Date gardens were once plentiful throughout Southern California's Coachella Valley, but during the 1990s real estate boom, many of them disappeared. Luckily for date lovers, the historic Shields Date Garden remains.
Driving east on the 111, the Old Gene Autry highway, you leave Palm Springs behind and head toward Indio. Up ahead, the road shimmers in the heat. Then, like a mirage, the sign appears -- an enormous knight, dressed in blue armor -- his outstretched finger points you towards Shields Date Garden.
"Dates hate humidity. They love it dry and they love it hot and that's definitely what you get here," Mark Goulet says.
Goulet is general manager of the garden, which was founded by Floyd and Bess Shields in 1924. As it turned out, Floyd Shields was a master at marketing dates. And the variety of dates sold at Shields is impressive.
"We have the Medjools, the Bahris, the Khadrawis, the Zahidis, the Deglet Noor and we have the Black Abbada date, just to name a few," Goulet says.
Shields was also big on educating people about date culture. Early on, he spoke while giving customers tours of the garden. As his talks grew in popularity, they evolved into the movie, "The Romance and Sex Life Of The Date." Narrated by Shields, the 15-minute-long movie -- strictly G-rated, despite its racy title -- plays on a non-stop loop in a vintage theater located inside the garden's store. The movie, along with a visit by two of the world's biggest celebrities of the time, helped put Shields garden on the map.
"Bing Crosby and Bob Hope had a sitcom in L.A. And during the '50s they had come down here to see the 'Romance and Sex Life of the Date' movie," Goulet says. "After they had announced it on their show that they had visited here, the movie theater was full every day for three years."
Rounding out the 1950s-era theme is an old-fashioned soda fountain, complete with red swivel stools, where customers sit and sip on Shields' award-winning date shakes. Vivian Beutel is visitiing from Ventura, California.
"As I walked in it was kind of funky, it was cool," Beutel says. "I went ahead and ordered a date shake and it was fabulous. Very refreshing."
Besides their amazing array of dates and date confections, Shields sells citrus, nuts and local honey -- along with a particular item you won't find anywhere else. Connie Maslin, visiting from Las Vegas, is a repeat customer.
"Actually what brought me in, I needed to get a booklet on the sex life of the date," says Beutel. "Because my sister-in-law didn't know that dates grew on palm trees. I knew just where to come."