Where should money raised to restore Plaza Theatre be directed?

PALM SPRINGS – A once-robust fundraising effort aimed at restoring the famed Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs has, like so many events and activities, fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic.

When COVID-19 grabbed a chokehold on this community in mid-March, the Plaza Theatre could no longer be used for fundraisers and meetings.

At the time, fundraisers had collected about $480,000 in cash and commitments, according to former City Councilmember JR Roberts, who voluntarily helped lead the fundraising effort.

Fundraising to Restore Plaza Theatre Halted

Former City Councilmember J.R. Roberts

“Pretty much the last thing that people cared about in the early stages of this (pandemic) were theaters, and particularly writing big checks to restore old ones. So, I decided just to let it be quiet for a while, and I’ve been thinking about it. Given where the city is financially right now and given that we probably have another year of this, I don’t think there’s a whole lot I can do with it.”

The famed historic Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs, which once housed The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, has fallen into a state of disrepair and is in need of a significant renovation.

The Plaza Theatre, located at 128 South Palm Canyon Drive, was once the site of the star-studded, 1936 world-premiere of the Greta Garbo film, “Camille.”

The Theatre was built in 1936 and designed by local architect Harry Williams, just prior to the world-premiere of “Camille.” Williams is also known as the father of renowned Palm Springs architect E. Stewart Williams.

Roberts told Uken Report that he likely needs to go back to the City Council to see if it still wants him to ns fundraising for the Theatre a focus.

“I was doing this at their request, so I need an update on all that,” Roberts said. “COVID threw us off on everything. And these days I don’t know what to focus on, but it seems fundraising for the Plaza Theatre isn’t going to be priority in anybody’s head.”

Roberts said it is difficult for him to read the public and where its collective head is at this time.

“I know everybody’s exhausted,” Roberts said. “Fundraising is probably at the lowest levels it’s ever been just because you can’t get anybody’s attention.”

Modernism Week had given the Plaza Theatre $100,000 but asked for it back because they needed operating dollars, Roberts said. City Manager David H. Ready confirmed that saying the money had been returned.

“However, they agreed to provide the city with sponsorship marketing value for the next couple years, at no cost to the city,” Ready told Uken Report.

The money raised can only be used for the theater, unless people want their money back, which adds a twist as to what to do now.

“I made sure before I got involved that money could never, ever be used for anything but the restoration of the theater,” Roberts said. “So, that money will just sit there and wait for the theater. Before I could really make a recommendation, I feel like we need to turn a corner on this (pandemic). Maybe once the majority is vaccinated and we’re getting back to normal life, then I can see a beacon of light in the future for the theater.”

As he talked aloud, you could hear some ideas begin to gel as so many institutions are hurting,

We have all these great institutions like the Children’s Museum (which has closed), like the Palm Springs Art Museum, which are really pillars in our community,” Roberts said. “If you ask me directly what would my recommendation be, my recommendation would be to give these other institutions priority financial aid. The theater is sitting there quietly. It’s not going anywhere. It’s holding its own as it always has. But in the meantime, we have these other organizations struggling to stay afloat.  I think that should be a priority.

“We can always swing back to the theater, but we can’t let the Art Museum close, Roberts added. We can’t let some of these other amazing things that really make up who we are, fall apart because of money. Those kinds of organizations deserve priority over something like the theater. And that comes from a guy who was the main advocate for the theater.”

One of the things that put Palm Springs back on the map and made it a world brand is its architectural heritage, Roberts said. People love Palm Springs for that,. They come from all over the world just to look at us and admire us and love who we are with respect to architecture design and style. That’s completely separate from our natural beauty, our coolness, and everything else that we are, he said.

“We finally, I think, emerged into the arts and cultural center that we were always meant to be,” Roberts said. “I always thought the theater could be another feather in that.”

Roberts said he’s always given about 30% of his time to public service, although his work on the City Council was much more than that, So, when he decided not to seek re-election in 2019, he looked for other ways to serve,

“I thought, let me see if there’s some other thing I can pick up, that I can continue working on sort of using my gravitas, my history and my contacts with the city to help weave something really good,” Roberts said. “That’s what the theater was about. So, I still have that love for the theatre, but again, priorities change. COVID changed everything.”



Image Sources

  • J.R. Roberts: J.R. Roberts
  • Plaza Theatre: City of Palm Springs