David Lee has called Palm Springs home for 20 years, and he’s about to leave a permanent mark in the desert.

The Emmy-winning Frasier co-creator will be honored March 18 with a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, a ceremony that will be followed a day later by a Frasier reunion inside the Plaza Theatre with Lee, co-creator Peter Casey and stars David Hyde Pierce and Peri Gilpin.

Lee — who pledged $5 million as part of a $10 million renovation plan to restore the 1936 architectural jewel where Greta Garbo snuck in the back for a screening of her George Cukor film Camille — tells THR he recalls first taking a seat inside to catch a showing of the raunchy 1981 comedy Porkies. When he heard it might become “a glorified nightclub” he did what he could financially to save the space that, over the decades, has hosted performances by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny and Bob Hope, and world premieres for My Fair Lady and Music Man. “It’s a way to pay the town back,” says Lee, 71, now a theater producer, “and have a community asset to show for it.”

Let’s start here: $5 million is a lot of money. Why did you decide to do this?

I have had a home in Palm Springs for 20 years. I like it here, and I’ve been aware of that theater. I saw Porkies there in the early ’80s when it had a wall down the center of it dividing into two movie theaters. It was just a mess. Then the Palm Springs Follies, the big vaudeville review, took it over for 23 years. It was quite successful and featured older performers doing amazing things like splits and then exclaiming, “And I’m 83!” That ended about seven years ago, if I’m not mistaken, and they were not particularly good stewards of the theater in terms of taking care of it. It certainly deteriorated in the ensuing seven years.

When I went in just before COVID, they talked about saving it as a historical landmark and restoring the amazing architecture on the inside and outside, too. I donated some money at that time, but then everything shut down. It basically seemed like the end of the project because they didn’t think they could get it going again. Then several people made offers of small-ish donations. The idea then became gutting the inside and turning it into a glorified nightclub. I thought it was a shame and wondered what more I could do. This is what I realized I could do. It’s a way to pay the town back and have a community asset to show for it.

What is your hope for what the Plaza Theatre can become?

First of all, to have it architecturally restored to what it was is. The interior is in a style called atmospheric that was popular in the ’30s for movie theaters and concert halls. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a theater where if you look on the sidewalls, it looks as if you’re in a plaza of some sort. with windows and outdoor lamps that adorn each side. Then there’s a starlit sky and a canopy up above to make it appear as if you’re in an open area. This theater has that, but it’s in grave disrepair. We want to get that back. We want to get the lobby looking great.

It’s never going to be a fully operational proscenium stage because it has no fly space, but it certainly can house concerts, jazz concerts, classical concerts. It was built as a movie theater, so we’d love to see the Palm Springs International Film Festival work there and Shorts Festival. A lecture series would be great. The city can use it for its State of the City address or charities can use it for fundraising activities. The goal is to just get it as workable and as versatile as possible and make it an asset for the city.

A view of Palm Springs’ Plaza Theatre.
Courtesy of Plaza Theatre Foundatio

What’s your take on the general transformation of downtown Palm Springs?

It’s very exciting. They’ve just opened a brand-new public park across from the museum, which is stunning. The restaurant life is really getting vibrant down here. If you walk down Palm Canyon Boulevard basically any night, but particularly on weekends, it feels festive. It feels like people having fun. That’s a great barometer of what’s going on here, and we’d love to get the Plaza Theatre going again so that we’re adding another 600-700 people to the mix every night.

In addition to your financial commitment, the restoration is a good excuse to get together with your Frasier comrades. When was the last time you were together?

In 2018, there was a reunion of sorts at USC with a panel discussion.

During the pandemic, people returned to beloved shows like Frasier as a source of comfort. Do you get updates on how many people are watching from the streaming platforms?

I don’t, but I do know that they keep buying it, so it’s indicative that way. The other side is anecdotal. I hear from people all the time who say, “It was such a great thing for us during the pandemic. Every evening we would watch one or two episodes and it would make us laugh and help get us through the evening.” I heard that more than once. What’s astonishing — and I particularly noticed this as USC — a whole generation of young folks have discovered the show, and many weren’t even born when we were making it. That’s really exciting.

Going back to what you said about streamers buying it — are the deals fair?

Yeah. No complaints. When we stopped making Frasier in 2004; all the projections were based on traditional syndication. People said that it would run its major course in syndication and that checks would really start to dwindle by 2012 or something like that. I thought, well, I’m certainly OK with that. Then, this other thing happened, a whole new way of delivering [content] to your home that nobody even dreamed of. It gave [Frasier] a new life and kept the wolf from my door for a little longer.

