A Last Hurray for Hollywood

A Saturday in Los Angeles' Last "Golden Age" Movie Palaces

In the 1920s, American moviegoers sat transfixed as Greta Garbo gave John Gilbert a lingering kiss, Douglas Fairbanks flew on a magic carpet, Harold Lloyd hung precariously from a giant clock, Clara Bow danced the Charleston and Rudolph Valentino rode a horse across a burning desert. And the glamour and excitement didn't end when the lights went up--because early films were shown in lavish movie palaces as spellbinding as anything on celluloid.

Luckily, you can still see a collection of historic theaters on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The heart of the city has declined from its glory years of the '20s, but Broadway between 3rd and 9th streets is the first and biggest Historic Theater District listed on the National Register of Historic Places and boasts the largest concentration of pre-World War II theaters in America.

During the Golden Age of movies, theaters created total entertainment environments for patrons. The designs of ticket booths, lobbies, auditoriums, staircases and even sidewalks and restrooms put moviegoers into as many exotic worlds as the films themselves. A 1920s patron could walk into a Los Angeles theater resembling a French palace or a Spanish cathedral.

Take a stroll down Broadway and you'll get an idea what it must have been like to be a filmgoer here in 1931, when the street was the West Coast's equivalent of New York's Great White Way, with a dozen major theaters in a six-block area. There's a broad spectrum of survival here--some theaters are closed and facing an uncertain future, some have been converted to other uses, and some still screen movies.

On Broadway you can see an example of a nickelodeon at the Renaissance Revival-style Cameo Theater. Called a nickelodean because of the nickel patrons paid to see short silent films and newsreels, the Cameo opened in 1910 and was the oldest continuously operating movie theater in California until it closed four years ago.

Another 1910 example, the Palace, is the oldest surviving vaudeville theater in the country and still open for moviegoers. Its French Renaissance design was created by G. Albert Lansburgh for the Orpheum circuit. The facade, in concrete and colored brick, features large Romanesque arches, and above the marquee, terra cotta theatrical masks designed by Spaniard Domingo Mora depict song, dance, music and drama.

Broadway really became a theater center when the great showmen Alexander Pantages and Sidney Grauman tried their luck on the street. Pantages began his career by staging shows for miners in the gold fields of Alaska. He later opened a theater in Seattle and eventually owned one of the largest vaudeville chains in the country. His first Los Angeles theater, the Pantages, opened on Broadway in 1910. Built by the architectural team of Octavius Morgan and J.A. Walls, the Beaux Arts building still has PANTAGES written in concrete over the marquee and the original terrazzo sunburst designs embedded in the sidewalk.

The interior, originally done up as an English music hall, has been extensively remodeled through the years, but you can still see films here. In the 1920s the name of the theater was changed from the Pantages to the Arcade Theater, borrowed from the Broadway Arcade Building next door.

Like Alexander Pantages, Sidney Grauman had worked in Alaska, entertaining gold miners as part of his father's traveling minstrel show. Young Grauman convinced his father they should go into the movie business, and in 1906 they successfully converted a San Francisco store into a theater. The Graumans later opened San Francisco's Imperial, combining movies with live vaudeville acts.

Grauman soon gave Los Angeles its first true movie palace--a huge place with 2,200 seats. Completed in 1918 and called the Million Dollar Theatre, it got its name from the value of the land plus the cost of construction. The facade is a bizarre sight. Sculptor Joseph Mora created symbols of the Wild West--bison heads, eagles, playing cards and steer skulls--for the Churrigueresque exterior (a variation on Spanish Rococo), created by architects Albert C. Martin and William Lee Woollett. At Grauman's theater, the famous pre-screening prologues related to the theme of the movie. Live Western entertainment preceded cowboy movies, for example. Today, the theater is used as a Hispanic church.

The most successful movie palace on Broadway, however, was the 1921 State Theater. Built on a corner of the busiest intersection in town--7th and Broadway--the State was part of the nationwide Loew's circuit, an affiliate of MGM. Like other theaters in the Loew's chain, the State offered both film and vaudeville. In 1929, a young Judy Garland got her start at the theater as one of the singing Gumm sisters. Designed by the partnership of Charles Weeks and William Day, the State has a brick exterior and a Spanish Renaissance interior with a lavish auditorium ceiling. An enormous Buddha keeps watch above the proscenium arch of the stage screen, which still flickers with movies.

