The honor of receiving the first star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars did not go to a renowned artist like Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra. Instead, it went to a person barely known outside of Palm Springs, Earle C. Strebe.
When the Walk of Stars launched in 1992, the first seven inductees were all people who made Palm Springs famous: Bob Hope, Ginger Rogers, Ralph Bellamy, Charlie Farrell, Ruby Keeler, William Powell, and Earle Strebe— and the No. 1 star that honors Strebe is right across from the historic Plaza Theater.
This is undeniably where the star belongs, in front of the theater created by Strebe. While Strebe himself wasn’t in motion pictures, he was responsible for bringing them to the people of the Coachella Valley, and his Palm Springs Plaza Theater was one of eight theaters he owned and operated.
Born in 1906 in Indiana, Earle Strebe arrived in Palm Springs during the winter of 1926-1927 after a year at Butler University, where he was unable to fulfill his basketball scholarship due to a cardiac enlargement.
He was playing football on the Desert Inn field when owner Earl Coffman came out, spoke to Strebe for a while, and offered him a job there as a bellboy / night clerk. Strebe went on to serve in a variety of roles at the Desert Inn, ranging from waiter to accountant.
Strebe began showing guests movies in the lobby with an old Bell and Howell projector, and quickly made a deal with Coffman to operate a movie theater business in the hotel. As her audience grew, Strebe moved the “theater” hall to the Frances Stevens School (where the Palm Canyon Theater is now located). In fact, teacher Katherine Finchy helped collect the tickets.
Strebe built the city’s first cinema just south of Frances Stevens Park, across from Alejo Road. According to former mayor Frank Bogert: “Everyone went there every night. There wasn’t much to do at night.
In 1930, Strebe married Frances Bunker, the daughter of Bunker’s garage owner Zaddie Bunker. Frances, then 24, had just graduated from Los Angeles Osteopathic College and was beginning to practice medicine in Palm Springs.
Over the years, Strebe grew into a businessman and developer and helped his stepmother, Zaddie, manage his properties, but his main love was the cinema. In 1932, he built the Village Theater in downtown Palm Springs, a business that remained in business until 1980.
In the 1920s and 1930s, some movie stars went to spend the summer in nearby Lake Arrowhead, and Strebe followed them and also built the first movie theaters in that town. Over the years, he would open eight theaters in Southern California. He owned three in the mountains – at Lake Arrowhead, Crestline and Big Bear – and one at the beach, as well as the pop-up Rancho Theater, El Paseo Theater, Village Theater (aka Palm Springs Theater) and the gem of his chain, the Plaza Theater in downtown Palm Springs.
The state of the art Plaza Theater opened on December 12, 1936, with the premiere of Camille with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Some say the enigmatic Garbo herself attended the opening incognito, wearing blue jeans and a shawl over her head. Ahead of the screening, it is claimed that she went to Strebe’s office and introduced herself, but asked Strebe to respect her anonymity and not to announce her presence – a request he complied with .
The Plaza was a popular theater in the 1940s for famous stars to broadcast. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Amos ‘n’ Andy all did radio broadcasts from the Plaza, bringing national attention to downtown Palm Springs.
The historic Plaza Theater has served Palm Springs well for decades. In 1992, Riff Markowitz opened the Fabulous follies of Palm Springs, a high-level live performance that drew crowds by bus, until 2014. Since then, the theater has not been used much and is currently the subject of a fundraising campaign for its restoration. It is expected to be used as part of the inaugural Oasis Music Festival later this month.
Over the years, Strebe was quick to open her theaters for community activities and charity events. He was also eager and willing to help his community, leading the Chamber of Commerce and serving on Palm Springs City Council for years. A humble and unassuming man, Strebe was greatly appreciated. “He was the nicest guy you’ve ever met,” Bogert said.
Earle’s brother, George Strebe, and his wife, Ethel, owned The Doll House, one of the valley’s most famous restaurants / nightclubs.
In addition to his theaters, Earle Strebe owned and managed much of the property in downtown Palm Springs and was instrumental in the development of the city.
He died in 1994 at the age of 88 at home after a long battle with cancer. He and Frances have been together for 64 years and have lived in the same Palm Springs home for 50 years. She died in 1996 at the age of 89. They had three daughters
Of his death in 1994, artist Phil Harris of nearby Palm Desert said, “He’s always had theaters and he’s always been active in promoting Palm Springs. He has done a lot for this city. He was a handsome man.
Sources for this article include Star portrait by Gerhard G. Franzel (Palm Springs Walk of Stars, 1999); Nellie’s pension by Marjorie B. Bright (ETC Publications, 1981); Palm Springs: why I love you, by Tony Burke (Palmesa Inc., 1978); and Legends of Palm Springs by Greg Niemann (Sunbelt Publications, 2006).