The vicissitudes of life, all-encompassing as they often become, endanger our ability to occasionally escape the present and contemplate our past. Tragically so, disproportionate time spent ensconced in the present threatens to rob us of a more contextual understanding of our city and perhaps ourselves. William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead – it is not even past”, and so, if the past is always relevant to our present existence, does it not seem worthwhile to explore?
As a city, Los Angeles is increasingly witnessing an acquaintance with its past, and the Los Angeles Conservancy, as a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of historical buildings, is perhaps one of the greatest examples. And so, while Los Angeles features a sundry amount of historical treasures, there is one specific location that particularly features the first and largest historic theater district listed in the National Register of Historic Places; the Broadway Theater District of downtown Los Angeles.
The movie palaces on Broadway are the west coast equivalent to the Great White Way, home of New York’s Broadway musical theaters. In fact, these twelve movie palaces are the largest surviving collection of pre-WWII theatres in the United States. By 1931, these movie palaces altogether featured a seating capacity of 17,000. From north to south, the twelve theaters are the following: The Million Dollar (1917), Roxie (1931), Cameo (1910), Arcade (1910), Los Angeles (1931), Palace (1911), Loew’s State (1921), Globe (1913), Tower (1927), Rialto (1917), Orpheum (1926) and the United Artists theater (1919).
Though it was not the first theater on Broadway, Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater in 1918 established Broadway as a venue for motion pictures. Interestingly, just one decade prior, movies were not yet necessarily considered legitimate entertainment, mostly referred to as a lower class activity, cheap entertainment for the masses. This changed in 1915 with Birth of a Nation, a controversial feature running 2 hours, as it was the first film exceeding 100 minutes. To be equally inclusive of middle and upper classes, movie palaces were born out of an increasing desire to present movies as “classy” entertainment. As Robert Sklar points out in his book Movie Made America, “While the lower classes quickly patronized early movie theaters, the tastes and expectations of a cultivated audience required an atmosphere of elegance that only newly conceived and constructed movie theaters could provide”.
From the Italian Renaissance to French Baroque, these palaces borrowed extensively from a wide range of cultures and historical periods, much like Las Vegas has done today with its casinos. While the premise of juxtaposing various artistic movements can be criticized as a degradation of authentic art, the wide range of architectural styles nevertheless captured the imagination of the public. Keep in mind that this is all before television. As Roger Ebert would say, “Old theatres are irreplaceable. They could never be duplicated at today’s costs – but more importantly, their spirit could not be duplicated because they remind us of a day when going to the show was a more glorious and escapist experience. I think a town’s old theatres are the sanctuary of its dreams”.
Altogether, these palaces included amenities such as sound-proof “cying rooms” (for parents with babies), staffed playrooms and a barber-shop. As the Los Angeles Conservancy would put it, “ticket booths, lobbies, auditoriums, staircases, sidewalks, and restrooms were all styled to satisfy the most romantic imagination”. The Orpheum theater, along with the Los Angeles theater, represents the pride and joy of Broadway’s restoration efforts. While historic theaters in other cities are typically run by non-profit organizations, these theaters run as for-profit ventures. Furthermore, existing today primarily as rental houses, profits are made possible by the local television and film industries that lease its space. These profits in turn allow for their preservation. Without the television and film industries, the alternative would be for the theater to exist as a non-profit building and therefore its life would depend on government subsidies and private donors. Recently, the Orpheum has been used for the production of So You Think You Could Dance, Dreamgirls, Spiderman 3 and Transformers.
As for his renovation efforts, owner Steve Needleman has sought to restore a theater that could still feel like it might have in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In contrast to this example, many historical theaters spend millions in renovation and ultimately end up looking “renovated”, much like modern baseball parks that are built to look “historic”. The best way to experience this theater is to view a film here. On January 9, 2008, the Orpheum will screen the Buster Keaton classic film Steamboat Bill Jr., accompanied by the last remaining theater organ on Broadway, a 1928 Wurlitzer organ with metal and wood pipes that can simulate 14,000 orchestral sounds. As it has been so typical of Los Angeles history, the thriving years of even a theatrical paradise such as Broadway would prove to be relatively short-lived.
By the late 1920’s, the Chinese, Egyptian and Pantages theaters on Hollywood Boulevard would eclipse downtown as a first-run theater destination. Then, in the 1960’s, Hollywood was dethroned in this regard by the theaters in Westwood Village, attracting a large share of movie premieres and large audiences. In recent decades, the Latino population in downtown has been crucial to the preservation of these theaters as they continue to become vulnerable to the passage of time. In its later years, The Million Dollar Theater achieved success by showing Mexican films and staging vaudeville shows (variedades). For Latin American artists, for some time, as is said, “if they didn’t play in this theater, they weren’t a big star”. As a long-time Angeleno and a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, Jan Westman notes, “Keep in mind that these buildings were built to make money. The Latino population has been instrumental in supporting downtown L.A., particularly after World War II, after which, they increasingly continued to patronize these theaters and kept them alive. As a consequence, we have the largest historic theater district in the country, and we think now, in the world”.
Today, development in Los Angeles generally appears to be coming full circle. For some, suburban sprawl has spurred a re-evaluation of long commutes. For others, suburban isolation has propelled the desire to find a more edgy, urban experience. Also, as environmentalism ascends on our priority lists, the “recycling” of older buildings is increasingly alluring. A city seeking to pursue re-development needs an anchor, and the Broadway Theater District is definitely conducive for the re-development movement in Downtown Los Angeles. Historically, as Ed Kelsey, general manager of the Orpheum, has pointed out, one of the challenges for re-development and preservation in Los Angeles is the structure of its political system. Because of geographical council districts, Los Angeles features a strong council and a weak mayor. As a result, council-members are driven mainly by their district’s issues, while the mayor is hard-pressed to lead a unified development or preservation effort.
Traditionally, another challenge lies in our city’s mindset, the inclination to build everything new and thereby ignore what is already there. In recent years, the Kodak and Nokia theaters have been built despite the existence of the Gibson Theater and the Shrine Auditorium. To house the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Disney Concert Hall was built despite the existence of the music center, while the symphonies of other cities across the country typically play in older, sometimes historic venues, such as in Boston, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Nevertheless, despite politics and mindsets, the history of Los Angeles continues to live through its historic buildings. Thankfully, by way of the Los Angeles Conservancy, we all have the opportunity experience these movie palaces and other historic buildings up-close. And, for a brief moment, we are transported into a past that reaches back almost one century; a past that is not only resuscitated every time we remember it, but has been with us all along.
All photography by Jaime.