Excellent deck of cards made by Brown & Bigelow c.1946 for the legendary “Chi-Chi Club” of Palm Springs. The backs are based upon what became the de facto logo of the Club – dubbed the “Chi-Chi Girl” – an unlicensed use of a terrific velvet painting by Edgar Leeteg in Tahiti, titled “Hina Rapa.”
The story behind the Chi-Chi Club and Hina Rapa is summarized in an article about the Club that appeared in a 2007 article in “Palm Springs Life”:
“Bigger than Ciro’s, better than the Trocadero, and more fun than the Mocambo that jammed L.A.’s Sunset Strip, the Chi Chi was a veritable shrine to ‘live’ entertainment. Located on Palm Canyon Drive, it was the scene of many outstanding debuts, several exciting comebacks, and a few tearful farewells.
“Practically any New York and Las Vegas headliner that ever took a bow performed at the Chi Chi in its heyday: song and dance pioneers such as Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Rudy Vallee, the Ritz Brothers, Lena Horne, and Mickey Rooney, along with virtuoso performers such as Tony Martin, Jane Russell, Hoagy Carmichael, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, and Peggy Lee.
“And let’s not forget those masters of Dixieland, bebop, and swing: Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. They shared the Chi Chi stage with the big bands of Gus Arnheim, Xavier Cugat, and Louis Prima. Comedy shtick came in appreciable doses from Edgar Bergen, Red Skelton, Martha Raye, Jerry Lewis, Phyllis Diller, and Jackie Mason. The list goes on and on. . . .
“The Chi Chi opened in 1936 as the Desert Grill, a trendy café owned by Jack Freeman. Eventually, Freeman sold his financial interest in the profitable eatery to his business partner, Irwin Schuman, who revamped it as a fancy Polynesian-style restaurant and bar.
“Schuman christened his new venture Chi Chi Grill Cocktail Lounge — inspired by an exotic portrait of a topless Hawaiian girl painted by Edgar Leeteg he’d seen in an art gallery on a trip to Honolulu.
“The Chi Chi was not the first restaurant to use stylized recreations of palm-thatched roofs, tapa cloth, and velvet backdrops, but it was among the earliest and certainly one of the best when it opened in 1941. With an innate sense of style and showmanship, Schuman spent big bucks to indulge his customers’ fantasies of Balinese dancing girls and Fijian fire-eaters.
“Credit for the club’s name also has been attributed to Palm Springs artist Jack Church, who reportedly dubbed the painting 'the Chi Chi girl' because of her sexy expression. For good luck, Schuman displayed a copy of Leeteg’s portrait, Hina Rapa, on the wall of his cocktail lounge. Onlookers found the image of the smiling native girl so captivating that Schuman blithely had it reprinted on cocktail napkins, dishware, glasses, matchbooks, swizzle sticks, menus, and playing cards. These dinner-table items quickly became prized souvenirs.
“’I did not give Chi Chi permission to use my Hina Rapa to reproduce in any way,’ complained Leeteg in an angry letter from his home in Tahiti. ‘The least they could do is to give me a credit line, but that is too much to expect from a Hollywood gin mill.’”
The deck has 52 suited cards, plus a backed calendar card for the year 1947, and an unbacked card with bridge scoring on one side and the rules for gin rummy on the other. I assume that the deck had 1 Joker when issued, but that it has gone missing. All of the cards are standard Brown & Bigelow cards, and the Joker was no doubt a standard B&B Joker. The cards are bridge size, measuring 89mm x 58mm, and come in the original box.
The cards are in excellent condition, “as new” or nearly so. The box is in very good to excellent condition, with shelf wear at the corners, and it has retained its tax stamp. Like all of the dinner-table items at the Club, the deck is a coveted souvenir of a bygone era in Palm Springs -- for decades a desert playground for the Southern California rich and famous.
There is also a deck of these cards for sale in this shop that has its Joker (T00006378).
Thanks for visiting.
Brown & Bigelow “Chi Chi” Pin-Up Playing Cards (52/52, NJ), Edgar Leeteg “Hina Rapa", c.1946