(From left) Palm Springs City Council members Geoff Kors and Dennis Woods are joined by Mayor Christy Holstege in applauding a $5 million donation check toward the restoration of the historic La Plaza Theater revealed by J.R. Roberts during an Oct. 20 press conference in front of the theater.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CARL SCHOEMIG
One phone call and a signature to a $5 million check allowed former Palm Springs City Council member J.R. Roberts to stand before the 1936 La Plaza Theatre on Oct. 20 and announce, “We’re back” in downtown Palm Springs.
That exclamation means efforts to restore the historic theater have taken a dramatic shift from a virtual standstill imposed by the coronavirus pandemic over the past 19 months to full throttle. Emmy award-winning television director, producer, and writer David C. Lee’s single donation has reenergized not only Roberts, but the whole campaign. Additional donations will be sought to fully fund the restoration process, which may require $10 - $12 million to complete.
“This is an enormous change and this guy is wonderful,” Roberts says. “He's doing it for no promotion, for nothing. He simply wants this to happen. I'm kind of blown away by it. It still makes me nervous to have a donation like this, you know? I'm really excited.”
Lee, whose best-known work was on the sitcoms like The Jefferson, Cheers, and Fraiser, has received 18 Primetime Emmy Awards nominations and won nine times. A native of Claremont, California, Lee bought the former Dinah Shore home in 2002 in Palm Springs and sold it to a group of real estate agents in 2009. Leonardo DiCaprio bought the home in 2014 and it’s currently a vacation rental and also listed for sale at $8.6 million by realtor.com.
Lee initially donated $25,000 when fundraising efforts for the La Plaza Theatre began two years ago, says Roberts, who has known Lee for years. During the past year, La Plaza re-emerged as a topic of conversation when Frank Jones, publisher of Palm Springs Life, announced plans to conduct Oasis Music Festival and use the theater as a home base for what was initially an October event and later moved to Jan. 27-31 in 2022. A portion of the festival’s proceeds will go toward the theater’s restoration.
In July, the Palm Springs City Council approved a $50,000 expenditure to repair and update the theater for the music festival. At the same time, Harold Matzner, chairman of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, proposed to lease the theater for 25 years and was willing to pay $1.6 million for use of the space, but would not commit to restoring the structure.
Two weeks ago. Lee called Roberts to get an update on the situation. “I was frank with him,” Roberts recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not exactly sure where the city is going to go.’ For a while there was a consideration for a lease for the Palm Springs International Film Festival and I said, ‘I don't know what my part in this will be. My interest in this is restoring the theater.’ And he said, ‘Would five million dollars keep you doing it?" And I said, ‘Why yes, sir, it would. In fact, I'll marry you.’”
For his donation, La Plaza will add Lee’s name to become the David Lee La Plaza Theatre, Roberts says. Lee will write a check for $3 million to start, and then for the remaining $2 million, Roberts says Lee will match donations in $500,000 increments.
“So every time we reach half a million in new donations, he will match it,” Roberts notes. “If it's normal fundraising it could easily take another year or two to raise all of these dollars, but the good news is we can perhaps start some of the work. I mean, we're halfway there already. So we can actually start doing things here in that time, and I'm excited about it.”
“One of the things that passed my mind was people seeing something like this, I'm hoping that will relaunch philanthropy in the valley where people will say, ‘we're back’,” Roberts says. “It's time to get back to the things we love, financially supporting the theaters and all of the events and arts that we support. I think this is going to be a good kickstart. You know, it couldn't have come better at the beginning of the season. You know everybody is so excited to come back. And I think this is going to be a positive shot in the arm.”
Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege believes the theater’s restoration means a win for the community. “What a beautiful gem for our entire community,” she says. “It's in the heart of our downtown. It shows us the history of where Palm Springs has been and now where it's going with leadership from J.R. and so many others. This theater belongs to our community. What an opportunity to have events here, cultural events, music festivals. We're so excited for the future of Palm Springs. It's incredibly bright. It continues to be like no place else.”
Their plan called for installing 670 new seats, significant infrastructure repairs, installation of new theatrical equipment, and structural improvements to ensure the building meets current fire prevention and Americans with Disabilities Act mandates. A detailed plan and timeline will now be conducted using the funds from Lee’s donation.
La Plaza opened in November of 1936 and premiered the film, Camille, directed by George Cukor and starring Greta Garbo. Over the years, the theatre was the venue for memorable performances by entertainment giants Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Performers Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show broadcast live radio shows from the Plaza, bringing national attention to Palm Springs. It also was one of the most popular movie theatres in the growing Palm Springs community and hosted a number of motion picture world premieres, including My Fair Lady and The Music Man.
In the late 1980s Sonny Bono created the Palm Springs International Film Festival at the Plaza Theatre. Most recently, The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies occupied the building for 23 years, lowering its curtain for the final time on May 18, 2014. The theater has been shuttered since then save for a sold-out performance by Nancy Sinatra on Feb. 16, 2020 during Modernism Week as a benefit to support the theater’s restoration.
The City has engaged the international architectural firm Gensler and historic preservation consultants Chattel to develop a comprehensive restoration and rehabilitation plan for the structure. Their plan called for installing 670 new seats, significant infrastructure repairs, installation of new theatrical equipment, and structural improvements to ensure the building meets current fire prevention and Americans with Disabilities Act mandates. A detailed plan and timeline will now be conducted using the funds from Lee’s donation.
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