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Construction closer as Plaza Theatre restoration group nears fundraising goal

The group that formed four years ago to restore the Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs is close to seeing its efforts pay off.

The Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation has raised $12.5 million, $3.5 million short of what it will need to make the 86-year-old structure a viable attraction once again, said J.R. Roberts, founder of the nonprofit “Help Save The Plaza Theatre.”

“We started out three years ago with $167,000, so I’d say we’re doing pretty well with our fundraising,” said Roberts, a real estate investor and former Palm Spring city councilman. “There’s a lot of support for restoring the theater, maybe more than we knew existed when we started.”

“In the past year, when the big donations started coming in, we found out that the city is very much behind what we’re doing.”

The foundation’s 18-member board of directors hopes to break ground in June, with the work expected to be completed in the summer of 2024.

Precisely how the city-owned theater at 128 S. Palm Canyon drive will be brought back to life hasn’t been determined, although several construction details have been established. All 800 seats will be removed and replaced with 700 wider seats, and the structure will be brought into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Fundraising got off to a good start, mostly because of a benefit concert in February, 2020 featuring Nancy Sinatra. That event raised half a million dollars.

One month later, COVID-19 erupted in the United States, and restoration of the Plaza Theatre more or less shut down. The city had more pressing issues to worry about, and theaters were closing anyway because of the ban on large gatherings.

Efforts to restore the Plaza Theatre could have ended right there, but in the fall of of 2021, a major donation got the ball rolling again.

David Lee, a television writer, producer and director donated $5 million to the foundation, a move that David Ready, former city manager, said might have saved the project.

“There’s some history there,” said Lee, a Palm Springs resident and co-creator of the classic NBC sitcom Frasier.  “The Plaza Theatre was a major part of downtown Palm Springs for years, but it’s deteriorated, and that’s a shame. I couldn’t just stand by and let that happen.”

Almost immediately, Lee’s donation led to other contributions that got the restoration effort where it is now, said Kevin Corcoran, 28-year Palm Springs resident and vice president of the theater foundation’s board of directors.

“That part of downtown Palm Springs has been experiencing a renaissance for about the last 10 years,” said Corcoran, who operates a small travel consulting business. “A restored Plaza Theatre will bring in more shops, more restaurants, more foot traffic. It will be a boost for the city’s entire economy.”

Another major donation could be announced within the next several weeks, Corcoran said.

Opened in 1936, The Plaza Theatre was built by Julia Carnell, a businesswoman from Dayton, Ohio. It opened with the premiere of Camille staring Greta Garbo, who is alleged to have avoided the crush of fans and media outside the theater by sneaking in and watching the movie from the shadows.

The Plaza Theatre quickly became a downtown landmark, hosting shows by Jack Benny and Frank Sinatra, among others. Live radio broadcast of The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show radio gave the theater, and Palm Springs, a taste of national recognition.

Years later, the Plaza Theatre was part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which then-Mayor Sonny Bono started in 1989. It was also home to the popular Palm Springs Follies, a vaudeville-type show that ran for 23 years before closing in 2014, along with theater.

Held every January, the film festival is held at multiple locations, including the Palm Springs Convention Center. Once the restoration is complete the Plaza Theatre will be returned to the festival’s list of venues, Roberts said.

As the foundation nears its fundraising goal, a bigger question hangs over the planned Plaza Theatre revival: is it wise to spend so much time and effort to bring back a movie theater when the future of that industry is so uncertain?

Streaming began cutting into movie attendance about 10 years, a trend that was underway before the pandemic hit its peak.

A 2020 online survey by statistica.com, which tracks trends and developments in more than 170 industries, found that only 14 percent of adults said they would rather see a movie for the first time in a theater, while 36 percent said that they would prefer watching a first-run film at home.

Also, movie theater attendance in the United State reportedly is down 30 percent since 2019, and Regal Cinemas – whose parent company, Cineworld, filed Chapter 11 last year – announced last month it will close 39 theaters.

That, coupled with the possibility of a recession, could make a major theater restoration right now a risky move, but Roberts is not concerned.

“I think [the future of movie theaters] is a legitimate question, but we’re going to have more than movies once we’re done with construction,” he said. “Streaming is popular, and theaters are closing, but I don’t think they’re all going away.”

“We’re going to have live performances, comedy, entertainment for kids. We’ll have a lot more than movies, and that will make a difference.”

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