McCallum Theatre Marks 35th Anniversary

The acclaimed Palm Desert theater opened Jan. 2, 1988, with a star-studded tribute to Bob Hope.

Bruce Fessier Arts & Entertainment, Current Guide


The most anticipated local venue before Acrisure Arena was built in Palm Desert. McCallum Theatre opened Jan. 2, 1988. But it was conceived 30 years earlier as a College of the Desert cultural center with an art gallery, TV studio, recital hall and auditorium called the Greek Theater.

Choral leader Fred Waring performed 18 annual benefit concerts to build a theater pliable enough to seat 500 to 2,500 people, depending on the show. But the nonprofit Friends of the Cultural Center, which leased the land from COD for an annual fee of $1, devastated Waring by naming its center after Bob Hope, who was expected to attract stars, philanthropists, and TV coverage, as he did for his celebrity golf tournament.

The center’s first building was to be a 1,200-seat theater named after Palm Springs pioneer John G. McCallum, whose family’s foundation gave a $1 million title grant. In 1985, three years ahead of its opening, Michael Grossman was hired as executive director to book a variety of touring acts.

Chamber Opera Society president Caroline Hakim introduced Grossman as “the man who is going to save the desert.” He booked Johnny Cash, Rudolf Nureyev, Three Dog Night, and comic Paul Rodriguez in one week after a dazzling opening-night tribute to Hope. Queen of comedy Lucille Ball co-hosted that January 1988 gala, featuring piano legend Van Cliburn’s first appearance in 10 years, royal showbiz couple Vic Damone and Diahann Carroll, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and highlights of Phantom of the Opera — before its Broadway debut. President Ronald and Nancy Reagan and former President Gerald and Betty Ford had box seats. Desert Sun society editor Allene Arthur called it the “party of the decade.”

ImageMcCalum Theatre opening night with the Reagans, Hopes, and Annenbergs

Top: Bob Hope with President Ronald Reagan on opening night. Above: President Reagan and Nancy Reagan (front left) sat with with Bob and Dolores Hope (front right) and Walter and Leonore Annenberg (back left).

The gala raised almost $2 million but didn’t erase a $5 million construction loan. Grossman resigned days later with news he was suffering from AIDS. Subsequent proposed buildings never materialized. But the theater went on to book compelling acts, such as Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, B.B. King, and Stevie Wonder.

The McCallum finally climbed out of debt in 2000, when the board initiated a prudent booking policy coupled with aggressive fundraising. It’s since had one of the nation’s highest first-quarter attendance rates and finished annually in the black.