Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Hollywood Playhouse: Avalon Nightclub

The Hollywood Playhouse
The Hollywood Playhouse in 1928

The performing arts building at 1735 Vine Street, now known as the Avalon, has been singularly successful over the course of its nearly hundred-year-old life. When the Hollywood Playhouse opened in the 1920’s most theaters being erected in Los Angeles were being designed for moving pictures, meaning a smaller stage area was needed. The developers of the Hollywood Playhouse still believed in ‘flesh shows’ (meaning live shows, not ‘nude’ as the name might suggest) and gave it a full rope counterweight fly system for changing backgrounds and curtains, a double door to Vine Street and balcony seating.

This has given it a long life as entertainment needs in Hollywood have changed over the last century, from being a legit theatre for plays, to hosting variety type shows, to essentially being a television studio, to finally becoming the nightclub Avalon Hollywood.

Early Years of the Hollywood Playhouse

Built during a golden age of theater construction in Southern California, the Hollywood Playhouse was constructed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque style, which had become a popular aesthetic during the 1910’s and which is usually characterized by a plain, adobe-looking walls and fancifully decorated window and door openings. The architects were Gogerty and Weyl, who designed several other Hollywood landmarks that still stand, including the beautiful Mission Revival Building at 6601 Hollywood Boulevard (on the corner of Whitley Avenue).

The Hollywood Playhouse opened on January 24, 1927. It was the last of four major legit theatres to open in Hollywood over the previous year. The others were El Capitan (May 3, 1926), the Music Box, now the Fonda Theatre (October 20, 1926) and Wilkes Vine Street, now the Montalban (January 19, 1927).

These were boom years in the moving picture industry, that by then had colonized what had, only twenty years earlier, been the small farming town of Hollywood. The area surrounding Hollywood and Vine itself was being being built up with office buildings, hotels and shops, such as the huge Broadway Department Store at the intersection itself. Development in the neighborhood was actually very twenty-first century in many ways – it was heavily mixed use, with light-industrial film production, residential and recreational zones all within walking distance.

Also longer distance public transport was easily available and cheap: the Pacific Electric Red Cars ran along all the main thoroughfares in Hollywood, including along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. Passengers could easily access further flung towns and suburbs, as far as Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley and downtown, by jumping on one of the frequently-arriving streetcars. The same streetcar network offered easy access for those same suburbs to the entertainment district in Hollywood, and the Hollywood Playhouse.

During the Great Depression the theater was operated by the WPA Federal Theatre, a branch of the Works Progress Administration, the government department established by President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 to revitalize America. The Federal Theatre Project ended up employing 15,000 actors nationwide during its four year existence, and over 30 million people attended over 200 FTP productions, including at the Hollywood Playhouse.

Into the Television Years

Since opening the theatre has had a number of names, including the El Capitan Theatre, the Jerry Lewis Theatre, the Hollywood Palace and, just, the Palace. During its El Capitan phase, it hosted a popular burlesque and vaudeville show: Ken Murray’s Blackouts. Murray’s greatest weapon was buxom blonde comedienne Marie Wilson, whose banter danced the delicate line between what was considered ‘racy’ and ‘vulgar’ in 1946. When asked what was new, Marie would say that she’d been reading a study about the advantages of using mothers’ milk over bottled milk.  When Murray asked what the advantages of mother’s milk were she’d reply: “Well, it doesn’t need refrigerating — the cats can’t get at it — and, best of all, it comes in such cute containers”.

Although often portrayed as a decorative, dingy bit of fluff, Wilson’s contribution to the production’s success was unmistakable: when Murray later opened the same show in New York without her, it flopped.

In those days, television networks would often broadcast live shows and dozens were staged weekly at the theater. In the ‘Mad Men’ years of the late 1950’s and 60’s the stage at the by-then renamed Hollywood Palace hosted ABC’s Hollywood Palace Variety Show, which was very successful and ran until 1970. It featured notable guest hosts, such as Bing CrosbyLouis ArmstrongJudy Garland, and Joan Crawford. Many famed musical acts got their first big break on the show, including the Jackson 5, featuring a five-year-old Michael Jackson.

Perhaps the Playhouse’s greatest claim to fame in the music category is that, according to legend, both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played their very first gigs in Los Angeles there. It’s very likely true, bearing in mind that Capitol Records is right opposite (which was owned by EMI, the Beatles’ label).

Hollywood Entertainment District Today

Now the Hollywood Playhouse is known as Avalon Hollywood, a hugely popular dance club that features internationally famous DJ’s. According to the website patrons can “dance into the wee hours at this huge nightclub housed in a historic theater”. Sounds like a great idea!

The theater’s conversion into a the Avalon nightclub is a great example of how these magnificent buildings can be repurposed and reused. It’s the perfect way to think of historic preservation.

Live theater does still have a large presence in Hollywood though. The nearby Pantages Theatre becomes home to many of New York Broadway shows that come to town, the Fonda Theatre often presents theatrical shows on its stage, as well as stand-up comedy and music, and the Montalban still has live shows (and rooftop movies). The Hollywood Palladium, down a couple of blocks on Sunset Boulevard, has a similar program.

El Capitan Theatre is now owned by Disney, with a busy calendar of their movies and live shows connected to the Mouse Kingdom, and of course the Dolby Theatre, at Hollywood and Highland, is home to the biggest show in town every year (the Oscars), as well as hosting live and recorded shows.

We pass most of the theaters in the Hollywood Entertainment District, including the Avalon, every day on both our Hollywood and LA in a Day tours. They’re great for opening little windows onto the neighborhood’s fascinating theatrical past.

Capitol Records is opposite Avalon Hollywood

If you have any feedback on the Hollywood Playhouse: Avalon Nightclub please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter) and Maggie Wineland (Twitter)

Posted in