Historic Travelers shouldn't miss the even more elaborate Orpheum Theater from 1926, designed by G. Albert Lansburgh in the French Renaissance style. Polished brass doors, lush brocade drapery, silk wall panels, marble and oak paneling, immense chandeliers and a gold-leaf ceiling still beckon eager moviegoers. Two years after the theater's opening, a Wurlitzer organ was installed that could simulate over 14,000 orchestral sounds. The Los Angeles Theatre Organ Society restored the mighty Wurlitzer in 1982 and presents frequent concerts at the Orpheum.

Mary Debolske fondly remembers the Orpheum's live stage shows before the movies: "They would have an emcee and bring out singers, comedians, acrobats and tap dancers." Orpheum entertainers included such stars as Will Rogers, Jack Benny and Lena.

You can still take in a movie at the Orpheum, but what helps the theater survive is its frequent use as a film location, most recently for "Ed Wood" and Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Last Action Hero."

In early motion picture days, studios all owned their own theaters as well as producing movies--and paid their stars a salary. To gain control over their own work, silent movie greats Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith opened their own independent production company, United Artists, in 1919. They had to build their own theaters to premiere their motion pictures, however, so they opened a United Artists theater on Broadway on December 26, 1927, and UA theaters in Chicago and Detroit at the same time.

Even today, it's thrilling--even a bit chilling--to look at the UA facade's bizarre stone figures.

Pickford personally picked the theater site and the architect--C. Howard Crane. She and Fairbanks, who were married, had just returned from Spain where Pickford had fallen in love with the Gothic architecture she'd seen and decided to incorporate it in the theater's design. The plaster decoration around the UA's entrances and in the auditorium were copied from the cathedral at Segovia.

But the lavishness doesn't stop there. The lobby, half a block long, has a ceiling that looks like a medieval tapestry and murals that mimic stained glass. Two double-decked bridges connect each balcony with a staircase on the opposite end of the lobby. The stairways lead to the basement lounges, a smoking room and a powder room. Pickford had her own private screening room down there too.

In the auditorium, the ceiling is an enormous sunburst with tiny glass mirrors and hanging prisms that sent glitters of light over the audience when the bits of glass were spotlighted. Auditorium murals depict the United Artists and other stars of the 1920s.

These days the UA is leased by televangelist Dr. Gene Scott for his church services. Movie palace buffs owe a debt of gratitude to Scott for mobilizing his ministry volunteers to restore the theater to its former luster. In a peculiar turn of events, the former ladies' room now houses the largest Bible collection outside of the Vatican.

A few months before the UA opened, the Tower theater made its debut on Broadway through the efforts of two extraordinary men: entrepreneur H.L. Gumbiner and architect S. Charles Lee. Gumbiner owned a lot at 8th and Broadway and wanted to build a 900-seat theater, but architects said his 50 x 150-foot lot was too small. Lee, who longed to build a theater but couldn't get a commission, told Gumbiner he would get a theater up--and if he failed, the businessman wouldn't even have to pay him! The architect made 26 trips to city zoning to get around stringent building codes and completed the Tower.

Mission accomplished? Almost. In 1927 Gumbiner heard that the first sound movie, "The Jazz Singer," was coming out. Alas, his Tower Theater had no sound system. But Lee got city permission to hang a speaker system over the alley behind the Tower, and lines snaked around the block there for three years for "The Jazz Singer." Everybody wanted to see--and hear--star Al Jolson say, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"

Movie references abound in the design of the French Renaissance-style Tower, which Lee intended as a replica of the Paris Opera House. The stained glass window depicts the motion picture film strip as an art form, and the pediments of the windows have small figurines--a director holding a megaphone and movie camera, an actress with beads and a mirror. The Tower was lowered slightly after the 1971 Los Angeles earthquake and today is used only as a movie location.

