‘I’m going to give this all I got’: Roberts reflects as Plaza Theatre Foundation nears goal, wraps up open houses

As the fundraising finish line appears closer and the start of construction looms, the president of the foundation hoping to return the venue to its former glory reflects on how this moment came to be and what lies ahead.
J.R. Roberts pauses for a moment inside the Plaza Theatre in Downtown Palm Springs. Roberts has been a driving force behind efforts to restore the facility. (Photo: Michael Davis)

In 2019, J.R. Roberts was wrapping up a four-year term on the Palm Springs City Council when he started thinking about his lasting legacy in the city he had served. Like most would in his shoes, he focused on legislation enacted during his term, including writing policies on cannabis and short-term rentals.

“I thought that was enough,” Roberts said during an interview this week. But that’s when David Ready, the city manager at the time, challenged him to do more: “He said, you’re the only one who can save the Plaza.’”

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That 2019 conversation was the genesis of an ongoing project, four years in, to restore the Historic Plaza Theatre that opened in 1936.

Even though people come from all over the world to appreciate and study the mid-century modern architecture that the city has become famous for, “we’re not just mid-century modern,” said Roberts. “The Plaza is an important part of our history.”

And seeing what should be the city’s crown jewel of architecture in the heart of downtown fall into disrepair, with the windows boarded up and people considering gutting the building entirely, Roberts decided then that he had to act.

“I thought to myself, I’m going to give this all I got,” he said.

Since making that commitment in 2019, Roberts, who currently serves as vice chair of the city’s Planning Commission, has not slowed down. The original fundraising goal for the project was $12 million, but post-pandemic cost increases bumped the price tag up to $16.5 million.

As president of the Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation, he has so far helped raise about $14.5 million from approximately 900 individual donors. To accomplish that weighty task, Roberts leveraged the relationships he had formed while on the City Council and had those contacts tap their own networks. Then the money started snowballing. 

Roberts had done fundraising before, but even he was surprised by how invested the community was in the project. “We are so thrilled with the amount of love we’re getting,” he said.

He attributes that enthusiasm to a desire to return to simpler times after the sadness and isolation of the pandemic. Roberts said the Plaza was always the living room of Palm Springs, where stars would come to hang out in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. 

“That’s where it all happened,” he said. “Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope were doing their radio shows out of that theater.”

Another motivating factor, Roberts thinks, is the continued closure of independent movie theaters in the Coachella Valley. “Those closures will only make the Plaza Theatre all the more important,” he said. 

Still, the project is daunting. Not only does the theater have to be modernized to fit current ADA standards, but they also plan to enclose the lobby, add air conditioning, and add a new bar and concession area. The building is being modernized, but a major part of the restoration is preserving the charm and former glory of the theater’s ornamentation, which Roberts said will be brought back to life.

J.R. Roberts and members of the Palm Springs City Council are seen here in October 2021 during the announcement of a $5 million donation that helped restart the campaign to restore the Plaza Theatre.

Preserving the physical building is one thing, but Roberts and the rest of the foundation are also committed to revitalizing the programming. They’re hoping live theater, music and lectures will all be a part of the future of the theater.

Though Roberts admitted that it’s difficult to commit to timelines when the cost of labor and other materials in flux, he estimates construction will get started in September. The theater itself could then open sometime in the fall of next year: ten years after it first closed in 2014.

For residents who are curious about the theater’s progress, Roberts welcomes anyone and everyone to the twelfth and final open house happening next Tuesday at 7 p.m. Visitors can sip wine and learn about the project during a brief presentation.

“We show them images of the restoration, talk about the timeline and go into the economic impact,” he said.

Roberts thinks the biggest challenge will be finding the right management and operations team to usher the theater into its next act.

“We want to be state-of-the-art,” he said. “The programming has to be super high quality but affordable.” To him, it’s not just about restoring a historic building, it’s about investing in the future.


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