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Plaza Theatre (photo credit Palm Springs Life)

Plaza Theatre

Palm Springs, California, United States

First Opened: 12th December 1936 (85 years ago)

Closed: May 2014

Atmospheric Style: Spanish Village

Architects: Schenck & Williams

Website: savetheplazatheatreps.com Link opens in new window

Address: 128 S. Palm Canyon Dr, Palm Springs, CA 92262 Link opens in new window


Overview

The Plaza Theatre opened in late 1936 with the world premiere of Camille Link opens in new window starring Greta Garbo. Built by Julia Carnell, the theatre was designed by architect firm Schenck & Williams in an Atmospheric style with a Spanish village theme.

The auditorium features fanciful village façades carved into the side walls, and twinkling, star-like lights on the vast blue-sky ceiling.

The theatre building features an outdoor “courtyard lobby”, taking advantage of the outdoor open space in front of the theatre and its visibility from the street. The courtyard lobby concept was popular in the mid-1920s in Southern California, and helped create a buzz of excitement as passers-by saw crowds gathering for a performance or screening, however was only practical at theatres in the agreeable Southern California climate. Other theatres featuring courtyard lobbies are the Chinese and Egyptian theatres in Hollywood, the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the Alex Theatre in Glendale, the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, the Pasadena Playhouse, and the Fox Fullerton in Orange County.

The theatre’s builder Julia Carnell leased the theatre to Earl Strebe, Palm Spring’s first film exhibitor, who exhibited first-run movies and presented depression-era live radio shows.

In the early days of Palm Springs, the-then village featured an annual event called the “Desert Circus”, highlighted by an annual show called the “Village Insanities”. Originally performed on the grounds of the Desert Inn, the “Insanities” would later perform at the Plaza Theatre under the name of the “Village Vanities” during the 1940s.

Over the years, the theatre was the venue for memorable performances by the likes of entertainment giants such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Performers Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show broadcast radio shows from the Plaza, bringing national attention to Palm Springs. It was also one of the most popular movie theatres in the growing Palm Springs community and was the venue for a number of motion picture premieres, including the musicals My Fair Lady Link opens in new window and The Music Man Link opens in new window.

By the late 1970s Metropolitan Theatres had assumed operations at the Plaza Theatre. Their removal of the ticket booth in front of the theatre caused outrage in the community and was the catalyst for the formation of the city’s Historic Site Preservation Board in 1981 to identify and recommend to the city council historic sites and neighborhoods worth preserving. The Plaza Theatre was declared a Class 1 Historic Site in 1991; a designation that prohibits any structural changes that do not adhere to the original Depression-era design.

The theatre eventually closed in 1989, however in 1991 the city awarded a lease to Riff Markowitz, a Canadian impresario and Hollywood TV producer. Markowitz and his wife, Mary Jardin, launched a vaudeville-type revue called “The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies” that ran in the theatre for 23 years. “The Follies” was popular with locals, but notably attracted groups from around Southern California and generated stories by the New York Times, CNN, and a range of international media. The long-running show brought international exposure to the theatre and in many ways helped revitalize downtown Palm Springs. The show having run its course, the theatre ultimately closed in May 2014.

In late 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported Link opens in new window that “Frasier” co-creator David C. Lee, a Palm Springs resident, had responded to preservationists’ calls with a $5 million pledge to the Plaza Theatre Restoration Project, launched just before the Covid-19 pandemic. Lee now serves on the Board of Directors of the Plaza Theatre Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity organization which aims to renovate and reopen the theatre.

As of 2022, architectural firm Gensler Link opens in new window has been engaged by the City of Palm Springs, along with historic preservation consultants, to formulate a restoration plan. In June 2022, J.R. Roberts, President of the Plaza Theatre Foundation, confirmed that the current goal is to bring the theatre back with respect to its look and feel of 1936, but with state-of-the-art design for a theatre of today, keeping in mind easy access for people with disabilities. The current seating capacity of 800 will be reduced to around 670 with wider seats.

Information in part sourced from Save the Plaza Theatre Link opens in new window.

Further Reading

Online

Historic Photos & Documents
Opening ad as printed in the 5th December 1936 edition of <i>The Limelight</i> (190KB PDF)
Opening ad as printed in the 5th December 1936 edition of The Limelight (190KB PDF)
News of the theatre’s opening, as printed in the 19th December 1936 edition of <i>The Limelight</i> (450KB PDF)
News of the theatre’s opening, as printed in the 19th December 1936 edition of The Limelight (450KB PDF)
Information on the theatre’s audio system, as printed in the 19th December 1936 edition of <i>The Limelight</i> (150KB PDF)
Information on the theatre’s audio system, as printed in the 19th December 1936 edition of The Limelight (150KB PDF)
Casting ad, as printed in the 4th November 1991 edition of <i>The Desert Sun</i> (170KB PDF)
Casting ad, as printed in the 4th November 1991 edition of The Desert Sun (170KB PDF)
News of the theatre’s renovation, as reported in the 19th June 2022 edition of <i>The Desert Sun</i> (50KB PDF)
News of the theatre’s renovation, as reported in the 19th June 2022 edition of The Desert Sun (50KB PDF)
Files displayed in this section may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media.

Photos of the Plaza Theatre

Photo credits are noted where data was available at the time of inclusion. Photos displayed here may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media and contact us Contact Us with any concerns.

Auditorium
Plaza Theatre: Auditorium, courtesy <i>Palm Springs Life</i> (JPG)
Auditorium, courtesy Palm Springs Life (JPG)
Plaza Theatre: Auditorium, courtesy <i>The Desert Sun</i> (JPG)
Auditorium, courtesy The Desert Sun (JPG)


Photographs copyright © 2002-2022 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos unless otherwise noted.

Text copyright © 2017-2022 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.

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