Burnt Mountain once hot spot for Rat Pack parties

By Jimmy Biggerstaff / Hi-Desert Star


Helicopters transiting the Morongo Basin to and from the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, and California Highway Patrol choppers are a common sight in the sky here. But to see a helicopter land on a private heliport atop Burnt Mountain and discharge a bevy of celebrities would tend to turn heads, especially in the early and mid 1960s.

The estate on top of Burnt Mountain in Sky Harbor is known locally as the Van Heusen house for its builder and original owner, songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, who won Academy Awards for such memorable classics as "Swingin' On a Star" in 1944, "All the Way" in 1957, "High Hopes" in 1959 and "Call Me Irresponsible" in 1963.

An old real estate ad lists the property as a "party place for the Rat Pack," because Frank Sinatra and his closest crooner cronies came here to escape from Palm Springs to the relative cool of the 3,800-foot hilltop hideaway.

In the late 1960s San Bernardino County sheriff's detective Roger Melanson responded to the residence to investigate a report that a helicopter had gone over the edge of the helipad. Flying the aircraft was a Federal Aviation Administration official, and the passenger was actor Dick Simmons, perhaps best known for his role as Sgt. Preston of the Yukon in a 1950s television series of the same name.

Van Heusen also lent his horses to the sheriff's department's mounted posse. "I took a liking to him and he took a liking to me," Melanson said of his friendship with the songwriter. Melanson did some jobs like fencework around Van Heusen's ranch, which led to Van Heusen's offer for the Melanson family to move into the house while Van Heusen was living in New York.

From 1970 to 1972 Melanson and his wife, Marilyn, lived in Van Heusen's house with their eight kids, ages 5 to 17. "I was Catholic and careless," Melanson said, jokingly. "I turned Jimmy's bedroom into a bunk house for my six boys, three sets of bunk beds. He thought that was pretty funny. He was a very nice guy, my wife's idol."

During Marilyn's recovery from cancer surgery, Van Heusen visited his house and played their piano, an old upright from the Golden Stallion Chinese restaurant in Pioneertown.

"Jimmy called me from New York one day and asked if I would show his place to a prospective buyer. Guy by the name of William Holden," recalled Melanson.

The well-known actor came and took a look around, but said it wasn't what he was looking for. The steep, winding road to the hilltop house "cost me a transmission," Melanson said of his two years there.

In later years the house was acquired by Jim and Rene Evers with the idea of opening a dinner club called "A Private Affaire," which they hoped would become "a community country club for gourmets." A 1979 newspaper story announced the formation of an advisory board to develop the Scenic Mountain Club. Alas, records at the Morongo Basin Historical Society note that the property foreclosed in 1983.

The residence was home to a series of caretakers until restaurant owner Wolfgang Maschler acquired the property and lived there until his death in 2003. The house and more than 50 acres is currently for sale.