Updated: May 21
It’s impossible to miss the Los Angeles Theater when walking down South Broadway. Despite the many taller buildings surrounding the theater on every side, my eyes are always drawn to its sculpted columns and intricately carved facade, reminiscent of a French palace from the Renaissance period. Contrasting with the bright, red-and-gold signs, different points in time are combined into one structure.
After closing its doors to the public twenty-six years ago, the Los Angeles Theater has grown vacant and largely forgotten. A rich and wonderful history can still be found within its walls however, and bears to be remembered. Show your ticket at the door and leave your coat in the cloak room. This next showing will bring you a journey into the Los Angeles Theater’s opulent past.
Conception and Design
Commissioned by independent film exhibitor Herman L. Gumbiner, the Los Angeles Theater was the final luxurious Los Angeles theater built on Broadway before the effects of the Great Depression prevented the construction of other grand structures for the time being. It was designed by S. Charles Lee, who had previously worked with Gumbiner to create the Tower Theater, also on Broadway.
With no expense spared, the cost of the Los Angeles Theater cost a reported $1.5 million (excluding furnishings and equipment). The interior was modeled after The Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. It featured a marble and crystal fountain by the grand staircase, walnut paneling, and damask coverings of marble, gold leaf, and silk.
Apart from a large restaurant and ballroom on the lower levels, the theater also included a refreshment room, a playroom and nursery for patrons’ children, glass booths with separate speakers for mothers with young, crying infants, a cosmetics room, and shoeshine stand, alongside other such comforts. Every aspect of it was designed to create the most luxurious experience possible for all of its patrons.
The Los Angeles theater also housed the most advanced technologies available at its time, including a specialized dimming system, sound system, and dual projection equipment. Apart from equipment related to film screenings, the theater also had a stage and orchestra pits. These were used for live film introductions and separate performances including vaudeville entertainment and live plays.
The Grand Opening
Despite the theater’s detailed splendor and numerous features, its construction took only six months. With individual portions constructed off-site, the theater was brought to its current location and put together between the existing buildings. Some of the initial design features (including an infirmary and music room) had to be left out due to the time crunch.
The Los Angeles Theater’s opening in January, 1931 coinciding with the premiere of City Lights - Charlie Chaplin’s new film. In fact, City Lights was the first film shown on the theater’s screen, as Gumbiner was financially aided by Charlie Chaplin to complete the construction in time for its release. Reports say Chaplin was annoyed by Gumbiner that day, as Gumbiner interrupted City Lights midway during the showing to talk about the auditorium’s features.
A Change of Ownership
Despite the beauty of the theater, it closed a year and a half after it opened. Gumbiner went bankrupt only three months in, as he was unable to book major films from bigger studios and draw in an audience. In 1932, the theater was reopened under the management of William Fox (who gained it following the bankruptcy), before it was leased to Metropolitan theaters in 1939.
The theater saw its strongest attendance throughout World War II, when factory workers would catch the early performances after late night shifts. At this time, the theater would use many marketing techniques, including decorations and displays, interviews, and contests to pull in attendance.
To combat the oligopoly created by major film studios (and subsequently, their partnered theaters), the United States department of Justice forced these studios to give up the theater chains. The Los Angeles theater was transferred to Twentieth Century Fox Studios until 1962 when it was taken back by Metropolitan Theaters - the only chain still open on Broadway.
In 1987, the theater’s ownership transferred to the Delijani family of Delson Investment co. in order to prevent it from being demolished. In 1994, the Los Angeles Theater officially stopped movie showings.
The Los Angeles Theater Today
In 2001, the Los Angeles Theater’s likeness was used to create Disney California’s Hyperion Theater. Its outside facade is a complete replica, bringing to mind the old splendor and beauty of the Los Angeles during a visit to the park.
The actual Los Angeles Theater’s interior can now be glimpsed only during special tours, as part of a rental (booking the venue for special events) or in the background of the movies and TV shows which are sometimes filmed on its location, such as Charlie’s Angels and Mad Men.
Our hope is that the theater will open up again as part of the Broadway West Theater Alliance. The Los Angeles has already been renovated a number of times by the Delijani family over the years And we are already underway with plans for its future reopening.
When you pick up your coat and step outside into the cool night, remember the Los Angeles Theater and its fascinating history. Renewed interest in the Los Angeles by the public and more wide-spread knowledge of its charms can slowly work towards opening its doors once more.
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