Broadway - a main north/south thoroughfare in downtown Los Angeles - is home to a notable collection of grand old motion picture palaces, most of which date back to the 1920's and 1930's.
In fact, L.A.'s Broadway theatre district represents the largest concentration of pre-World War II movie palaces in America.
Many of these theatres began as vaudeville stages, where live acts like the Marx Brothers and Sophie Tucker entertained the wealthy families of early Los Angeles. With the advent of film, they were transformed into movie theaters.
Behind their deceptively simple exteriors, these movie theatres from Hollywood's golden age were breathtakingly lavish temples, and ample proof of the popularity of the fare that of Tinseltown had to offer during that Depression era - virtual palaces where the movie-goer was king.
They featured sweeping marble staircases leading to ornate balconies, plush seats, and soaring, star-sprinkled ceilings, along with spacious, elaborately crafted interiors, gilded rococo designs and a wide range of flamboyant architectural styles.
Unfortunately, today most of these former shrines to Hollywood are currently in very sad shape. Many are simply gone. Only a handful retain much of their former glory.
In 1922, Grauman opened the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, and the focus of movie-going in L.A. shifted from downtown to Hollywood Boulevard.
After WW2, L.A.'s population migrated out of downtown to the suburbs, whire local malls & multiplexes made it unnecessary for people to trek downtown to shop or to see a movie. All of downtown suffered the effects, and the Broadway district fell into decline.
And even though much of downtown L.A. has undergone a renaissance in recent years, Broadway is still pretty rundown; it's dirty sidewalks are currently lined with cheap storefronts and noisy arcades catering to the large Spanish-speaking population, along with the transients from nearby Skid Row.
Two of the historic former theatres are now being
used as churches, two or three of them are used exclusively for "location"
work (where movies and TV shows are shot), and some of the theatres are
closed - and in danger of being demolished. (In 2008, L.A. began seriously
considering restoring the theatre district - but so far only a few of the theatres have been restored...)
The Los Angeles Theatre (at 615 S. Broadway), built in 1931 in the French baroque style of Louis XIV, it was a virtual Hollywood cathedral. Famous for its huge crystal fountain in the lobby, the Los Angeles Theatre was considered one of the four or five finest movie palaces in the world. Not an inch of the interior was left undecorated, from the elegant stage curtains and ornate balcony, to the intricately-carved ceiling of its lobby. It is spectacular. When the Los Angeles Theatre was about to go under during the Depression, Charlie Chaplin paid an exorbitant amount of money to keep the posh 1,967-seat theater afloat, so that he could have the grand premiere of his masterpiece "City Lights" there. The Los Angeles Theatre recently closed and is currently sitting idle, except for occasional film shoots. In October of 1998, a major scene from the Andy Kaufman biopic, "Man On the Moon" (starring Jim Carrey) was filmed there. They duplicated Kaufman's famous 1979 concert at Carnegie Hall, with over 1,000 extras (ads for extras in local newspapers asked people to show up wearing "upscale New York evening wear.") But you may still be able to see its gorgeous interior via the "Last Remaining Seats" series (see details below.)
