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Broadway Los Angeles: Historic Theater District

Broadway Los Angeles
Broadway Los Angeles, c1941

When we visit the Broadway Los Angeles Theater District on our tours, visitors from outside LA can get confused. We have a Broadway here too? Their confusion only increases when we tell them that it actually has the largest number of historic theaters in the U.S. It does perhaps seem incredible – but it’s true. There is one distinction though, LA’s Broadway was mostly comprised of movie palaces, meaning theaters that were designed to show a program of live entertainment, usually vaudeville-style shows, and movies, or just movies.

It may be hard to imagine now, but during its heyday, from around 1900 to the late 1940’s, Broadway was the entertainment and shopping district for Los Angeles. The May Company building between 8th and 9th   Streets was the biggest department store west of Chicago, and there were many others that were almost as big, lining the busy street.

There were nearly twenty theaters on Broadway itself and the streets running parallel on either side. Between them they would have been able to sit over thirty thousand patrons. And they were full every night. Charles Chaplin, who moved to LA in 1913, writes in his autobiography of going to see a show in one of the theaters on a regular basis during the 1910’s and 20’s. It’s just what you did. You’d grab a bite in one of the many diners or restaurants and catch a show, followed by a movie (and then visit a speakeasy bar).

Decline of Downtown LA

Unfortunately for downtown several things happened in the 1950’s and 60’s that doomed Broadway and made it even harder for the theater owners to keep their palaces open, even if they had been able to quickly pivot to new business plans and patrons.

Firstly Television appeared and rapidly became incredibly popular, meaning that fewer and fewer people were looking for live entertainment, especially on weeknights. Single screen theaters too became rarer and rarer with the advent of the multiplex.

Secondly, this all coincided with the increasing suburbanization of Southern California and the rise of the automobile. One by one the streetcar lines that serviced downtown were closed down, meaning that getting into the neighborhood was increasingly difficult. This was a serious, almost terminal, issue for the Broadway theaters. They were particularly at risk from bad traffic, since all their customers have to arrive at the same time. Imagine if it was a busy Saturday and thirty thousand patrons were all descending on the Theater District at the same time – it would be total gridlock. Even if the theaters actually had their own parking. Which most don’t, because it wasn’t necessary at the time they were constructed.

A sizable theater district can only exist in a city with a decent public transport system, like New York or London. Without that it’s just not possible. Fortunately LA has learned that lesson (to an extent) and there are now multiple light and heavy rail lines running into downtown. All we have to do is get more Angelenos to use them 🙂 .

Historic Theaters on Broadway in Los Angeles

A few of the theaters have regular programs of movies or events. Some have been turned into shops or markets, several have been demolished, but most of them are still hanging in there, and if you get a chance to go inside one (which this article will help you do), it can be a magical experience.

MILLION DOLLAR THEATRE (1917)

The Million Dollar Theatre opened in November 1917 with the premiere of The Silent Man. It is still the largest theater on Broadway with around 2,200 seats (down from the original 2,500), although it isn’t the grandest.

Million Dollar Theatre

It was built for theatrical impresario Sid Grauman and accordingly, like almost all of his theaters, it had a sizable stage. That turned out to be a saving grace as it allowed the theater to pivot to other uses over its hundred-odd-year career. In the 1940’s it became a live music venue for Jazz greats like Dizzie Gillespie and from the 1950’s-1990’s it was a Spanish-language movie theater. Then it was a church.

Nowadays it’s used for concerts and events, as well as screenings, usually of classic movies. These events are often organized in conjunction with next door’s Grand Central Market, so it’s easy to make a night of it (more information here).

ROXIE THEATRE (1932)

The Roxie opened in 1932 and is the last of the Broadway movie palaces to be built. It could seat 1,500 patrons back in the day and was noted for its Art Deco Zigzag design (which, in spite of its bad condition, still stands out today). It closed in 1989 and was turned into retail units.

CAMEO THEATER (1910)

Believe it or not, but when you look at this rundown swap meet type store you’re actually looking at the birth of film in Los Angeles. This is the first purpose built movie theater ever to be built in California! The concept of a dedicated theater, only for films, was quite new. Needless to say it has worked out since – although not for the Cameo. The new design was called a ‘Picture Playhouse’ and it was operated by Billy Clune, who was also a film producer, constructing his own studios in Hollywood. That lot is still in use for production and is now known as Raleigh Studios.

The Cameo was in operation all the way until 1991, when it was converted to retail.

ARCADE THEATRE (1910)

When the 1400-seat Arcade opened it was part of the Pantages Theatre circuit, run by Alexander Pantages (whose beautiful landmark theatre is at Hollywood and Vine). It was a vaudeville-style theater until the 1940’s, when it was converted to show films and newsreels, which it did until 1992, by which time it was a grindhouse.

