By Denise Ortuno Neil

If you close your eyes you can almost see it. A long red carpet laid out as some sort of landing strip for the Hollywood elite, and bright spotlights that lit up the sky above. No, I’m talking about the Oscars or some current movie premier. I’m talking about 78 years ago when the La Plaza Theatre opened in Palm Springs.

The theatre was part of La Plaza Shopping Center, built from the vision of Julia Carnell. The theatre was owned by Earl Strebe, and opened in December 1936, with the premier of the film Camille, directed by George Cukor and starring Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore. Greta Garbo was not seen attending the premier by the public, but Strebe did claim that the aloof actress snuck up to the balcony and watched the film in secret (I guess she really did want to be alone).

Strebe is said to have worked at the Desert Inn as bellboy in the 20’s, long before opening La Plaza Theatre. While working at the Desert Inn, he would often show movies to the guests in the lobby…as entertainment was not as prominent as it is today in downtown Palm Springs.

It was his love for movies that led Strebe to open the La Plaza Theatre. Besides being the theatre where Camille was premiered, the theatre was also used in the 30’s as a radio broadcasting location for the Amos & Andy shows, and in the 40’s for Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

Strebe owned 8 theatres in his career, but always had a special spot in his heart for the La Plaza Theatre.

In 1990, the theatre became home to the Palm Springs Follies. The iconic show featured talented singers and dancers in the prime of their life…the oldest performers in their eighties. The show went strong until May of 2014, when they closed their doors. The fate of the La Plaza Theatre is uncertain, but is protected as it is part of the La Plaza Shopping Center which is a Class 1 Historical Site.

With the Palm Springs International Film Festival starting soon, it is interesting to think about where the glitz began…at a theatre in downtown Palm Springs, where a man with a love of movies made his dream come true, laying out the red carpet and shining a spotlight in our sky.

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