Sonny Bono’s Palm Springs Legacy: Actor Turned Politcian

Sonny & Cher

Sonny Bono was once mayor of Palm Springs. Yes, that Sonny Bono. Cher’s Sonny, of ‘I Got You Babe’. He left his mark on the city in other ways too. Ever heard of the Palm Springs International Film Festival? Yup, that was Sonny. He also served two terms in Congress for our region.

You may think of this as the guy in bell-bottoms next to Cher. But, Salvatore Phillip Bono was a part of creating the chic Palm Spring vibe we all know and love.

California has had its fair share of actors turned politicians. Ronald Reagan became president. The Terminator became the Governator. (We’re talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Even Clint Eastwood got into the act, and by act, we mean politics. He was mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea in the late 80’s. It only makes sense then, that Palm Springs should have a famous mayor too. And Boy, did we get one.

Why Politics?

What would lead a rock star/actor like Sonny Bono to enter the world of politics? At one point, Sonny and Cher were so popular, that they had five hit singles on the top 20 Billboard charts at the same time. Well, it all stemmed from Sonny’s struggle to open a restaurant in town. He had been a part-time resident for three years. And like many, decided to make the shift to full-time. A restaurant would be his new economic anchor in the city. Bono’s Italian restaurant opened in 1986 at 1700 North Indian Canyon Drive. But, not without a fight. There were, among other disputes, issues with the size of his sign that left Bono feeling the need to get more involved in local politics.

Sonny’s Road to Fame

Bono was born on February 16, 1935, in Detroit Michigan. His parents, Santo and Jean Bono were poor immigrants from Sicily. They relocated to Los Angeles when Sonny was 7. Sonny chose to drop out of high school to try and develop his songwriting skills. He did this while working as a butcher’s helper, a construction worker, a truck driver, and a waiter.

After a few years, Sonny became a singer/songwriter with Specialty Records where he had the opportunity to work with Sam Cooke and Little Richard. After getting involved with Phil Specter, he wrote his own songs and sang background for the Righteous Brothers and other notable groups.

His career took off full steam when he met Cherilyn “Cher” Sarkisian in 1963. Sonny and Cher are nearly always used in the same sentence. Their hit “I Got You Babe,” which was released in 1965, will remain ingrained in our hearts and minds forever.


Cher was born May 20, 1946, in El Centro California. Cher had dark hair and equally dark eyes making her an exotic looking woman. She was raised by her mother and grew up with her half-sister Georgann. Cher got involved in acting as part of her extracurricular activities.

At 16, feeling the pull of arts and entertainment, Cher moved to Hollywood to pursue her career in acting and music. As luck would have it, Cher met Sonny at a coffee shop. Starting out as a professional/platonic relationship, the two didn’t have romantic feelings right away. But after working together for a stint, that changed and the two were married on October 27, 1964. Their only child, Chaz Bono was born in 1969.

 “I Got You Babe” was the single that made Sonny and Cher known world-wide. The song was released in 1965. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Show debuted in 1971 and ended in 1974.

After their divorce in 1975, Cher pursued her career in acting. And Sonny decided to take a break from Hollywood and get some sun in the desert.

Sonny’s Palm Springs Legacy

It All Begins with the Restaurant

The idea of Bono’s began as a dinner table dare.  One night, Bono, his then-wife Susie, and his business associate E.J. Steinke were chatting over an Italian meal. Sonny boasted that he could make the food better, his business partner told him he should open his own restaurant.

Isn’t this how all good ideas start, over dinner with friends? Isn’t this how all bad ideas start, over dinner with friends? You can start the story of Sonny’s restaurant journey with either of those sentences. Sometimes, events that start off on the wrong foot lead us in new directions. Without his early battles with City Hall, Bono would never have become mayor, then a congressman. He would never have started the Film Festival. Palm Springs was a very important inflection point in Bono’s life.

Film Fest

In 1989, Sonny envisioned an International Film Festival that would bring back the Hollywood glamour that seemed to have disappeared from the area at that time. In the beginning years, this was just a small, casual affair with no A-listers or major stars. The festival would accept as many films as it could get its hands on. His newly envisioned film festival would be the only place in the Coachella Valley that was showing foreign films during that period. But, the first year proved that there was an appetite for film in the Valley. Sonny was overjoyed at the turn out at the premiere in 1990 with 17,500 people in attendance.

As of today, the International Film Festival has attracted major stars and is recognized worldwide every year. This festival comes in third worldwide in terms of number of attendees.

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge

The Salton Sea Recreation Park is located 40 miles north of the Mexican Border in the Imperial Valley. This unique park sits on the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory route for birds and sits more than 230 feet below sea level. Yes, you read that correctly. The park is 20-stories below sea level. It’s California’s largest lake and requires a delicate dance of managing water inflow while conserving what’s already there. Part of the Salton Sea is in the same congressional district as Palm Springs. So, cleaning up the lake became one of Sonny’s primary issues. In 1998, the refuge was named in Sonny’s honor.

The Sonny Bono Statue

Tourists love taking pictures next to the Sonny Bono statue located in the Mercado Plaza on Palm Canyon Drive in downtown Palm Springs. The bronze statue of Bono has him casually sitting on the side of a beautiful fountain. The sound of the water is both calming and inviting, making visitors want to stand or sit next to Sonny. You can sit next to him and get a shot like you’re best friends.

Sonny’s Star on Walk of Fame

Sonny was an internationally known actor and politician. In our book, that deserves a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. His star is located at the northwest corner of Palm Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way.

Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City

Sonny Bono’s final resting place is in Memorial Park in Cathedral City. His headstone reads “And the Beat Goes on”. Visiting is just a short drive away. This cemetery is located 31705 Da Vall Drive, just seven miles south of Palm Springs. Sonny is among 2,000 other people including other celebrities like Frank Sinatra and William Powell. It’s worth a visit to see what other celebrities’ final resting places you can spot.

Airport Concourse

On November 4, 1999, in honor of the singer/actor/politician, the Palm Springs Airport added the Sonny Bono Concourse to accommodate the growing amount of travelers. It’s an open-air concourse with a dramatic tent-like sunscreen above. It makes for one of the most traveler-friendly airport experiences in the country. If you fly into town, you’ll encounter it. Take a second and enjoy a warm desert breeze and a cool drink.

If you Drive into Town

If you’ve driven into town from most other cities in California, you’ll likely arrive via the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway. This 40-mile stretch of road starts just west of Highway 111 and runs all the way to Dillon Road in Coachella.

The Bono Estate

The last residence of Sonny Bono is located at 294 West Crestview Drive. You can’t visit the interior. In fact, we encourage you no to disturb the current occupants. But a quick drive-by couldn’t hurt, right?

This is a 5 bedroom, 7 bath estate home. The estate sits on a 1.5 acre lot. Before it was Sonny’s home, it was part of the larger King Camp Gillette estate. (Think Gillette razors).

There are three houses on the property totaling almost 9,000 square feet of living space. The main house has 6,684 square feet of living space. In addition to three-bedroom suites, the formal living room offers an amazing view of the pool and mountains. The kitchen is big enough to get lost in. There is also a formal dining room for entertaining.

Also, on the grounds is a two bedroom guest house measuring about 1,600 square feet, and a fully equipped kitchen, living room, dining room, and fireplace.

The smaller guest house is perfect for one, with its 740 square feet.

Sonny was an important person in Palm Springs’ history. Take a minute to consider his legacy while you soak up some sun.

Have you visited the Sonny Bono statue? Tell us your thoughts and show us your pictures @XPLORzine on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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