Since its founding in 2012 by Jim Strait and Paul Taylor, the Desert Rose Playhouse has sought to produce quality LGBTQ-positive plays in their Rancho Mirage location, a former restaurant known as The Commissary. Its inaugural production, Tom Orr’s Broadway parody “Dirty Little Showtunes!”, was so popular it ran for 24 weeks, setting a longevity record for a local nonprofit theater company.
When they retired in 2018, Strait and Taylor named actor-singer-director Robbie Wayne as their successor. As the new producing artistic director, Wayne wanted to expand operations; in addition to mounting significant plays, he envisioned opening the venue to local artists who needed a place to perform. Rather than community theater, he wanted the Desert Rose Playhouse to be “the community’s theater.”
Then came COVID-19 and its resulting shutdowns. Three out of the season’s six shows had to be canceled, ticket refunds had to be given and any money spent on the aborted productions went essentially down the drain. Worse yet, the nonprofit had to continue paying rent on a space they weren’t permitted to use. Wayne wanted to find a better solution.
Enter the property at 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, formerly occupied by Zelda’s, which closed its doors in May 2019.
It was Wayne’s fiancé, Matthew McLean, who came up with the idea to rent the space, thinking the former nightclub would make a perfect theater. The two made an appointment to take a look, and Wayne immediately recognized it as a dream come true; in addition to being a terrific venue, it came with many additional perks: “All the equipment, all the lighting, all the machinery — the ice machines, the electronics — everything came with the lease at no extra charge.”
It seemed perfect. All they had to do was find the money, which was a daunting concept since the Desert Rose had been closed since March 10 with no incoming revenue.
Undeterred, Wayne and McLean came up with the idea to launch a fundraising campaign on Facebook. It was a bold move, but it worked: “We announced on a Saturday that we needed $20,000 in order to sign the lease, put down a deposit, change the utilities and get moving vans,” Wayne says, “and within nine days we had raised that.
“We had almost 200 people respond, with donations ranging from a few dollars to $5,000 — and we were grateful for all of it. Those who weren’t able to offer money offered their services. We even had a pickup truck donated from PS Underground.”
Wayne and McLean were overwhelmed — and at times shocked — by the outpouring. “We heard from a gentleman in L.A. who had never seen one of our shows,” Wayne says. “He called and asked me some questions about what we were doing and what our goals were, and the next day we had [a significant amount of] stock in our account that he had donated.”
The Desert Rose Playhouse is no stranger to charity, though it is normally on the giving-back side. From the beginning, the theater has been an active member of the LGBTQ community and a generous one, donating tickets to local organizations such as Desert AIDS Project, Bloom in the Desert Ministries, AIDS Assistance Program and the Palm Springs Gay Men’s Chorus, as well as sharing their performance space for worthwhile causes. In 2014, Palm Springs Pride named the company Organization of the Year, and in 2016, the playhouse raised more than $7,000 for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Within two weeks of its fundraising announcement, the Desert Rose Playhouse had signed the lease, and on July 27 they began moving in. Best of all, thanks to the building’s supportive owner, the nonprofit is not obligated to pay any rent until spring, which will provide plenty of time to get the space ready.
Wayne is excited about the possibilities. “Our new stage is huge — about 30 feet deep and more than 20 feet wide. And the room is 6,000 square feet, which will allow us to have much larger productions and give more people an opportunity to get on stage. Plus, it’s right in the heart of Palm Springs. You can walk to it from restaurants and bars. It seems perfect.”
While many businesses and local theater companies face uncertain futures due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Desert Rose Playhouse appears to be on a good path, all thanks to locals who stepped up to the plate, and Wayne is extremely grateful to each and every one of them: “I’m completely at a loss for words to properly express the gratitude we feel, the excitement we feel and how humble we feel. I am so proud to be a part of this community.”
For more on the Desert Rose Playhouse, visit desertroseplayhouse.org.
Winston Gieseke is the philanthropy and special sections editor at The Desert Sun. Reach him at [email protected]