LOS ANGELES THEATRE (1931)

Widely regarded as the most beautiful and sumptuous of all the movie palaces on downtown Los Angeles’ Broadway, the Los Angeles Theatre opened with the world premiere of Charles Chaplin’s City Lights. The impresario who commissioned it, H L Gumbiner, was running out of money as it neared completion, but Charlie stepped in to ensure it was ready on time.

The list of attendees at the premiere reads like a who’s who of Hollywood back then. Even Albert Einstein, teaching at Caltech at the time, came and the great man was reported to be in tears at the end! Nevertheless all marveled at the magnificent new theater.

A movie house for the gods. (It) was palatial beyond the dreams of a prince. (Suggesting) nothing less than the glory of Versailles.

Jack Smith, The Los Angeles Times

Underneath the 2000-seat theater was a restaurant, bar, ballroom, soundproofed nursery (isn’t that a brilliant business idea) and the most beautiful toilets you’ve ever seen.

Like so many theaters on Broadway Los Angeles, it closed in the 1990’s (1994 in this case), although it’s often used for filming and there are movie screenings and other events throughout the year.

PALACE THEATRE (1911)

The Palace was designed as a vaudeville and movie theatre, with a seating capacity of 2,200. When it opened it was part of the Orpheum circuit and it is in fact the oldest such theatre in the U.S. Later it was owned by Twentieth Century Fox, before ultimately closing as a first-run movie theatre in 2000.

STATE THEATRE (1921)

This was another vaudeville and movie palace, with capacity for 2,450 patrons on opening. In the late 1920’s the Gumm Sisters performed here, the youngest of which was nick-named Leather Lungs, on account of her ability to be heard at the very top, back, end of the house. When the theater stopped showing vaudeville the sisters managed to get a contract from Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Leather Lungs had enormous success as Judy Garland (interestingly there is a Garland Building a block away from the State Theatre, leading some to conclude that this was where she got the inspiration for her new name).

The theater was leased to a Brazilian church in 1997, who’ve occupied it ever since.

GLOBE THEATRE (1913)

The Globe was one of the few existing theatres on Broadway which was designed as a legit theater, with seating for around eight-hundred people. Built for impresario Oliver Morosco, it showed dramatic theater until the Great Depression, when it was converted to show movies. Later it became a Spanish-language movie theater, and then a swap meet, before being converted and restored back to being a theater in the 2010’s. It’s now mostly used for screenings and other events.

TOWER THEATRE (1927)

Once again when you look at the Tower Theatre you’re looking at a piece of film history. Just as the theatre was nearing completion Warner Bros was about to open its new movie, The Jazz Singer. This was the first feature film to use synchronized sound, a brand new invention at the time. The studio was nervous about how the revolutionary movie would be received, so they arranged to have a secret screening at the Tower Theatre, to gauge the audience’s response.

The theatre had been wired for sound, one of the very first in the world, and the preview was held in 1927. It was a pivotal moment in the development of cinema and it’s impossible to overstate the impact that it had on popular entertainment. The audience was awestruck and within a couple of years silent movies had all but disappeared.

As time passed the theatre became a newsreel house, before reverting back to first-run movies in the 1960’s. Latterly it was a concert venue and filming location. The Tower appeared in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (playing a London music hall very convincingly), but now it’s a flagship Apple Store. It somehow feels appropriate that it’s a modern tech giant that occupies this spot, which was at the cutting edge of early twentieth-century tech.

RIALTO THEATER (1917)

The Rialto opened as a movie theatre with exactly a thousand seats. It was known at the time as Quinn’s Rialto after its owner, John Quinn. During the early 1920’s it was taken over by Sid Grauman, then it was owned by Paramount, nevertheless it kept going until 1987, when it finally closed.

In 2013 the Rialto reopened as an Urban Outfitters store, with a restored marquee (the only part of the theater which has historical preservation status).

ORPHEUM THEATRE (1926)

The final Los Angeles venue for the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit, this theater has two-thousand seats and is the best preserved of the Broadway Los Angeles theaters.

For its early years the Orpheum mostly stuck to presenting vaudeville, although movies were shown from time to time, sometimes as part of the theatrical show. However, in the 1950’s the theatre was given over to film. Since 2000 the Orpheum has been available for for film shoots, business meetings, award shows and other special events (more information here).

UNITED ARTISTS THEATRE (1927)

This theatre was leased to United Artists upon completion and the idea was that it would hold premieres for the studio’s films, as well as theatrical presentations, either to accompany the film presentations, or as separate shows. As such the 2,200 seat theater was lavishly appointed, with a grand and intricate gothic design inspired by the cathedral of Segovia, Spain.

United Artists had been formed in 1919, when Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and D W Griffith (the three biggest actors and the most successful director in Hollywood at the time) had created the company, in order to be able to make and control their own projects. The model for the Hollywood studios then was that they would own their own theater chain, so Broadway’s theatre was an important part of that strategy.

