The city of Palm Springs left the historic Plaza Theatre vacant and dilapidated for years. The movement to save the theater only began in earnest in 2019 … and then COVID hit.
Now it’s late 2022, and the theater is hosting Rock the Plaza, a concert featuring some of rock’s biggest names. Palm Springs residents Spike Edney (tour musical director and keyboardist for Queen), Brian Ray (guitarist with Paul McCartney) and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, The Cult) are bringing together Alice Cooper, Josh Homme, Paul Rodgers and others for an amazing, sold-out night of music, at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11.
The Plaza Theatre is arguably Palm Springs’ most historic building. After opening in 1936, it was a movie theater and a popular location for radio shows. In 1992, it became the home of the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a Palm Springs staple. Since the Follies closed in 2014, the theater has rarely been used.
So … how did the Plaza Theatre go from neglected, to being the subject of a movement to save it, to having that movement almost die, to now hosting a star-studded event that could be the venue’s final show before closing for restoration? Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation board president J.R. Roberts told the story during a recent phone interview.
“When I left office in 2019, I had dinner with our former city manager, who was a good friend of mine,” Roberts said. “He challenged me to do a legacy project, since I was leaving office, and my response to him was, ‘Haven’t I done enough? What did you have in mind?’ He said, ‘What about the Plaza Theatre?’”
It seemed like a perfect fit, since Roberts is an architect with a passion for architectural preservation.
“Palm Springs is a city that people come from all over the world to look at, to admire and love its history. That’s our brand,” Roberts said. “Modernism Week is our most successful event—and the most beautiful gem was boarded up. Before I left office, I was sort of appointed or anointed to raise the money to do this, and then the city would support it as an action to support the restoration of the theater, rather than leasing it out to someone. We got on a decent roll; we got about $500,000 committed.
“And then COVID hit, and everything came down.”
The Plaza Theatre project was stuck—“just sort of sitting there idling,” as Roberts put it. “Then one of the early donors contacted me, and he asked me what was going on. This was a guy who is in the film and television business. His name is David Lee, and he was the guy who wrote TV shows like Frasier and The Jeffersons. He literally just called me and asked what was going on, and he asked me what my involvement was. I said, ‘I don’t know, probably nothing anymore. I don’t know if the city will ever really support this, and I can’t spend my life raising the kind of money that we would need to do it.’ Without missing a beat, he said, ‘What if I gave you $5 million?’ At that time, our goal was about $12 million to restore the theater; we’ve since raised it to $16 million (due to cost increases). My actual answer to him was, ‘I’m a prostitute for my charities; I’ll do nearly anything. You could have had me at a mil.’
“We went to the city with this; they liked it. I decided to commit to it, and we’ve relaunched. On that same phone call, I said, ‘I’ll do it, but you can’t just be the rich guy who writes a check. I’m going to create a foundation, and I want you on it, and you have to continue helping me.’ He agreed, and he has been fantastic. As of right now, we have over $12 million committed to the Plaza Theatre. It’s a remarkable turnaround, and we all live sort of in shock and gratitude about what has happened.”
The Rock the Plaza concept came from Kyle Verwers and her husband, Spike Edney.
“We’re sort of long-term visitors and part-time residents, so we’ve had a property in Palm Springs since 2016, but we came every winter for many years before that, and we used to enjoy going to see the Follies,” Edney said. “When it closed down, I was saddened, but also quite excited to see what was going to happen (to the Plaza), because I thought, ‘There must be a plan; somebody’s going to have an idea, and we’re only going to wait for 18 months or two years.’”
Verwers and Edney eventually realized, before COVID-19, that there was no plan.
“Kyle said to me, ‘Why don’t we think about putting on a gig here?’” Edney said. “I have a band in the UK called Spike’s All Stars; that is basically a multi-artist house-band setup, and we do charity shows and corporate gigs. We were the house band for Nelson Mandela when he used to have concerts on his birthday in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Putting on an event with many singers is something we’re very comfortable doing, so we thought we’ll just bring that expertise here. We went to J.R. and said, ‘What about this? Our area is rock ’n’ roll; that’s what we know, so why don’t we do something here?’ The only problem with that is that we come here on holiday, not for work, so I don’t have any contacts here.”
Well, it turns out that many rock stars live in the Coachella Valley—and many of them have an interest in the Plaza Theatre.
“The next thing was to talk to local people,” said Edney. “We did have one friend here; that’s Paul Rodgers, iconic singer of Bad Company and Free. He’s been a good friend; he sang with Queen for a couple of years, and he lives down the road from us. I said, ‘Look, if I put this on, will you come on board?’ And he said, ‘Of course; I love the theater, and I want to see it flourish.’ I called people I knew such as Eric Singer from Kiss, and Teddy Andreadis, who’s one of the keyboard players who played with Guns N’ Roses, and they said, ‘Of course,’ which was fantastic to hear. We needed some local people as well, and I was introduced to Brian Ray of McCartney’s band, and he said, ‘Of course.’”
Then came COVID-19.
“So everything’s … shut down for two years—and now we’re back,” Edney said. “I promptly went on tour with Queen for the summer, so I had to sort of vacate the position and allow all those guys to start doing what they do, so they managed to recruit Alice Cooper, Orianthi and Josh Homme through local contacts. There have been tireless hours spent, and many midnight oils burnt, doing much more.”
This will hopefully be the final Rock the Plaza event before the theater is closed for renovations—but Verwers said she hopes it’s just the first of many Rock the Plaza events overall.
“We’ve all kind of talked over time about this vision of putting Palm Springs back on the map, like it was when the Rat Pack was in full swing,” she said. “I think the thing about Rock the Plaza is you have these local residents, who all have international recognition, coming together with this group of world-class musicians to save this small-town historic theater. I think it’s kind of the romanticism of that, but also the vision of what it could be. We think it’s great that the city has kind of held on to it, and has not just given it to one of these big conglomerates to run it, because they want it to be available. … When Spike and I kind of did this, we thought, once we do this launch, and the theater is up and running, we can do a series of shows called Rock the Plaza, and bring in international rock stars to do shows. … Our little theater has just gone global, basically, and it is going to be the premier entertainment center. Because of its size, the intimacy and location, it’s got a magic about it. Big-name stars are going to love doing intimate concerts there”
Rock the Plaza will take place at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11, at the Plaza Theatre, 128 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are sold out, but VIP packages are available. For more information, visit savetheplazatheatreps.com.