shop, restroom, ticket office, lost and found, loan company, donation center, drinking fountain and, of course, as Dr. Smith said in small print, “a museum” Writing about the Museum, Phillip Scott said, “Dr. Smith, however, is proud of his “window on the desert.” With typical modesty, he describes it this way: “It’s not a bad little museum.”

Visit the C.E. Smith Museum of Anthropology here: https://www.csueastbay.edu/museum/index.html

Breck Parkman can be reached at: ebreckparkman@gmail.com

Breck Parkman, Lowell Bean and George Rodgers (a former student of Lowell’s) in Palm Springs, 2020.





2 comments for “C.E. “Smitty” Smith and the Glory Days of the Palm Springs Desert Museum

  1. Thank you so much for this quite enlightening history on The Desert Museum. This building itself, more than many others had such an effect on me and my family when we moved to the desert from the coast in 1979. The special flavor inside was still evident and lovely and very desert-centric at that time. It still remained much more artifact than art through the 80’s. It still operated as a Community Museum and so generously for locals and visitors alike. I do miss those days but your imprint is still in there. I thank you so much Breck Parkman, Lowell Bean and George Rodgers and all who came before you (early photos are wonderful Pat Moorten, Lowell Bean and Pearl McManus herself) … and all those who arrived after you who taught us so much. I’ll be looking forward to Part Two.

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