The iconic Plaza Theatre opened in 1936 when it hosted the premiere of Greta Garbo’s film Camille. It was long used as a movie theater, and got a new life as the home of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies from 1991 until 2014. (See our recent CV History piece on the Follies.)
Since the Follies shut down, the Plaza has been mostly vacant, and its condition has deteriorated. Its continued existence was in question—until the Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation was founded, with aspirations of revitalizing the theater.
Today, the theater’s existence is no longer in question. In fact, it’s about to become a masterpiece.
Before renovations begin in earnest this summer, the Plaza is open every Tuesday evening from 7 to 8 p.m., through Tuesday, June 6, for a series of open houses that Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation board president J.R. Roberts is calling “Next Act.”
“‘Next Act’ was born out of a desire to get the community more involved,” Roberts said during a recent phone interview. “We’ve been working away, and we’ve been getting good coverage in the process, but we really wanted the community to come in, see the plans, see what it was going to be, offer their input, and hopefully help us finish up the fundraising, and help us with other things. We thought that anybody who’s interested can come in and talk to us, see a presentation, and also get a chance to see the theater before we start the work. They can sort of say farewell to the old shell, so that they have the before-and-after experience.”
The open house series comes on the heels of November’s big rock concert, dubbed Rock the Plaza, which featured a list of stand-out musicians with desert ties such as Spike Edney (tour musical director and keyboardist for Queen), Brian Ray (guitarist with Paul McCartney), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, The Cult), Alice Cooper, Josh Homme (Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age) and Paul Rodgers (Bad Company, Free). The event sold out and helped the foundation get closer to its $16 million fundraising goal.
The ”Next Act” series started in March, and Roberts said the response has been “fantastic.”
“I think we had something like 65 people in the theater last Tuesday,” he said. “It’s going really, really well, and the community is hugely enthusiastic about what we’re doing, and very supportive of the project. As somebody who’s been involved in municipal governance and public service and been elected, it is such a pleasure to be part of a project that is universally loved. That’s a rarity. For myself, and for my amazing board of directors, it’s so much fun, because we’ve had such success, and the community is turning out and helping financially. It’s important to them, apparently, that this theater gets done, and that it’s kept preserved.”
While the foundation is working with renowned preservation-architecture firm Architectural Resources Group, and already has plans and artist renderings for the renovation, Roberts said they’re taking suggestions for what people would like to see in the new era of the theater.
“What makes these open houses so much fun and so interesting is meeting like-minded people who are community-oriented and excited,” Roberts said. “They always bring us new questions, and they always bring us comments. We’re so thrilled that they challenge us, and they remind us of certain things—and we’ve taken a few of the ideas that we’ve heard, and we’ve incorporated them.
“We literally have an army of professionals working on this project with the architects and consultants, and we count on them and challenge them a lot, but the community comes in with other ideas, and reminds us about different groups that might be there, or different types of entertainment. They’ve asked us if we’ve considered the hearing impaired, or this or that, and it really helps.”
Roberts said Rock the Plaza was a vital part of building excitement around the Plaza Theatre’s future.
“Rock the Plaza was very important for two reasons: It showed us that the theater could be used and was desired for musical events, and it also brought so much press and so much community involvement,” Roberts said. “Today I was in the grocery store, and a man stopped me just to tell me how much he loved that event, and how excited he is about the theater. That particular event resonated with the community. Palm Springs is an older community, by and large, but that demographic could be changing, and I think by having a fun musical rock ’n’ roll event, it showed that the Plaza can do things that cater to younger people and families.
“Because of its size, it offers a real opportunity for people to participate. It’s 700 seats, and that’s a lot for a town of our size, so it becomes a meaningful venue in the scheme of things. … The Plaza always was really an important venue.”
When the renovated Plaza opens, it will feature diverse entertainment offerings—and honor its history by showing films.
“The Plaza was built as a movie theater; it was never designed for anything else,” Roberts said. “As tastes change, as lifestyles change and demographics change, so, too, does the theater. The theater will always honor the past, of course, with films, but the most exciting part is the growth for live theater, for live music. The theater has done that to a small degree in the past, but now it can be more of an ongoing, regular venue for live music and live performances, as well as lecture series. We’ll honor the history simply by expanding the programming that was always there and that people loved.”
Roberts said he’s excited about the Plaza’s future, after years of other people having doubts.
“This is not a dream anymore. This is happening,” Roberts said. “The Plaza Theatre will be fully restored to its original Hollywood glamor and splendor. We have $13.5 million towards our $16 million goal. We’re starting work this summer. This is real.”
The “Next Act” series of open houses takes place every at 7 p.m., every Tuesday, through June 6, at the Plaza Theatre, 128 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. For more information, visit savetheplazatheatreps.com.