David Lee Talks Plaza Theater and ‘Frasier’ Ahead of Benefit Show
Former Palm Springs council member JR Roberts’ efforts to restore the historic Plaza Theater in Palm Springs came to a screeching halt in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he wasn’t sure if fundraising is getting back on track.
Roberts was unsure if corporate-owned theaters would resume operations or if anyone had an interest in trying to restore a historic theater. He told The Desert Sun he felt “pretty grumpy about it”.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Save the Plaza Theater campaign initially raised nearly $500,000 in cash and pledged pledges toward a $10-12 million goal for a full restoration. Last July, Save the Plaza Theater had just over $160,000 in its coffers.
Last fall, Roberts got a call from television producer and Palm Springs resident David Lee, who produced the ’90s sitcom “Frasier” and donated $5 million to shake things up again.
Roberts accepted his check on one condition: Lee had to serve on the board.
“He couldn’t just write the check. I needed him to help me,” Roberts said. “He works as hard as every member of my board and he’s amazing. It inspires me every day and makes me work twice as hard. He works on it every day and it’s a pleasure to work with him.
Lee and co-producer Peter Casey will join “Frasier” cast members David Hyde Pierce and Peri Gilpin for Team Frasier reunites to save the Plaza Theater at 1 p.m. Saturday. There will also be a VIP Meet the Creators reception following the event.
The 449th star on the Palm Springs Walk of the Stars will also be awarded to Lee on Friday at Palm Springs Downtown Park.
Lee told The Desert Sun he had an affinity for the Plaza Theater since the 1980s when he visited Palm Springs with friends, adding that entertainment was scarce and it was once the city’s only movie theater. . He would like to see it used for concerts, state of the city addresses, panel discussions and as an asset to the city.
“It’s a beautiful building and it has an interesting style of architecture inside,” Lee said.
Now accepting offers from contractors
The theater was built in 1936 with 800 seats. It opened with the premiere of the film “Camille” and hosted screenings and broadcast radio programs featuring celebrities such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Estimated initial costs to restore the theater are between $10 million and $12 million. Roberts said the campaign is currently receiving offers from contractors, many of which are below initial estimates.
The Plaza Theater was established as a Class I Historic Site by the Palm Springs City Council in 1991 and hosted the first Palm Springs International Film Festival under then-Mayor Sonny Bono. It also hosted the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, a dance and musical revue show featuring artists 55 and older, for 22 years before its last encore in 2014.
Roberts said the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies brought as much attention to the theater as possible, but the shows put a lot of wear on the building, which was not built to accommodate large-scale productions.
“At the end of the day, that’s what theaters do, they get used to how they get used to,” Roberts said. “I don’t think they abused it. They just used the theater and it wasn’t really made for that.
One memory Lee shared of the theater was watching the 1981 comedy film “Porky’s.”
“Maybe (‘Porky’s’) inspired an adverse reaction in me to yearn for the ‘Frasier’ type of writing,” he said.
Why ‘Frasier’ was a hit
While hooking up with Lee, it was hard to resist asking about one of his most famous creative endeavors.
When “Frasier” debuted in 1993 on NBC, it was unlike any TV show. The story followed Boston therapist Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), who moves to Seattle to host a radio show. Although he gives good advice to his listeners, he faces relationship difficulties with several people in his life, including his grumpy dad/roommate (John Mahoney), his brother (Hyde Pierce), and his friends and colleagues.
The show ran for 11 seasons, won 37 Primetime Emmys, and is one of the most successful spin-offs in television history.
“We knew this character worked,” Lee said. “We had to reinvent him to some degree to make sure he didn’t function as a side character, but as a main character who was central to all the action. This required calming the character down a bit and grounding him in a bit more reality than he was in “Cheers.”
Another part of its success is avoiding topical references, which is probably why the show is loved by new audiences. Lee couldn’t think of any events going on at the time that were referenced on the show except for trendy boxy suits, wide lapels on men’s jackets, and ’90s hairstyles.
“I loved the ‘Murphy Brown’ series when it was on the air, but it was just topical references. It’s been notoriously hard to sell in syndication because it doesn’t fare well. People listen to a lot of topical references from 1989 and don’t know what the hell everyone is talking about.
Lee said he “never gets tired of talking about me” and enjoys talking to the public about how the show was put together as it approaches its 30th anniversary.
“I’m proud of the show for many reasons and what my cast, cast and everyone involved has done,” Lee said. “No one imitated him, and that’s something I’m proud of.”
If you are going to
What: Team Frasier reunites to save the Plaza Theater
When: 1 p.m. Saturday March 19
Or: Plaza Theater, 128 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs
How much: $125 to $175
More information: savetheplazatheatreps.com
Desert Sun reporter Brian Blueskye covers arts and entertainment. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bblueskye.