Campaign to save Plaza Theatre in Palm Springs nears finish

In a 1930s shopping plaza in downtown Palm Springs, restaurants with bustling outdoor patios flank a walkway leading to the quiet Plaza Theatre, which is tidy but devoid of life.

It didn’t used to be that way. The theater’s first incarnation, from 1936 to 1989, was as a movie house with occasional live entertainment. Then came “The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies,” a Broadway-style show with semi-retired performers that ran from 1991 to 2014.

For nearly a decade, the 800-seat theater at 128 S. Palm Canyon Drive has sat largely dormant, awaiting its third act.

That dream is nearer to reality. The nonprofit Plaza Theatre Foundation has raised $14.5 million of the needed $16.2 million to renovate the city-owned theater. Bids may go out as early as June, with construction starting this fall for a reopening by the end of 2024.

A former councilman, J.R. Roberts, is leading the campaign.

“It’s the only project I’ve ever worked on,” Roberts marvels, “that has 100% support. There aren’t even any internet trolls. It’s like a Sara Lee cheesecake. Nobody doesn’t like the Plaza.”

  • Two visitors eye the 1936 Plaza Theatre and the banners...

    Two visitors eye the 1936 Plaza Theatre and the banners and posters touting its hoped-for “next act” on a recent morning. A campaign to raise money for its renovation and reopening as a performing arts venue is nearing its goal. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • People pass by the Plaza Theatre and its vertical sign...

    People pass by the Plaza Theatre and its vertical sign on busy Palm Canyon Drive, the main drag in Palm Springs. Yet the theater, which dates to 1936 and is part of the La Plaza dining and retail development, has been largely dormant since 2014. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Ornate light fixtures and decorated wooden beams give character to...

    Ornate light fixtures and decorated wooden beams give character to the lobby of the Plaza Theatre in Palm Springs. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Patrons lined up at the ticket booth for “Detective Story,”...

    Patrons lined up at the ticket booth for “Detective Story,” a 1951 crime drama starring Kirk Douglas, at the Plaza Theatre in Palm Springs. (Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society)

  • The Plaza Theatre as it appeared during the run of...

    The Plaza Theatre as it appeared during the run of 1984’s “The Natural.” The freestanding ticket booth in the forecourt was removed in 1977, an act that so alarmed the mayor that Palm Springs created a historic preservation ordinance. (Courtesy Palm Springs Historical Society)

  • A rendering to illustrate what the renovated Plaza Theatre will...

    A rendering to illustrate what the renovated Plaza Theatre will look like, with the ceiling’s original star-field effect restored. (Courtesy Plaza Theatre Foundation)

  • J.R. Roberts is leading the campaign to rescue the Plaza...

    J.R. Roberts is leading the campaign to rescue the Plaza Theatre in Palm Springs. The 800-seat theater, whose interior design is meant to evoke a Mexican village, opened in 1936 and closed in 2014. More than $14 million has been raised to update and restore the theater. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)



As a devotee of old theaters, I’ve walked admiringly past the Plaza, noted the “Save the Plaza Theatre” banners and checked out the website to learn more. With the campaign nearing its goal, I contacted Roberts, who agreed to give me a tour and fill me in.

On a sunny Monday morning, Roberts rides up on a bicycle for our appointment at the 1936 theater. In a contrast to the Midcentury Modern style that is Palm Springs’ signature, the Plaza is in Spanish Colonial Revival, with an arched entry, a red-tiled roof and lantern-like light fixtures in the lobby.

Inside the auditorium, the walls have an adobe look with a relief that evokes a Mexican village. The dark ceiling originally had twinkling lights to make you feel as if you were outdoors under the stars.

“It was meant to envelop you in another place and time,” says Roberts.

When the preservation-minded Roberts was leaving the City Council in 2019, the city manager urged him to make the Plaza a retirement project. “I took it as a challenge,” Roberts recalls. “Here’s a crown jewel of Palm Springs and it’s boarded up.”

An architectural analysis found the theater was safe to use but needs structural and safety updates, plus new seating and equipment, to be a success. Roberts started a foundation to raise money, kicking off with a splashy event at the Plaza featuring Nancy Sinatra.

Unfortunately, that was in February 2020. The pandemic slammed the door on any momentum.

By fall 2021, with prospects dimming, Roberts was returning money as donors requested it, and the balance, which had peaked at $500,000, was down to $162,000. He wondered if he should return the rest and call it quits.

Then, while out on a bike ride, he got a phone call from David Lee.

Lee had been a writer and producer of TV’s “The Jeffersons” and “Cheers” and the co-creator of “Frasier” and “Wings.” A native of Claremont and graduate of the University of Redlands, he lives in Palm Springs. He was phoning to inquire about the state of the Plaza campaign.

Roberts admitted it wasn’t going well. Then Lee dropped a bombshell: “What if I gave you $5 million?”

At this point Roberts and his biking partner had arrived at their destination. Roberts, still on the call, advised his friend: “I’ll join you in a minute.”

Lee was offering $3 million up front, with $2 million as a matching donation. He stipulated that Roberts had to stay involved. Roberts stipulated in turn that Lee had to join the board of directors.

The gift led to a “Frasier” reunion — a “Frasier” fundraiser? — at the Plaza in March 2022. The series’ pilot was screened for a sold-out audience, who got behind-the-scenes stories from Lee, co-creator Peter Casey and actors David Hyde Pierce and Peri Gilpin.

This was followed in November by a “Rock the Plaza” concert headlined by Alice Cooper, who sang his hit “I’m Eighteen” after joking, “That’s ‘I’m Eighteen,’ not ‘I’m 80.’”

I was curious what prompted Lee to make that phone call. Was it a personal history with the Plaza? Not really.

“I saw the movie ‘Porky’s’ there,” Lee tells me by phone with a chuckle, referring to the raunchy 1981 comedy. “Remember that fine piece of cinematic history? Me neither.”

But by 2021, Lee, who is interested in architecture and the arts, could see the theater’s potential. He also saw its prospects slipping away.

“I did a little investigating,” Lee says of Roberts, “and heard he was about to throw in the towel. I’d been looking for a way to help the community.”

After his gift, “people got excited again,” Lee says. Major donations came from the city, the state, the developers of the Acrisure Arena and Lee’s neighbors Jon and Donna Croel totaling $7.5 million, besides event proceeds and smaller donations.

The theater will reopen as the David Lee Plaza Theatre.

“My intent is that it be a community asset,” Lee says, a place to host film festivals, charity fundraisers, the State of the City, local music and cabaret, with a smattering of touring acts.

As for the $1.6 million funding gap, Lee jokes that naming rights have mostly been sold “other than for the restrooms.” Maybe someone flush will come along.

Want to see the Plaza for yourself? Open houses take place at 7 p.m. each Tuesday, drawing a few hundred people each time. The last two are May 30 and June 6.

Renee Brown of the Palm Springs Historical Society grew up going to the Plaza.

“I remember sitting in the balcony. The little village with the lights. It was so enticing as a kid,” Brown tells me in her office, a half-block from the theater.

The Plaza “means a lot” to the community, says Brown. “I imagine when it gets done, it’s going to be quite the venue.”

Roberts is delighted the Plaza campaign is nearing fruition. That’s very different from two years ago, when it was rotting on the vine.

“I really thought it was going to be dead. Boy, was I wrong,” Roberts says. “I’ve never been happier to be mistaken.”

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, unless he’s mistaken. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.