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In-Depth: Restoration of the Plaza Theatre in Palm Springs

The Plaza Theatre is one of Palm Springs' oldest and most iconic venues, and it is currently being restored to its original splendor.

Renders of the newly renovated Plaza Theatre

From the outside, the Plaza Theatre looks nearly the same as it did almost nine decades ago-- years before Palm Springs was even incorporated as a city. But go inside, and you'll see a lot is changing.

A major renovation is currently underway at the historic building. In addition to 700 new seats and an expanded stage, the reconfigured venue will have state-of-the-art lighting and sound, dressing rooms, restrooms, and modern air conditioning. The lobby will also be enlarged with new, enclosed spaces. Construction began in March, and is expected to be completed next year.

"I can't begin to tell you how exciting it is," J.R. Roberts, the president of the Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation, said. The foundation has been fundraising to transform the building into a modern, performing arts venue.

"What are your hopes for the Plaza Theatre?" Daut asked Roberts. He replied, "Its new life will not only be cinema, we'll be doing live stage productions here, we'll be doing full-scale musical events here, we'll have all sorts of educational programs, kids programming. Whatever we can shoehorn into this theatre, we're going to have."

So far, the foundation has raised about $15 million-- mainly through private donations-- but it says $10 million more is needed to cover construction and startup costs.

"The biggest reason this is important is because of the economic impact it will have on the city. Once this theatre opens, we estimate it will have a $40 million impact just based on hotels, restaurants and shopping," foundation vice president Kevin Corcoran said.

It was December 12, 1936 that the Plaza Theatre opened with the world premiere of the film "Camille," starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Legend has it Garbo slipped into the back of the theatre after the lights went down. In the decades that followed, the building served as a major cultural and economic driver for the city. In addition to being a movie theatre, it was also a venue for nationally broadcast radio programs, featuring local starts including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. From 1990 through 2014, the theatre housed the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies.

All photos in the gallery are courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

Since then, the theatre has sat mostly unused, and the city acquired the deteriorated building in hopes of maintaining it as a performing arts venue.

"Why is it important to restore the theatre to its original glory?" Daut asked Roberts. He replied, "I love your question. Palm Springs is known and loved for its architectural history, and this was sort of the gem in the crown that's been buried away for years." 

California-based Architectural Resources Group was chosen to complete the design and oversee the renovation. The firm has completed several other historic projects of similar scope, including Los Angeles Union Station and Pasadena City Hall.

Through extensive analysis, the firm revealed the building's many layers of paint, so the theatre will return to its original colors. The demo work also uncovered the original, decorative stencil work, long concealed for decades inside the walls.

But the centerpiece of the discoveries was the proscenium, which is the arch serving as a frame around the state, dating back to the 1930's.

"When you made that discovery, what went through your mind?" Daut asked ARG Principal Katie Horak. She replied, "You wonder why people cover things up to begin with. Why would someone just cover that beautiful proscenium up with plywood so you can't see it? So that was a really exciting discovery for us."

Though the theatre will stay true to its celebrated, historic past it will be modernized to meet current health and safety standards. There will also be a museum inside the building, where iconic artifacts and immersive exhibits will celebrate the legacy of cinema, shows, and events there.

"When all is said and done, will this all be worth it?" Daut asked Roberts. He answered, "Oh you'll know when you see us open the doors. And I think we're going to offer something that very few people get to see anymore, which is the true glamor of the past. We kind of get to live that while having the technology of today and great entertainment."

As the restoration continues, Oak View Group, which owns and operates Acrisure Arena, recently announced it will take over the management of all aspects of the Plaza Theatre, including booking and event promotion.

The theatre is set to open in the late fall of 2025.

More information on the Plaza Theatre's restoration project is available at

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Peter Daut


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