Earle Strebe. Courtesy of the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

The honor of receiving the first star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars went not to a big-name entertainer like Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra. Instead, it went to a person hardly known outside of Palm Springs, Earle C. Strebe.

When the Walk of Stars was launched in 1992, the first seven inductees were all people who contributed to the fame of Palm Springs: Bob Hope, Ginger Rogers, Ralph Bellamy, Charlie Farrell, Ruby Keeler, William Powell and Earle Strebe—and the No. 1 star honoring Strebe is directly in front of the historic Plaza Theatre.

That’s undeniably where the star belongs—in front of the theater established by Strebe. While Strebe himself was not in motion pictures, he was responsible for bringing them to the people of the Coachella Valley, and his Palm Springs Plaza Theatre was one of eight movie theaters he owned and operated. 

Born in 1906 in Indiana, Earle Strebe came to Palm Springs during the 1926-27 winter after one year at Butler University, where he was unable to fulfill his basketball scholarship due to an enlarged heart.

He was playing football on the grounds of The Desert Inn when owner Earl Coffman came out, talked Strebe for a while and offered him a job on the spot, that of bellman/night clerk. Strebe went on to perform numerous duties at The Desert Inn, ranging from waiter to bookkeeper.

Strebe began showing movies to guests in the lobby with an old Bell and Howell projector, and soon made a deal with Coffman to operate a movie business in the hotel. As his audiences grew, Strebe moved the “theater” venue to the Frances Stevens School (where the Palm Canyon Theatre now is located). In fact, teacher Katherine Finchy helped collect tickets.

Strebe built the town’s first movie theater just south of Frances Stevens Park, across Alejo Road. According to former Mayor Frank Bogert, “Everybody went every night. There wasn’t much to do at night.”

In 1930, Strebe married Frances Bunker, the daughter of Bunker’s Garage owner Zaddie Bunker. Frances, who was then 24, had just graduated from Los Angeles Osteopathic College and began practicing medicine in Palm Springs.

Over the years, Strebe became a businessman and developer, and helped his mother-in-law, Zaddie, manage her properties—but his primary love was the movies. In 1932, he built the Village Theater in downtown Palm Springs, an enterprise which remained in business until 1980.

In the 1920s and 1930s, some movie stars went to nearby Lake Arrowhead for the summer—and Strebe followed them and built the first movie theaters in that town, too. Over the years, he would open eight movie theatres throughout Southern California. He owned three in the mountains—in Lake Arrowhead, Crestline and Big Bear—and one at the beach, along with the short-lived Rancho Theater, the El Paseo Theater, the Village Theater (aka the Palm Springs Theater) and the jewel of his chain, the Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs. 

The state-of-the-art Plaza Theatre opened on Dec. 12, 1936, with the premiere of Camille starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Some say the enigmatic Garbo herself attended the opening incognito, wearing blue jeans and a shawl over her head. Before the showing, it is claimed that she went to Strebe’s office and introduced herself, but requested that Strebe respect her anonymity and that he not announce her presence—a request with which he complied.

The Plaza was a popular theater during the 1940s for famous stars to do their broadcasting. Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Amos ’n’ Andy all did radio shows from the Plaza, bringing national attention to downtown Palm Springs.

The historic Plaza Theatre served Palm Springs well for decades. In 1992, Riff Markowitz opened the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a lively high-stepping show that brought folks in by the busloads, until 2014. Since then, the theater has not been used much, and is currently the subject of a campaign to raise funds for its restoration. It’s slated to be used as part of the first Oasis Music Festival later this month.

The Plaza during the Follies era. Credit: Greg Niemann

Over the years, Strebe was quick to open his theaters for community activities and charity events. He was also eager and willing to help his community, heading the chamber of commerce, and serving on the Palm Springs City Council for years. An unassuming and modest man, Strebe was extremely well liked. “He was the nicest guy you could have ever met,” Bogert once said.

Earle’s brother George Strebe and wife, Ethel, owned The Doll House, among the most famous restaurant/nightclubs in the valley.

Along with his theaters, Earle Strebe owned and managed much of the property in downtown Palm Springs, and was instrumental in a great deal of the town’s development.

He died in 1994 at the age of 88 at home after a long bout with cancer. He and Frances were together for 64 years and lived in the same Palm Springs home for 50 years. She died in 1996 at age 89. They had three daughters.

Of his death in 1994, entertainer Phil Harris of nearby Palm Desert said, “He always had the theaters, and he was always active in promoting Palm Springs. He did a lot for that town. He was a beautiful man.”

Sources for this article include Portrait of the Stars by Gerhard G. Franzel (Palm Springs Walk of Stars, 1999); Nellie’s Boardinghouse by Marjorie B. Bright (ETC Publications, 1981); Palm Springs: Why I Love You, by Tony Burke (Palmesa Inc., 1978); and Palm Springs Legends by Greg Niemann (Sunbelt Publications, 2006).

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Greg Niemann

Greg Niemann is a Palm Springs-based author with five published books: Baja Fever (Mountain ’N’ Air), Baja Legends (Sunbelt Publications), Palm Springs Legends (Sunbelt), Big Brown: The Untold Story...

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