The Plaza Theatre during the 1960s.

Plaza Theatre Renovation Plans Include Museum

Passionate locals have teamed up to fundraise and restore The Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs to its former glory.

Amber Juarez Arts & Entertainment

The Plaza Theatre during the 1960s.

The Plaza Theatre during the 1960s.

On a cold December night in 1936, various celebrities gathered inside The Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs to watch the world premiere of Camille featuring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Decades later, the historic theater would sit empty, deteriorated and abandoned after years of neglect.

The nonprofit Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation formed with a mission to restore the theater, so the space can once again become a home for live entertainment for the community. The foundation board is currently raising money with the goal of reopening the theater in fall 2024. They recently announced that they plan to build out a museum inside the theater that will reflect on the building and the city’s illustrious history.

The History

The city of Palm Springs would not be what it is today if it weren’t for Julia Carnell. During the 1930s, Carnell purchased a small plot near her favorite winter retreat, the Desert Inn, and began to develop of The Plaza, an open-air shopping center, during the Great Depression. In 1935, Carnell appointed Ohio architect Harry J. Williams to design the complex. Her plans for The Plaza included shops, an underground garage, bungalows, and a movie theater.

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Celebrities in audience.

The Plaza Theatre first opened to the public in 1936 and was used for film premieres, screenings, nationally broadcast radio programs, and performances by Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby, among many others.

Years later, the theater became home to The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, founded in 1990 by Riff Markowitz and Mary Jardin. The following year, it received Class 1 Historic Site designation. The Follies, who performed seasonally from November to mid-May, consisted of performers age 55 and older. One performer, Beverly Allen, was named by Guinness World Records as World’s Oldest Still Performing Showgirl at the age of 87. In 2014, Markowitz and Jardin decided to end the Follies.

In 2015, the city stepped in and acquired the building with the intent to maintain it as a performing arts venue.

The Process

Former Councilman and Vice Mayor of Palm Springs J.R. Roberts was asked to work on a legacy project after he left office and chose to devote his time to The Plaza Theatre. Roberts is now president of the Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation.

“A big part of my career was architectural preservation and restoration,” Roberts says. “So, the theater had been sitting there for any number of years vacant as a city building, and that just seemed like a good fit for me.”

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The current state of the theater.

Fundraising for the theater started prior to COVID-19, Roberts says. The foundation received half a million dollars before the pandemic forced them to pause raising funds.

The foundation’s goal is $16 million — as of now they have raised $14.5 million. Most of the money has been raised through private donations, Roberts says. They have also received some money from the state of California and from the city.

“Everybody can donate to the theater,” Robert shares.

Donations at certain levels include naming rights of certain spaces. “We have lots of naming opportunities at lots of different levels for people to be involved.” Roberts says.

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Geoff Kors, Dennis Woods, Christy Holstege, and J.R. Roberts.

He notes that there is no minimum donation requirement — any amount will help — but the minimum to have a naming opportunity is $1,000. “We have people who signed up that have subscriptions, where every month they give us $5 or $10. We’re grateful for any donations.”

In an effort to raise funds, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Brian Ray was invited by Spike Edney to put together a small local band for a fundraiser. Later, Roberts gave him a tour of the theater, and Ray fell in love with it.

“I was transported in time to this beautiful ’30s-themed theater that depicts a Mexican courtyard with an infinitely starry sky,” Ray says in awe. “I fell in love with it and wanted to do anything I could to help.”

Roberts asked Ray if he wanted to be a board member of the Plaza Theatre Foundation.

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People gathered outside The Plaza Theatre in 1951; Village Insanities .

Since then, Ray has helped the foundation with fundraising concerts like last year’s Rock the Plaza event, which included big-name performers such as Alice Cooper and Josh Homme. Rock the Plaza raised $400,000.

Ray says it is important to restore the theater. “Palm Springs needs to be a place that supports the arts and plants a flag in the desert sand saying, ‘Palm Springs is a home for all arts.’”

The Museum

The theater’s museum will take over an interior corridor that begins in the lobby and stretches to the back if the theater. Roberts says they decided to add a museum because people want to know the history of the theater.

Local historian Steven Keylon, who serves as vice president of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation, is heading up the museum subcommittee and is in charge of the overall direction.

“We’ve been working to put the pieces together to create some sort of museum that showcases the history of La Plaza and, in particular, The Plaza Theatre,” Keylon says, noting that the museum’s installation will begin once the theater is fully restored.

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Interior rendering.

Museum exhibits will also touch on city history.

“We’ll talk about downtown Palm Springs and Palm Springs history overall,” Roberts adds. “This a place to walk in and understand how Palm Springs came about and how it became the cool place that it is today.”

They are producing a documentary on the restoration of the theater that will be featured in the museum, Roberts notes, and the foundation is asking the community if anyone has interesting artifacts related to the theater that they are willing to share.

As of now, Keylon of his subcommittee are looking for artifacts from the early history of the theater and things related to the 1935 film Camille, which premiered at its opening night. One of the most important aspects of the museum, he says, is to tell the story of Julia Carnell.

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Camille ticket.

“We want to tell the story of who she was and why she created this place and what her impact was on Palm Springs in the ’30s, which is when it really had its first big growth spurt during the Depression.” Keylon says. “It’s going to be a good place where you can really understand the early growth of Palm Springs and how Palm Springs developed into the resort village that it’s known as today.”

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Palm Springs Follies stage.

The Future

The foundation plans to restore the theater to what it looked like in 1936 with 700 seats, Roberts says. As of now, there is no set date for the theater’s opening.

“We’re in the middle of the bidding process right now,” Roberts says. “We’re hoping that the work will start by the end of this year. We hope that by fall ’24, we will be reopened.”

Once restoration is complete, The Plaza Theatre will be a place for the community to enjoy live entertainment and film screenings. Aside from musicals, plays, concerts, and comedy shows, Roberts says the theater will also be used for educational presentations, public school partnerships, and celebrating diversity with special events.

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Lobby rendering.

“The building will be as much an experience as the programming will be,” Robert says.

What Roberts is most excited for in the restoration is bringing back an important piece of Palm Springs history. Since we live in a world that is increasingly dominated by digital activities, he says it’s important to maintain environments where people can enjoy live entertainment in person.

As for Ray, he believes the community will benefit from the theater once it is fully restored because it will once again be a hub for the arts in Palm Springs.

“We could use a place that has the flavor of old Palm Springs,” Ray says, “and this theater has that.”

The Plaza Theatre Foundation currently needs $2 million to restore the theater. To donate, visit