The Orpheum (at 842 S. Broadway), built in 1926, is another Broadway theater that has been wonderfully preserved - from its crystal chandeliers to its grand staircase, right down to its mammoth, original Wurlitzer pipe organ (which is still played, on occasion). Open over 70 years now, the Orpheum is still a spectacularly beautiful theater. Its ornate, gilded ceilings soar nearly five stories above its 2,190 seats. Its lavish Paris Opera architecture features large balconies, opera boxes, even a marble lobby which is decorated with fine sculpture, gold/copper leaf, and 20-foot-high crystal chandeliers. The Orpheum probably has the most illustrious history of any theater on Broadway; its Wurlitzer organ provided music for the silent movies and vaudeville acts back in the 1920's; during the theater's heyday in the 30's & 40's, its stage featured such live entertainers as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Eddie Cantor, the Marx Bros., Jack Benny, Will Rogers, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Duke Ellington. It is one of the few Broadway theaters that was not only still open, but was also currently showing modern movies in English (although theater employees often outnumbered the customers). In 2001, the Orpheum reopened after a $3 million make-over, including the addition of air conditioning, a new orchestra pit, refurbished dresssing rooms, and the theatres re-lighting of the rooftop neon sign (which hasn't worked since WW2). The owner plans to use it as a live event venue, for concerts and live theatre. The Orpheum is also often leased as a location site for filming Hollywood movies and TV shows. For instance, when Tom Hanks was making "That Thing You Do" and needed to shoot a scene set at the Orpheum in Pittsburgh, he shot the scene at the L.A. Orpheum instead. And in 2006, it was used for episodes of "American Idol". And in 2012, they shot an early auditions episode of "So You Think You Can Dance" at the Orpheum. You can see the interior of the theatre on the Conservancy tour. (213) 239-0939
Good news for those wanting to see the interior of the Orpheum Theatre
as it was meant to be seen - while going to a movie. The Los Angeles
Theatre Organ Society has started showing silent movies at the Orpheum,
complete with accompaniment on the Wurlitzer pipe organ. The next showing
will be on Saturday, July 2, 2005, at 8:00 pm, when the first movie
to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, "Wings", will be screened.
For ticket info, go to http://www.latos.org
The Million Dollar Theater (at 307 S. Broadway) built in 1918 by Sid Grauman at the then-astounding cost of one million dollars, it was the first movie palace built in Los Angeles; this elaborate gothic/baroque theater is huge - containing 2,345 seats, and was the site of many old-time premieres. It was later used as a church, and after the church relocated to another theatre (The State), the Million Dollar Theater had been closed and shuttered. However, in early 2008, the theatre reopened as a venue for live stage performances, with an emphasis on multicultural productions. In May of 2008, it hosted a concert by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, and the theatre will be hosting some of the Last Remaining Seats screenings.
State Theatre (at 703
S. Broadway) was built in 1921 by MGM; it offers 2,450
it the largest of all the Broadway theaters. Judy Garland
(then known as Frances Gumm) performed her as part of a sister act back
in the 30's. The interior is a mix of medieval, classical, and Spanish
design. The State was still open not long ago, showing modern English-language
movies, but it was recently converted into a church. As such, it is now
off-limits to the Conservancy tours. It has been occasionally used for
movie productions - it was used, for instance, in the 1995 film, "Wild
Bill" (with Jeff Bridges)
and in the music video by singer Jewel,
"You Were Meant For Me." (213) 239-0962
United Artists Theatre (at
933 S. Broadway) was fashioned to resemble the French
Quarter of New Orleans; it featured a domed, mirrored ceiling, and offered
2,141 seats Mary
Pickford showed up for its 1927 opening. Its walls still have murals of Mary and Douglas Fairbanks
in historic poses. It has been wonderfully restored, but until recently
was used as
a church by the unconventional Dr. Gene Scott. But in 2011, the
United Artists building was bought by an East Coast investment group,
which turned the 13-story building into the boutique Ace Hotel, which opened
in 2013. The theatre remains intact, but the new owners are now referring to it as "The Theatre at the Ace Hotel").
Palace Theatre (at 630
S. Broadway). Built in 1911 as part of the Orpheum vaudeville
chain (Houdini, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire and the Marx Brothers performed on its stage), it is
now the oldest remaining Orpheum Theatre in the United States. It seats
1,167, in a replica of a Renaissance Florentine palace. But it has been
reduced in size. In 2011, the Palace reopned after a $1 million restoration Check out their website at downtownpalace.com.