How have you kept busy since 2004?

I’ve been doing a lot, but not television. I’ve done nothing in television since, and I only work in the theater now. That’s what I did before and even while it was on, and I’ve just been having a blast. It’s what I was trained to do, and I hate the phrase to go “back to your roots,” but in this case, I want to use it: I got back to my roots.

Why did you decide no more TV?

Two reasons. Frasier was on the air for 11 years and it was a dream. The cast got along; the writers got along. There was very little network interference, and I couldn’t wait to go to the set every day. It really was one of those rare occurrences in the land of sitcoms, and we were also a success on top of that. So, after 11 years, I woke up and felt like Rip Van Winkle awakening from a dream where all of a sudden, the networks were intensely controlled by businessmen.

You always hear horror stories about network interference to some extent, but around that time, it really ratcheted up among my contemporaries. Peter Casey and I talked about whether we wanted to try another one, and we started wading into it a very little bit. I don’t think the discussions went on very long, and we just said, “I don’t like the way this feels now.”

The second reason is that we were older. Creating a TV series is basically a young person’s game. I opted out. I didn’t retire, but I had this other thing, theater, that I wanted to do, and it’s been scratching my creative itch quite well.

Are you currently shepherding any theater projects?

I am currently starting preproduction on something that I’ll be directing at the Pasadena Playhouse, but I can’t tell you what. It will be a year from now.

Back to Frasier. It aired for 264 episodes. Courteney Cox said recently that there are moments on Friends that she has no memory of. Do you remember all 264?

Oh, heavens no. And this is a good opportunity for me to acknowledge that I did not do this by myself. While I was really involved in the early years, as it went along, Peter, David and I were able to turn it over to various showrunners — Christopher Lloyd, Joe Keenan, and more — so that allowed us to go on and do other projects. Sometimes there were episodes that were filmed when my only connection would’ve been helping break the story and then giving notes on the scripts in the various drafts. But I wasn’t there the night that it was filmed. Those tend to retreat into the dark recesses of my lack of memory. It makes it fun to see one every once in a while and get to say, “Oh, I don’t remember this. I wonder what happens?”

Lazy loaded image

Team Frasier: John Mahoney, Jane Leeves, Kelsey Grammer, Moose, David Hyde Pierce, Peri Gilpin, Dan Butler.
NBC / Courtesy Everett Collection

When did you last watch?

I picked one out within the last few months, I think.

What else are you watching and loving right now?

I’m between loves. I tend not to watch half-hour comedy because I’m so critical that it becomes not fun, so I tend to watch longer form. The one that keeps popping in my mind is the one that took me by surprise. It’s so fresh and smart and platonic and everything that we all needed — Ted Lasso. It’s insanely good and continued to be for the second season. That’s pretty top-of-the-game stuff.

I’ll happily confess that there’s an Australian nighttime soap that got me through the worst of COVID last summer called A Place to Call Home. I just loved it and I was depressed when it was over. It’s almost 300 episodes, but I highly recommend it, obviously.

What’s your take on the current state of the TV business?

I don’t understand how they make money, which is to say, I’m sure they do, but the business model I grew up with meant that you checked ratings every day. Now, you check to see how many subscribers signed up and that’s an entirely different thing. I don’t understand that.

The TV business today also includes many reboots and reinventions. I know Frasier is said to be coming back. Are you in touch at all on the development?

Not at all. Kelsey is really driving it and wants to do it. For Peter and myself, our opinion is reserved. But I say go for it and may you have 11 years of success.

Lazy loaded image

From left: Frasier co-creators David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee
Paramount Television / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Let’s end with the Plaza Theatre. You hope it becomes part of the fabric of Palm Springs life, which seems to be such a vibrant place these days. Not a weekend goes by when I don’t see someone on social media heading to the desert. What can you say about this place you’ve called home for 20 years?

You used the term vibrant. It’s lively and beautiful here. I’m sitting in my living room looking at the most stunning mountain in the foreground and mountain in the background with dotted palm trees. I have a large circle of friends here and that keeps me in lunches and dinners. I went to a local theater show last night. I’m going to a local theater show tonight. I’m having lunch with friends today. It’s very nice. And you have Doris Day parking.

For more information on plans to save the Plaza Theatre, click here

A version of this story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *