Plaza Theatre restoration efforts boosted by a single $5 million private donation

J.R. Roberts (holding check) was joined by Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege and City Council members Dennis Woods and Geoff Kors Wednesday morning outside the Plaza Theatre.

Talk about a kickstart! Backers of the effort to refurbish the historic Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs announced Wednesday they received a $5 million donation from a private donor, immediately putting them halfway toward their fundraising goal.

David Lee, an award-winning producer, director, and writer best known for his work on Frasier and Cheers — who is also a city resident — wrote the check. An initial $3 million will be donated immediately, and an additional $2 million will follow as matching funds to encourage further contributions.

“I strongly believe in the preservation of historic American theatres,” Lee said in a written statement. “I’ve been impressed with the planning that has already gone into the admirable restoration project for the Plaza Theatre and saw an opportunity for me to assist in this impressive campaign. I hope that my donation will spark interest in others who feel as strongly as I do about preserving our city’s past and creating a quality entertainment space for future generations.”

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J.R. Roberts, a former City Council member and current member of the Planning Commission who is helping spearhead the restoration efforts, made the announcement, saying Lee’s donation was completely unexpected.

“It was a total surprise,” Roberts said after making the announcement. “I’ve known David over the years. He was one of the first supporters when we launched the campaign. I had asked him to be on the steering committee for the organization.

“This came as a total surprise. There was no warning.”

The theater was opened in 1936 as part of the La Plaza complex built by architect Harry Williams with funds from Julia Carnell, an heir to the National Cash Register Corporation fortune. Its stage has hosted some of America’s most famous performers and performances, including radio shows by Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Edgar Bergen. It was declared a Class 1 Historic Site in 1991. The city took over ownership of the theater in 2012.

In the late 1980s, Sonny Bono created the Palm Springs International Film Festival at the theater. In 1991, a vaudeville-type revue called The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies launched there, running for 23 years. The show brought renewed international exposure to the theater and, in many ways, helped revitalize downtown Palm Springs.

When The Follies closed in May 2014, the building began to languish. Roberts and others started a fundraising drive to restore it to its former glory in 2019. That effort had early momentum, but the efforts stalled in 2020 as financial concerns brought on by COVID-19 shifted the priorities of potential backers. Before Lee’s donation, the total raised was estimated to be roughly $500,000 of the $10 million to $12 million needed to restore and upgrade the theater fully.

In July, the Palm Springs City Council helped renew interest in the project after approving $50,000 for minor updates needed to make the building safe for occupancy. 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. A detailed plan and timeline will now be conducted using the funds from Lee’s donation.

Approval for occupancy is essential for the planned Oasis Music Festival, currently slated for January 27 through 30, 2022. Organizers of that event, including Palm Springs Life Magazine, hope the theater can serve as a hub during the festival. They plan to earmark a portion of any event profits for the restoration of the theater.

More information: The “Save The Plaza Theatre” website can be found here. Information on how to donate can be found here.


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