Nestled in the heart of downtown Palm Springs is the historic Plaza Theatre, built in 1936 by Harry Williams. Opening on December 12 of that year, the cinema went on to become an essential part of the city’s celebrated past.
As Modernism Week 2020 approaches, it’s important to note that this significant historic landmark helped to create and revitalize the city of Palm Springs, bringing Hollywood elite and everyday visitors alike to glamorous movie premiers, screenings and live shows.
The Plaza Theatre also had an integral role in creating the city’s Historical Site Preservation Board, which works to protect and preserve historic sites throughout Palm Springs. Today, the iconic theater is in disrepair, but thanks to the continued efforts of the Save the Plaza Theatre Committee, we hope to see the movie house shine once more.
This year, Mod Week features two special events centered around the legacy and preservation of the theater. A fundraising event, hosted by none other than Nancy Sinatra, will take place at the Plaza Theater on February 16. Featuring live musical acts and a Q&A with Nancy, the proceeds from this special event benefit the Save the Plaza Theatre restoration fun. Additionally, a lecture will be held at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, where the history and importance of the Plaza Theatre will be presented.
Silver Screen History
Debuting with the premiere of Camille, it was rumored that the movie’s starlet, Greta Garbo, crept into the back of the theater once the lights went down to view her film’s unveiling. Continuing into the 1940s, the theater was home to first-run movies, live radio shows, and even performances from the “Village Insanities” performers of the famed “Desert Circus” annual event.
“Over the years, the theatre was the venue for memorable performances by the likes of entertainment giants 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 also was one of the most popular movie theatres in the growing Palm Springs community and was the venue for a number of motion picture world premieres, including the musicals ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘The Music Man.’” – shared from Save the Plaza Theatre.
Historical Site Preservation Board
The removal of a picturesque ticket booth at the front of the theater in 1977 prompted Palm Springs City Councilman Bill Foster to create a city board to identify potential historic sites for preservation protection. Spurred by the Plaza’s ticket booth removal, Foster’s efforts came to fruition in 1981 when the Historic Site Preservation Board (HSPB) was formed. In 1991, the Plaza Theatre was designated a Class 1 Historic Site, and the HSPB continues its vital preservation work today!
Starting in 1991, an incredible troupe known as the “The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies” danced, sang and charmed audiences in a vaudeville-style revue. The best part? The performers ranged in age from 55 to 83 years old! The glamour-filled show gave a new life to the Plaza Theatre, which had been sitting dormant since 1989. “The long-running show brought international exposure to the theater and in many ways helped revitalize downtown Palm Springs,” shares the Save the Plaza Theatre Committee. After an impressive 23-year run, the Follies said farewell at their last show and the Plaza Theatre sat dormant once more.
Hollywood elite, locals, and everyday visitors alike were enchanted by the Plaza Theatre for more than 80 years. The cinema brought people to the community and furthermore brought the community together. Now, with the efforts of that grateful community, plans are underway for an extensive restoration and rehabilitation including structural and safety updates as well as modern theatrical equipment and new seating for better sightlines.
With our help, the Plaza Theatre will be restored to its former luster and provide a new venue for live entertainment, film screenings, educational presentations and more!
To learn more about the Plaza Theatre, view detailed restoration plans, and learn how you can help, visit savetheplazatheatreps.com.
To learn more about Modernism Week and related events, visit modernismweek.com.
Getting ready for Mod Week 2020? Check out Charles Phoenix’s Retro Slide Show to see what entertainment is in store!