Performers and fans all agree: The absence of performing arts during the pandemic truly sucked.
“I know a lot of my friends and other actors in town who went through a serious depression when this was taken away, because this is such a big part of so many people’s personalities and their lives and mental state,” said Robbie Wayne, the artistic director of the Desert Rose Playhouse. “When it’s just taken away without warning for so long, it wears on people—so that was part of my drive. I was focused on knowing that we could get back to business here soon, and I wanted to be ready for it as soon as we could. That’s what I thought every day.”
Wayne’s drive—shared by managing director Matthew McLean, who is also Wayne’s fiancé—led Desert Rose to not only move to a bigger, better location during the pandemic; it led Desert Rose to become the first local theater company to put on a full, live production since the shutdowns.
On the heels of that first production—a successful two-week run of The Miss Firecracker Contest—the theater is slated to open The Great American Trailer Park Musical on Thursday, July 22, for a three-week run. That show will be followed The Rocky Horror Show, which will be performed Aug. 26 to Sept. 12.
“It’s surreal,” Wayne said. “It’s been exciting, exhausting, scary, funny—you name it. It’s been a whole spectrum of emotions with everything.”
Christine Michele was part of The Miss Firecracker Contest cast, and is set to return as Columbia in The Rocky Horror Show.
“Definitely the best feeling in the world for me is to be back onstage,” Michele said.
After the pandemic hit—shutting down Desert Rose’s March 2020 production of Beautiful Thing after just one weekend—Wayne and McLean decided they had no choice but to leave the Rancho Mirage space Desert Rose had called home since 2012.
“Our old space was just too small to be able to do anything,” Wayne said. “Even now (due to pandemic precautions), we wouldn’t be able to go in there and have shows, because it had 8-foot ceilings, and it only sat about 75 people. It was a very small, intimate space, which we loved at the time, but when we gave it up, it was because we were paying rent for a building that we couldn’t use for months at a time. That’s after refunding all the tickets for the shows we’d canceled, and also not getting our money back for the show that we had produced, and any of the licensing fees that we’d lost.
“We were packing up to go into a storage facility, and Matthew McLean saw this ‘for rent’ sign suddenly pop up at Zelda’s—literally, like, the week before. We put out a video (asking for help), and the community is what made it happen. In 10 days, we had enough to sign the lease and get started on the project. … We’ve put a lot into it monetarily, but the project’s much bigger than us, so it took the whole community—and we couldn’t let them down. It was a matter of integrity when it came down to it, because we had told everybody that this is what we’re doing, and we took their money and invested it into this building, and we couldn’t just say, ‘Oh, well, sorry, it didn’t work out.’ That wasn’t an option.”
After a year of hard work converting the shuttered nightclub into the new Desert Rose Playhouse, Wayne and McLean set their sights on a June grand opening with The Miss Firecracker Contest. However, they came close to a last-minute postponement when the June 23 opening date arrived.
Make that very close.
“We weren’t planning on being that late in the game; we were supposed to open on Wednesday, and on Tuesday, they came in to do the final inspection,” Wayne said. “We thought everything would go fine, but they uncovered an exit door that Zelda’s had sealed shut that opened inward, had no panic hardware, and was dead-bolted. They told us that we couldn’t open until this got fixed. This thing was literally glued into place with a deadbolt on it. When I heard that, my heart sank, because we’ve been working on this place since August of last year. This was the final thing we needed to get done, and they were telling us that we couldn’t open until we got a door that was on backorder for four weeks. I saw everything that we had been trying to do go down the tubes, all at once.
“I got on the internet—this was at 9 o’clock in the morning (on Tuesday)—and I called everybody in Southern California that could possibly carry this door. Everyone said that it was backordered for three to four weeks, so we were going to have to refund all of our tickets. It would have been the death of us, because we’re at the end of our finances now. … I just kept going; I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I found this guy in San Clemente. He had the door, but he didn’t have the frame that it fits into. I told him my situation, and he said, ‘Well, you’ve got a 2 1/2 hour drive. I’ll fabricate it for you while you’re on the road.’ So that Tuesday afternoon, I went and got it, and we had it installed Wednesday morning, and passed the fire inspection at 2 o’clock. It was literally that close.”
Wayne and McLean were not only feeling pressure to make sure the building was ready; they also felt compelled to put on a good first show.
“We didn’t even know how to set up the seats; we’ve never done a show there,” Wayne said. “All of the lighting, we had to take down and service it, and then reinstall it in a theater setting rather than a nightclub setting, and then add all the equipment that we had as well. Every day, we’re finding little tweaks and things where we say, ‘Oh, we didn’t think about this,’ or, ‘We didn’t think about that sideline,’ or, ‘We didn’t think about how this curtain’s going to fall and how this is going to open.’ We’re learning the space as we’re putting on a show.
“I don’t know why—I guess because I’m crazy—but I put everything into building the actual theater, then directed and produced the show, and also am in the show. It’s like, ‘What was I thinking?’ But I’m glad I did it, because it’s been really rewarding. … It has been a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. It’s starting to subside a little bit now that we’ve got the doors open, but it has definitely been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
The Miss Firecracker Contest was a fairly simple, straightforward show, with few special effects and not a lot of special lighting. Wayne said the theater would ramp things up with future productions.
“We’re going to pull out all the stops and show them everything we’ve got, in every light I can possibly show,” Wayne said. “I’m going to pull out the fog machine, the LED wall and our rain curtain. We just want to show everybody that this place can literally do anything. It’s got the makings and the technology of a Broadway theater.”
Michele said she found performing in the new space to be incredibly exciting.
“You can do so much in that theater, with so many shows,” Michele said. “It’s seriously one of the best theater venues we have out here, besides McCallum Theatre, obviously.”
While Wayne has an ambitious slate of shows scheduled for 2021, he’s also got his eyes set on 2022, which will be a special year for the playhouse.
“We’ve got The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Xanadu, Rocky Horror, Hedwig and the Angry Itch and Christmas With the Crawfords,” Wayne said. “Next year is our 10-year anniversary, so we’re doing a lot of reprise productions and bringing back some of the best stuff, like the first production I ever directed for Desert Rose Playhouse. Rocky Horror has been the one that really kind of started the buzz again. Everybody asked me about Rocky, and we’re really looking forward to it, because we’re going to pull out all the stops on that one. I think everybody is really going to be surprised and very happy with what we have in mind for that production.”
The Desert Rose Playhouse will perform The Great American Trailer Park Musical, from Thursday, July 22, through Sunday, Aug. 8, and The Rocky Horror Show, from Thursday, Aug. 26 through Sunday, Sept. 12, at 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 15, in Palm Springs. Tickets start at $34. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.