For Mayor Max, serving a lifetime appointment as the leader of Idyllwild is a full-time job. “The mayor’s out in the public every day and on weekends,” says his chief of staff, Phyllis Mueller. “We just do kind and loving things for people. But we do it all day long.”
That’s a lot of work for a 9-year-old golden retriever. Yes, the official mayor of the quirky mountain community of Idyllwild — nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains towering over Palm Springs — is a dog, the perfect mascot for an unincorporated town that prides itself on creativity and community. “We don’t have local politicians except for Mayor Max,” Mueller says. “If we need something done, we create a group and get it done.”
This creative, community spirit is increasingly drawing folks in the entertainment business who are looking for a rural retreat or a fresh start. Maureen Jones of Lily Rock Realty, who has lived in Idyllwild for 57 years, has seen the pandemic accelerate the area’s popularity. “We have seen an incredible increase from Los Angeles as well as other communities since COVID. Many of our buyers are looking to make Idyllwild their primary home,” she says.
Inventory is low and demand is high in Idyllwild, which is surrounded by protected state and national forests. In 2020-21, prices went up by 32.3 percent over the previous year, and they are predicted to increase by about 20 percent in 2022. “The lowest-priced home in our MLS [recently] was $439,900,” says Jones, noting that the number of listings on the local multiple listing service is often less than 20.
But Hollywood’s passion for Idyllwild, though growing, is nothing new. A cool two hours’ drive from Los Angeles, it has long been a laid-back refuge for stars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra. Laura Dern has shared that she was conceived in Idyllwild when her parents were making the 1966 film The Wild Angels. For decades, artists, musicians and writers including Ansel Adams, Woody Guthrie and jazz musician Marshall Hawkins have been drawn to Idyllwild’s Pine Cove area, whose population now sits at 2,500. Last year, David Dastmalchian shared a photo on a getaway trip to the area with friends, posting, “Sometimes u just gotta vanish w people u love into a cabin in the mountains.”
Says Mueller, “It’s like a big family. And people go to the grocery store and the post office in their pajamas.”
According to writer-producer Angelina Burnett (Halt and Catch Fire), this spirit of togetherness goes back centuries. “It was the summer home for the Cahuillas. … It was the place they all gathered in the summer when it was too hot down in the desert because you could see … their entire territory,” she says. “There is Tahquitz Rock, which is the big rock you can see from town that is this really spiritual, important place in their culture and tribe. I’ve always joked that there’s a magnet in that rock. When you go there, it flips your polarity, and you’re forever drawn back to it.”
Despite its reputation as a rustic haven for artists and creators — it’s also home to the Idyllwild Arts Academy boarding school and an annual film festival — the area was until recently one of Southern California’s best kept secrets. “Probably 15 years ago I was like, ‘Idyllwild is seconds away from becoming the hip place where L.A. people go,’ ” Burnett says. “I need to get my shit together and buy up a few cabins and get rid of all the knotty pine and the baskets on the walls and turn them into hip, midcentury-modern places. I just couldn’t get the money together … I’m totally kicking myself because five years later … exactly that.”
One relatively new full-time resident is TV writer Jayne Hamil, who grew up vacationing in Idyllwild and attending programs at the art school. “We used to have campfires and Pete Seeger would play and sing and we’d toast marshmallows,” she recalls. “There is a wonderful family atmosphere that kind of envelops you when you get up here.”
After her long career writing for shows including The Nanny and Still Standing, Hamil and her husband were ready for a change. “I was pretty much retired by then,” she says. “Everything I was doing was just over the internet. We said, ‘Why are we still in Los Angeles?’ And we were sort of looking around the L.A. area, and for $800,000 you could get a house in Sylmar next door to a meth lab. So we went, ‘Well, wait a minute.’ We started looking up here and almost immediately found something. In 2018, we moved up here and we’ve never looked back.”
Many new buyers face the burden of expensive fire insurance, but they find that Idyllwild is still more affordable than other nearby retreats. When a screenwriter based in Echo Park (who prefers to remain private when it comes to real estate) was searching for a second home, she found a ’70s A-frame with a big deck. “You definitely get more for your money,” she says. “One of our wish-list items was a sense of privacy, which sounds like not that big of a deal, but in a more built-up area is pretty hard to come by unless you’re buying a compound or something.”
Adds Burnett, “It’s just a really incredible way to slow down. The stars are unbelievable. You never get stars like that in the city.”
This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.