It’s a typical Friday night in the winter of 1923. You step off a red streetcar with immense excitement as the slight aroma of gunpowder from the magnificent firework show that runs at twilight atop the marquee of the world-famous Palace Theater hits your nose. Edna Purviance would be accompanied by Henry Bergman and Charlie Chapman in attendance that night in a special, one-night-only showing of “A Woman of Paris.” The hottest premiere on Broadway and you happen to have a ticket.
The streets are filled with bustling theatergoers, dressed to the nines on their way to their respective theaters, not to be late to the overtures that will transport them into another world for the next two hours. The 11 o’clock number hits the stages across the largest concentration of theaters in the country and tens of thousands of inspired souls hit the streets to not-blistering cold, but 75 degree Santa Ana winds to the west. The night is young and the historic theater district of Downtown Los Angeles has only just begun to ignite the magic it has in store for its City of Angels.
Most people would imagine the above scenario happening anywhere but Downtown Los Angeles. In fact, the magic of Broadway has been living in the hearts and minds of New Yorkers for decades, but little does the world know that professional musical theater in the US didn’t only start on 42nd and Broadway in New York, but on 6th and Broadway in Los Angeles, California. Yes, you heard that right. In Los Angeles.
Los Angeles was the second stop on the famous “Orpheum Circuit” of theaters created by Gustav Walter and Morris Mayerfield at the turn of the 20th century. The opening of the Orpheum Theater on Broadway in DTLA in the late 1800’s created the foundation for the Los Angeles theater district to thrive into worldwide spectacle. From the early 1900’s to the mid 1940’s, The Broadway Theater District in Los Angeles was the entertainment epicenter of the entire country.
It wasn’t until the mid 1950’s when Hollywood’s thriving cinema and television endeavors would overtake theatrical entertainment. People just weren’t going to the theater anymore. Just twenty minutes up the 101, big studio executives and Directors were moving further into motion pictures and away from live stage shows. The Broadway Theater District eventually fell victim to the local decline and urban decay of Downtown LA and was eventually, sadly, forgotten.
Walt Disney had a saying that has always stuck with me, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” I grew up here in Southern California, and as early as I can remember, I always wanted to work at Disneyland. My dreams came true on the summer before my senior year of high school in 2002 when I joined Disney Entertainment Productions in Anaheim. Being able to be part of the magic and story of the Disney company, while also seeing the economics of how to entertain the masses, inspired me throughout my career. Steve Job’s philosophy that incredibly beautiful things can be birthed from the intersection of artistry and technology set me on a mission toward achieving something within that realm. It wasn’t until a few years or so ago that I realized we are now on the verge of something magnificent here in Los Angeles — waiting for a rebirth.
In 2015, my business partner Paul McGill and I created a company called Broadway Masters, an online streaming company to bring musical theater masterclasses to any student with a WiFi device. Before setting off on a mission to make my own mark on digital entertainment, I had left the professional musical theater business after a decade on the road touring the world with West Side Story and fulfilling every performance dream Disney could afford me.
After creating a social media ad agency from my digital advocacy work on President Obama’s re-election campaign, I felt a longing desire to get back into creative production. Musicals were having a resurgence, and I knew it was my destiny to jump back in. After meeting with Paul, my soon to be other half and dreaming up Broadway Masters, we came to a point where we had a realization: If we wanted Broadway Masters to be successful, I would have to move to New York and create it there since Broadway lives in New York.
I didn’t like this idea very much at all since I had moved AWAY from New York to escape the cold and created a new life for myself back home in Los Angeles. Surprisingly, Paul had said that if we could find a way to make it work in LA, then there may be a possibility to do something great without leaving. So I got to researching and soon learned that besides the Pantages and the Ahmanson, Los Angeles did not have much of a thriving theater community. “How could this be?” I thought to myself.
Things began to look up when I stumbled upon a Los Angeles city-sponsored website that would change everything.
It was called Bringing Back Broadway. A city redevelopment initiative that started in 2008 by the local city councilmember to revitalize the Broadway Corridor in the Historic Core of Downtown Los Angeles. There, sitting across ten blocks between 1st Street and Olympic Blvd still sat those twelve vaudeville theaters built by Gustav and Mayerfield some 100 years ago.
All in various stages of disrepair, six of them had been decently refurbished and were occasionally used for small events and film shoots. These theaters, some twice the size of any theater on Broadway in New York City, sit vacant 300+ nights out of the year. It was astonishing to me that this was the largest concentration of theaters on one street in the entire country and few were being used for their rightful purpose. Even more sad was how many Angelenos knew almost nothing about them.