In 1931 Gumbiner took more than a million dollars he had made from the Tower to build, with Lee again, what he hoped would be the world's most beautiful theater, the Los Angeles. Embodying Lee's idea of giving the patron art with his entertainment, the French Renaissance-style theater boasts the city's most luxurious lobby, modeled after the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Space-enhancing mirrors, fluted columns, gilt ornament, bronze banisters, sparkling chandeliers and a sunburst motif all culminate in a grand staircase leading to a crystal fountain. The exterior boasts a massive columned facade.

The theater's amenities included a light-board system so ushers could track seat vacancies and blue neon floor lights to guide patrons down the aisles. Parents could take their wailing infants to soundproof "crying rooms" above the loge, where they could still hear and see the movie. The Los Angeles also offered a playroom for older children, a restaurant and a smoking room. The ladies' restrooms had private compartments--each in a different color marble--instead of stalls.

Because the Los Angeles was not part of a chain and was limited in the pictures it could show, Gumbiner went bankrupt, and the LA turned out to be the last grand movie palace built downtown. Even when the theater opened in 1931 with the premiere of the last silent movie, Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights," it was apparent the days of the movie palaces were over.

There was one more theater built on Broadway--the 1932 Roxie--but it had a simpler, Depression-era look, and all the Broadway theaters fell into serious decline as people flocked to new theaters in Hollywood and Westwood.

The downtown theaters have not recovered since, but through the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy, an independent nonprofit preservation group, people have been rediscovering them and realizing they must be saved. To really see the theaters right, travelers should take one of the Conservancy's Saturday walking tours, or--for a magical filmgoing experience--attend its annual "Last Remaining Seats" festival of classic movies shown in the palaces Wednesday evenings in June.

The Saturday Matinee Tour

Gordon Johnson makes a strange sight as he rushes down Los Angeles' Broadway, a group of us tagging along behind like ducklings, fighting our way through shoppers on the street. We have to move fast or we'll lose him--and miss some fascinating L.A. theater history.

It's another Saturday morning in the life of L.A. Conservancy docent Johnson, one of the many enthusiastic volunteers who lead the tours. He's been guiding groups to the movie palaces since 1980.

Johnson's tour members are out-of-staters, senior citizens who patronized the theaters years ago, and some are Angelenos who've never even seen downtown L.A. He visits 12 movie palaces and gives history lessons on other significant L.A. architecture along the way.

Standing before the 1927 Tower Theater and launching into the story of how eager architect S. Charles Lee persuaded entrepreneur G.L. Humbinger to let him design theaters that have become legendary.

Johnson's sense of humor makes the L.A. of the past come alive. It seems the young Jack Benny worked at the 1926 Orpheum Theater and his future wife at Hamburger's Department Store--later the May Company--next door.

Although our guide is upbeat, he also presses for saving L.A.'s architectural heritage. Johnson deplores the conversion of many of the theaters into swap meets. At the 1913 Globe Theatre, he points up to the ceiling, above racks of shoes and jewelery for sale, to show the remnants of the proscenium arch and theater seating.

But Johnson has success stories. The 1921 State Theater on 7th and Broadway--once the most successful on the street--was condemned as a seismically unsafe brick building in the 1970s. Through its research, however, the L.A. Conservancy discovered the State was actually of steel frame construction that met L.A. earthquake codes.

The State Theater is still operating as a movie house today, but the lavish Los Angeles Theater was closed last year, and even tour groups like Johnson's can't enter. Johnson whips out a folder of black and white photographs to show tourists the glittering chandeliers, monumental mirrors, ornate staircase and crystal fountain inside.

Johnson's other prop is a flashlight he carries to better reveal beautiful details on the ceilings of the movie palaces. Some are showing films on this Saturday morning, but that doesn't stop Johnson. He leads us into the darkened State Theater and shines his flashlight above to reveal its elaborate Buddha near the screen.

Our timing is better at the Orpheum. We arrive before movies have started for the day, to see the theater in all its glory. You might get a special treat here--organists often play the theater's mighty 1928 Wurlitzer on Saturday mornings.

The L.A. Conservancy charges $5 per person for the tour. Groups meet in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel at 515 South Olive Street on Saturday mornings. Tours depart at 10 a.m. and last about 2 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on the guide. Reservations are required, and the L.A.

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