Seventy-five years ago on Dec. 12, Greta Garbo supposedly snuck into Palm Springs’ Plaza Theatre — not to avoid paying for a movie ticket, but rather to avoid walking down the red carpet for the world premiere of Camille. Her co-star in the film, Robert Taylor, didn’t mind the limelight; in fact, he came with Barbara Stanwyck on his arm (they married a few years later).
Home to The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies since 1991, Plaza Theatre is the last space in the La Plaza development with its 1936 name. Desmond’s clothing store, however, remained the only original business until closing in 2005.
Tyler’s, a popular lunch spot for burgers, was originally a gas station (later becoming a bus depot, then a date shop, then an A&W restaurant). Kalura Trattoria was a drugstore before a long stint as Louise’s Pantry. Imageville was La Plaza’s market — supporting the 21 bungalows and eight penthouses for rent by the day, week, or month.
A 150-car parking garage on Arenas Road (look for the “bullets” just east of Indian Canyon Drive for the entrance/exit location) catered to wealthy guests, with chauffeurs’ quarters above the garage.
La plaza began as the vision of Julia Carnell, a Dayton, Ohio, businesswoman whose brother-in-law founded National Cash Register Corp. She reportedly paid pioneer Cornelia White $1 million to purchase 3.5 acres of what is now part of downtown. Then she brought NCR’s architect, Harry Williams, to the desert to design and build the Spanish-style La Plaza. His sons, E. Stewart Williams (one of the desert’s iconic midcentury modern architects) and Roger Williams, followed. The three opened an office — Williams, Williams & Williams — at La Plaza, where, the story goes, Frank Sinatra walked in eating an ice cream cone in May 1947 and said he wanted a house built by Christmas.
According to an article written by Harry Williams for the December 1936 issue of Palm Springs Parade, Carnell directed him and his crew from Ohio to save the trees and shrubs that were on the property. “We not only saved them but we spotted them as an integral part of the architectural renderings of our building,” he wrote. “We knew exactly which trees were to be used before each building and to the inch how high they would be and how they would affect the complete scene.”
Williams further explained the aesthetics of the buildings themselves: “What I wanted in the Plaza was openness and lack of pretence. The lines must be horizontal and inviting. The hurry and scurry of modern metropolitan life is an anachronism in the timelessness of the desert, where mountains a million years old frown upon the futility of haste, and this must somehow be expressed in the contours of our project.”
Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum) opened in La Plaza in January 1938. In Desert Dream Fulfilled: The History of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, Patricia Mastic writes, “This was a choice location, even if the rent — $120 per month — was high. Though it was at the edge of the business district when built in 1936, the Plaza had quickly become a gathering place. Because Palm Springs was a town of few attractions, locals enjoyed the genial atmosphere of the arcade.” La Plaza and the museum’s current building a block west of Palm Canyon Drive share a family connection: the latter was designed by E. Stewart Williams in the early 1970s.
By 1939, businesses included Plaza Pharmacy, Potter’s Hardware, and Kubic’s Garden of Edom (“growers of the world’s sweetest grapefruit”). Realtor Robert Ransom managed the development. In one ad, he describes La Plaza’s eclectic attractions: “Within the limits of this group of smart La Plaza Shops you can buy a piece of driftwood or the newest in sportswear for men and women. Have your car fixed or rent a Hertz-You-Drive. Buy a Cadillac, a diamond or a lamb chop. Have the family laundry and cleaning done and with no effort at all select a gift for any member of your family.”
It was a Riverside-based car dealer that brought Caddies to La Plaza to supplement its primary business before opening Plaza Motors in 1938.
But la plaza fell on hard times. Harry Pitts was at Louise’s Pantry in 1951 when he heard that the plaza was going to be auctioned the following day. “My grandfather got together 10 people that night, and they all agreed to make a bid on it,” says Larry Pitts, president of Plaza Investment Company Inc., the company formed by those investors and now managing the property. “Descendants of four of the 10 remain investors.”
When Plaza Motors moved north on Indian Canyon Drive in 1954, La Plaza owners operated a Plaza DeSoto-Plymouth dealership in the former garage. Two years later, the garage metamorphosed into a furniture store. From 1972 to 1982, Aaron Brothers framing and art supplies took over the street level and invited artists to set up studios/kiosks to sell their work in the basement. When the store moved out in the early 1980s, Plaza Investment divided the street-level space into individual stores. The upper level, which had been used for a men’s lodge since the ’50s, was vacated, though a women’s lodge in the upper level of another La Plaza building remained in operation into the ’90s, Pitts says.
Milt Jones, publisher of Palm Springs Life, and Bud Taylor ran an advertising agency, the Taylor Jones Agency, in La Plaza from 1958 to 1962, converting a portion of Taylor’s upper-level living quarters into their office. “We called it Penthouse 27,” Jones recalls (27 being the number of Taylor’s apartment). “Below us, where See’s Candies is now, was Phil Siegel’s camera store. He moved out and Ted Land Shoes moved in.” Jones also recalls a shoeshine shop (since torn down) west of what is now Tyler’s.
When opened, the theater featured seats upholstered in antique white leather and twinkling lights in the ceiling to reproduce constellations in the night sky. It was used for national radio shows, including Amos ’n’ Andy, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope, as well as for an annual charity revue with famous performers such as Frank Sinatra and Donald O’Connor. It also was used to help pay off the mortgage on La Plaza through its sale to its original operator, Earle Strebe.
In the 1980s, Metropolitan Theaters split the theater into a duplex cinema. A year after Metropolitan moved out in 1987, the Palm Springs City Council, led by Mayor Sonny Bono, entered into a lease-purchase contract with the thought of using the theater as a Palm Springs International Film Festival venue (the city purchased the property in 1999). But a 10-days-a-year use fell short of the theater’s potential.
Then, in 1990, Council Member Tuck Broick learned of the show business background of one of the volunteers to help the city supervise spring break crowds. “I said, ‘We need to have something done with the theater. Come over and I will show it to you,’” Broick recalls. When he saw the landmark, the volunteer — Riff Markowitz — recognized its latent beauty and in short order developed a concept for it: The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies.
Perhaps a little karma was at work: The theater’s Dec. 12 opening date coincides with Markowitz’s birthday.
Palm Springs Historical Society offers walking tours of downtown, including La Plaza, on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 9:45 a.m.