However the plan didn’t last long into the 1930’s, when the stage shows were ditched (business dived after the advent of talkies) and the UA began to focus solely on film. It closed in 1989 and the following year became a church (you’d be forgiven for thinking that Broadway must be a religious neighborhood, it’s not, it’s just that it’s convenient for the congregation).

In 2014 the building reopened as an Ace Hotel, with the UA, now fully restored, being opened to the public for regular screenings, concerts and events (more information here). In January 2024 the Ace Hotel is due to close, although the theatre will continue as normal.

Off Broadway Theaters

These theaters are adjacent to Broadway and considered part of the Historic Theater District.

REGENT THEATRE (1914)

Opening as a reputable film house on Main Street, it’s now the only theater there. Unfortunately it was downhill for the Regent from its opening, as first it transitioned to second run films in the 1930’s, due to the gravitational effect of Broadway pulling its clients away. Then in the 1950’s it became a grindhouse theatre and by the 1970’s it was offering 24-hours of pornographic movies.

Evidently even that didn’t transform its fortunes, because it closed in 2000. In 2014 the Regent reopened as a concert venue, which it remains. It’s operated by Live Nation (more information here).

WARNER BROS DOWNTOWN THEATRE (1920)

Occupying a prime spot on the corner of Hill and 7th Streets, only a block west of Broadway, the Warner was a Pantages when it opened. The theatre was to be the prestige showcase house for the entire Pantages vaudeville theatrical empire.

By the the time Pantages opened the theatre his programs consisted of vaudeville and film, this meant the stage was large enough to accommodate shows with ranks of dancing girls and other spectacles, although not big enough to put on a full New York Broadway-style show. The capacity was 2,200 in an ornate and grand setting. However, Pantages sold off his theater chain in 1930 and this one became the Warner Bros Downtown Theatre, where the studio would hold many of its film premieres.

In the 1950’s the U.S. Government forced the Hollywood studios to split their businesses, effectively losing control of their theater chains. That’s a minor element in the decline of the district: as long as the big studios owned a bunch of the theaters and had premieres there, they had an interest in the neighborhood. Once they didn’t they didn’t, and correspondingly the Los Angeles Broadway Theater District declined.

The Warner closed in 1975 and a few years later it became the Downtown Jewelry Center. The lobby and auditorium are filled with jewelry stalls, a false floor having been put over the seats and many of the walls having been taken down to accommodate the new use for the theater. Nevertheless, if you ever stand in the old auditorium you can still see most of the theater still intact all around you, and it’s magnificent.

OLYMPIC THEATRE (1927)

The Olympic was a movie theatre from the get-go, being converted from the building’s previous use as a restaurant. It got its name in 1931, in honor of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The Olympic closed as a film house in 1997, after which it was vacant for many years, before receiving a beautiful remodeling in 2017, turning it into a higher-end clothing store (by that point almost all the original details had already been lost).

MAYAN THEATRE (1927)

At the time the Mayan was built Mayan revival architecture was becoming all the rage, and that’s particularly reflected in the theater’s design. Mayan features had often been utilized in theaters during the 1920’s, but few took it as far as this one. It was designed for musical comedies, seating almost 1,500 patrons, and during the early thirties the Mayan alternated stage shows with movies.

In 1936 the WPA Federal Theatre Project took over the theatre, with a program of legit theatrical shows. By the 1940’s it was proving popular with the large African American population who had recently moved into the area to work in wartime factories. Importantly, the Mayan audience was integrated, whereas other theaters in downtown were not. A highlight from this period was Sweet ‘N Hot, an “All Star Colored Musical Revue” starring Dorothy Dandridge.

The Mayan was another pornographic movie house in the 1970’s and 80’s, before becoming a nightclub in 1990 (more information here).

BELASCO THEATRE (1926)

Right next door to the Mayan, the Belasco was a legit theater to be run by the same management. The theater was also built and owned by oil magnate Edward Doheny, like the Mayan, and it had a thousand seats.

During the 1930’s it was arguably the most successful dramatic theatrical theater in downtown with stars, and future stars, such as Edward G Robinson, Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart, Tallulah Bankhead and Betty Grable all appearing on stage at the Belasco.

However, in 1950, it closed as a theater and became – you probably guessed it – a church, which it remained until 1984 (it’s an interesting juxtaposition, having a porn theater next to a church, but hey, welcome to LA!).

After a long period of little use, apart from occasional film shoots, the Belasco was converted into a nightclub in 2011. Now it’s run by Live Nation as a concert venue (more information here).

Los Angeles Theaters

With the opening this month of the Regional Connector, which will run right through downtown, perhaps we’ll see more of the palaces come back to life. There is a new station on Broadway after all.

A great way to experience these theaters is to do one of the monthly Historic Broadway Theater tours of the Los Angeles Conservancy. The Conservancy also organize an annual classic movie screening season in several of the old theaters every summer, called Last Remaining Seats. What better way is there to experience one of these theaters, than to watch a great film in such a wonderful setting?

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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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