I immediately scheduled a meeting with the councilman to discuss my ideas with him on creating an education-focused theater academy that could feed into and create major theatrical productions that could bring the professional Broadway theater industry West — to Downtown Los Angeles. This type of initiative could bring billions of local tax dollars, jobs and a revitalization to the area that hasn’t been seen for a hundred years. This encouragement has led me here and to my vision for Broadway West.
Broadway West will, at first, consist of 6 of the 12 theaters that currently sit on Broadway: The Palace, The Los Angeles, The Orpheum, The State, The United Artists and The Million Dollar Theater. The other theaters will have to be acquired and renovated at a later time as momentum builds as most are in serious disrepair and serve as jewelry shops, store rooms for electronic bodegas, and an Urban Outfitters.
Each theater will house both educational and mainstage Broadway productions on a year-round rotating schedule. Since the load-in capacity for each of these theaters is non-existent, this will give us the ability to restrict these theaters to local productions instead of touring shows, fueling a local theater industry and catering to artists living in Los Angeles and abroad.
We see successful examples of this on Broadway in New York City today that can be a model we can follow here for Broadway West. From Roundabout Playhouse’s Studio 54 to Circle in the Square Theatre School, they have been able to create a school-to-Broadway pipeline, which we can do here, helping to build the foundation and becoming the catalyst that can bring Broadway West to life. Art grants can also serve to seed first seasons of productions and create opportunities to incubate new and innovative musical and theatrical works.
Currently, there is over one million square feet of vacant office space that line the streets of Broadway, some atop the theaters as well. Create incentives for property owners and developers to renovate these incredible turn-of-the-century architectural masterpieces into lofts, hotels, artist residencies and creative offices.
According to the Drama League, Broadway in NYC pulls in a staggering $16 billion a year in annual sales from 45 theaters. That’s a whopping $300+ million in annual revenue per theater from over 1 million tourists. Applying standard economics based on the sales and hotel taxes, the New York theater district contributes an estimated $1 billion in sales, tourism and occupancy taxes to the local economy every year. For Los Angeles, this would usher in a spike in jobs in local hospitality, patronage, concierge, etc., bringing upwards of 50,000 new employment positions to the district over a period of a decade. The economics are surely a no brainer based on the costs to bring us to this point. But despite the incredible numbers, there is always a villain to every fairy tale. We must act swiftly because our beautiful and irreplaceable theaters, arts education, and foreseeable future in government-backed arts funding are slowly being taken away from us.
Since each theater is considered a historic landmark, luckily, they cannot be knocked down. If you keep the outside structure, you can do whatever you want with the interior as you see in the image above with the Rialto Theater that was converted to an Urban Outfitters. The space was stripped of everything but the brick walls and wood scaffolding. It’s heartbreaking to me. A true, in-your-face depiction of a forgotten era in the stark. I try to walk through every so often to feel the energy and magnificence of what it must’ve been like, and I laugh to myself in confidence that soon, one day, it will be empty again and have another chance at becoming what its intended purpose was meant for. One by one, other theaters along Broadway are slipping away ending up similar to the Rialto’s fate. For example, one of the most regal of the six restored theaters, the Tower Theater, has been leased to the Apple Store and is currently in the middle of its transformation.
At the federal level, The NEA and CPB budgets are being cut by 75%, leaving the remainder to go toward closing the agencies over the next 10 years. We are losing our arts heritage before our eyes. Therefore, I strongly believe that if we can use the powers of social media and entertainment, we can spark up Broadway West as I have described and save Los Angeles theater and the arts as we know it. We will also send a message to Washington and to those that seek to strip us of our most precious institutions that we will fight back and take back what is rightfully ours.
I have created a political nonprofit called Broadway West. It will serve as our first iteration of our organization until we can raise enough money to eventually form a 501(c)3, separate from our lobbying organization that will support the advancement of our political interests toward our goals. This means directly contributing to electing local and statewide politicians to help us achieve our mission of saving our arts programs and revitalizing Broadway West at the legislative level. We will work with our local theater owners and provide organization-backed advances on space leasing in all the theaters for a 6-8 month time period to theater companies who will apply and be awarded production grants to fill the marquis. We will work with local developers, media, press, influencers, celebrities and document the entire transformation online for the world to see and participate in, all hopefully sponsored by our spark of creation, Apple.
None of this will be possible without the people’s support, our hope and our passion. If you are inspired by this movement, join us. Come to BwayWest.com and contribute however you can. Donate, volunteer and help us get the word out. It will take all of us working to make this a reality, to save our arts programs and the incredible culture and heritage that our parents and grandparents left us.
I leave you with a quote from Winston Churchill who was once asked to cut the arts programs to fund the war. He responded candidly: “Then what are we fighting for?”
Watch and follow my journey below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BENx902cFco&t
— Marcus Lovingood