You can also see the interior of the theare on the Conservancy
tour (213) 239-0959
Alas, many other former Broadway movie palaces are either gone or turned into indoor swap meets (although many of their ornate outside entrances remain the same), including the Tower (802 S. Broadway) where "The Mambo Kings" was filmed), the Roxie (598 S. Broadway), the Warner Bros/Pantages (534 S. Broadway), the Globe (744 S. Broadway) and the Rialto (812 South Broadway)..
But you don't have to settle for looking at the exteriors or attend a church service just to take a loving look at the interiors of these grand old movie palaces.
Guided walking tours of this Broadway Theater
district are offered every Saturday by Los Angeles
Conservancy Walking Tours, and these tours will take you right
inside three of these classic movie palaces (often the Orpheum, the Palace
and the United Artists, but interior access may vary by tour). These walking
tours cost $8, begin at 10 AM, and last approximately two hours. They recommend
that you make reservations for the tour a month in advance.
And if you would like to actually see restored film classics at one of these historic downtown theaters, just wait until May & June. The same Los Angeles Conservancy offers their annual "Last Remaining Seats " film series, each Wednesday throughout June. They've been doing it for almost 20 years now.
You may, for instance, be treated to the original
1925 version of "Ben-Hur" at the Los Angeles Theatre,
accompanied by live organ music, or have a chance to see a Laurel
& Hardy comedy classic at the Palace, or a lavish 40's musical
at the the Million Dollar Theatre. Often, there are in-person appearances
by stars of the featured movie, or live productions on stage before the
film is shown.
It's a rare opportunity to experience what it was like to see a film on Broadway back in Hollywood's Golden Age.
In 2015, Last Remaining Seats will take place June 10 through June 27.
Here is the full 2015 schedule:
They've been offering this popular series since 1987; each show attracts about 1,500 people! Doors open at 7 pm with showtimes at 8 pm. Tickets sell out quickly, and it is suggested that you buy your tickets in advance. They go on sale in April.
For either the walking tour or for tickets to "Last Remaining Seats," phone (213) 623-CITY for more information and schedules, or (213) 896-9114 for their recorded hotline. The address of the L.A. Conservancy is 523 W. Sixth Street, Suite 1216, Los Angeles. Their website is www.laconservancy.org
There is also a spectacular collection of 89 color photographs available of the interiors these grand Broadway theatres, in a book titled "The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown," by Robert Berger & Anne Conser. You can buy it online by clicking here.
(Or if you simply want get a good idea of what movie palaces used to look like in their heyday, you need travel no farther than Hollywood Boulevard, and the El Capitan Theatre, a classic movie palace which has been restored to its former glory, and which shows first-run Disney films in English. It's not quite as lavish as the downtown theatres, but if you want to avoid a trip downtown, it is your best bet. Other historic theatres on Hollywood Blvd include the Egyptian and of course Grauman's Chinese. Plus the Pantages, which is now a legitimate/live theatre, started out as a movie theatre.)
Incidentally, the very first full-time movie
theater in the United States was located in downtown Los Angeles.
Called "The Electric Theatre," it was a converted arcade
which began showing short films in April of 1902, for ten cents per customer.
Unfortunately, the Electric Theatre is now gone. It was located at 262 Main Street - next to St. Vibiana's Cathedral, in
what is now the northern edge of the dangerous Skid Row district. I wouldn't
advise going there. And bear in mind that Broadway itself is not the safest
neighborhood in town. Exercise reasonable caution.
Getting there: The old theater district is located in downtown Los Angeles, along Broadway, from 3rd Street (on the north) to 9th Street (on the south). / From Hollywood & Vine, take Hollywood Boulevard east (about half a mile) to the Hollywood (101) Freeway. Take the Hollywood Freeway south (about five miles) to downtown Los Angeles, and the Temple Street offramp. Go three blocks east on Temple, and then turn right (south) on Broadway; the old theater district begins just past 3rd Street. (Be careful driving downtown - many of the streets there are one-way.)
[You can access the L.A. Conservancy's official website at: http://www.laconservancy.org.]
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