Closed since 2014, a massive restoration was derailed by COVID-19 but is now back on track thanks to a $5 million donation. The next steps are to finish fundraising and come up with some plans.
Backers of the restoration of the Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs got a huge boost four months ago, when television producer-director-writer David Lee made a major contribution to that effort.
A $5 million contribution, to be exact.
“When I heard about that donation I almost hit the floor,” said J.R. Roberts, former Palm Springs city council member. “I couldn’t believe it, but I’m a softie for charity, so I had no trouble accepting it.”
Roberts is the head of “Help Save The Plaza Theatre,” the group that’s working to return the 85-year-old facility to its former glory.
Shortly after leaving the council in 2019, Roberts set up the non-profit Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation, which would raise the money to pay for the restoration. He established a a board of directors that now has 18 members.
“I’m a real estate investor, but I’ve always had a fascination with architecture and restoring old buildings,” said Roberts, who served one term on the council, from 2015 to 2019. “Palm Springs is famous for its architecture, and the theater is a downtown landmark.
“I felt like it had to be brought back.”
Plaza Theatre is owned by the city, and city officials agreed to let city staff help with the project. The city has worked with Gensler, an international architectural firm based in Los Angeles, and Chattel Inc. an historic preservation consulting firm in Sherman Oaks.
Both firms developed a tentative restoration plan, one meant to be a jumping-off point for the project, not a final blueprint.
“The city council wanted to know what it was dealing with when we got started,” said Roberts, who said Gensler and Chattel are no longer involved in the project. “It’s a common practice with something like this.”
Six hundred and seventy new seats will be installed, along with major infrastructure repairs, installation of new theatrical equipment and improvements to the building’s structural design, according to www.savetheplazatheatreps.com
The latter will to ensure the building, which has been shuttered since 2014, meets fire prevention and American Disabilities Act requirements. Before, it had 800 seats.
At first Roberts and his colleagues did well with their fundraising, securing $500,000 almost immediately. Most of that came from a benefit concert Nancy Sinatra did at the theater in February 2020.
One month after the Sinatra show, COVID-19 hit.
“When that happened we got worried, because we thought the last thing the city would be concerned with would be restoring an old theater,” Roberts said. “They had more important things to worry about. Theaters were closing down, so we decided to give it a rest.”
The restoration effort got back on track in October when Lee announced his donation last October. A news conference was held outside outside the Plaza Theatre, and Roberts used the event to announce that Councilman Geoff Kors, former City Manager David Ready and and Franklin Jones, publisher and president of Palm Springs Life magazine had joined then foundation’s steering committee.
“David gave us the shot in the arm that COVID-19 took away from us,” Roberts said. “He allowed us to fight back against the pandemic.”
Like many cities, Palm Springs has made restoring its downtown a major issue, and there’s no way to restore downtown without restoring the Plaza Theatre, Ready said.
“Bringing back the Plaza Theatre is something the city needs to do, and David Lee might have saved the project,” said Ready, who retired as city manager nearly one year ago after 21 years on the job. “That donation put some energy back into the restoration. It reminded people what we’re trying do.”
Lee, a longtime Palm Springs resident who said he wanted to give something back to the community, got the foundation about half the money it will need to restore the theater, which has fallen in disrepair since it closed.
“That will make getting the rest of what we need easier,” Ready said. “And we don’t expect the cost of the project to go higher than $10 million.”
The Plaza Theatre was built by Julia Carnell, a businesswoman from Dayton, Ohio, who was an heiress to the National Cash Register Corp. fortune.
It opened in December 1936 with the world premiere of “Camille starring Greta Garbo. Legend has it that Garbo, not wanting deal with the frenzy of the red carpet, snuck into the theater to see herself on screen.
The Plaza Theatre hosted performances by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Frank Sinatra. The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show radio show was also road cast from there, giving Palm Springs some national attention.
The theater at 128 S. Palm Canyon Drive became host to the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which then-Mayor Sonny Bono started in 1989 to help downtown businesses, and the Palm Springs Follies, a vaudeville-type review that ran for 23 years before closing in 2014, along with theater.
The film festival is now held at 25 venues, but once the Plaza Theatre is restored it will return to the venue list, according to Roberts.
If all goes as planned, fundraising for the restoration will be finished by the end of this year, and the work will be completed in late 2023 or early 2024, Roberts said.
Whatever doubts there were about the restoration project being viable were removed when Lee made his contribution, said Gino LaMont, board member and the former news director and anchor at NBC Palm Springs.
“Before there was a feeling that it might be too difficult, but now we know we can do it,” said LaMont, who spent 25 years at the television station before retiring several weeks ago. “Now it’s just a matter of getting it right.”