In 1936, Julia Carnell, a Dayton, Ohio, businesswoman and heiress to the National Cash Register Corporation fortune, reportedly paid Palm Springs pioneer Cornelia White $1 million to purchase 3.5 acres of what is now part of downtown. Carnell commissioned seminal Palm Springs architect Harry Williams to design the La Plaza complex, including the Plaza Theatre, in a Spanish Colonial Revival style.
The Plaza Theatre opened on December 12, 1936 with the premiere of the George Cukor film, Camille, with its legendary star, Greta Garbo, who allegedly slipped into the back of the theatre after the lights went down. Garbo’s co-star in the film, Robert Taylor, came with Barbara Stanwyck on his arm. (They married a few years later.)
The theatre featured fanciful village façades carved into the walls and twinkling, star-like lights on the ceiling. Carnell leased the theatre that year to Earl Strebe, the town’s first film exhibitor, who showed first-run movies and presented depression-era live radio shows. In the early days of Palm Springs, the 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 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 Music Man.
Establishment of Historic Protection
In 1977, Plaza was leased by Metropolitan Theatres, which immediately removed a historic and quaint ticket booth in front of the theatre. Outraged that an organization would be able to alter a historic property, Palm Springs City Councilman Bill Foster convinced the city to form the Historic Site Preservation Board in 1981 to identify and recommend to the council historic sites and neighborhoods worth preserving. The Plaza Theatre was declared a Class 1 Historic Site in 1991. This designation prohibits any structural changes that do not adhere to the original Depression-era design. The Plaza Theatre remained active for many years, but finally became dormant in 1989.
International Film Festival Influence
Sonny Bono’s vision was to create a Palm Springs International Film Festival at the Plaza Theatre. With the restoration of the building, first and foremost it will be offered for use by the Festival. In the late 1980s Bono worked closely with Marshall Stone, regional manager of Metropolitan Theatres. Stone, who became the Festival’s first board chairman, was also chairman of the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce. Like Bono, he wanted to use the Plaza Theatre to stimulate business in downtown Palm Springs.
Palm Springs Follies
In 1991, the City Council awarded the Plaza Theatre 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.
In 2012, the City of Palm Springs bought the Plaza back from the city’s redevelopment agency. The theatre is owned solely by the City of Palm Springs, free and clear. Terms of the City’s ownership of the theatre require that the structure remain a theatre in a historic capacity.
Although the Plaza Theatre is in dire need of repair and restoration, the City of Palm Springs is dedicated to bringing it back to its original luster after more than 80 years of community and theatrical impact. It recently engaged the international architectural firm Gensler and historic preservation consultants Chattel to develop a comprehensive restoration and rehabilitation plan. Click Here To View. This plan calls for significant infrastructure repairs, installation of new theatrical equipment, and structural restoration improvements to ensure the building meets current fire prevention and American Disabilities Act mandates.