Inseparably instilled with nostalgia for bygone eras, our American theatrical legacy would be incomplete without telling the story of downtown Los Angeles' Palace Theatre.
In the years leading up to the Roaring ‘20s, the popularity of Broadway and vaudeville farce became synonymous with its most lavishly designed venues, several based on French Renaissance architecture.
It was a different time in our country.
There were legendary variety show acts like Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, and Harry Houdini live on stage.
There were also gentlemen in wool evening tailcoats, accompanying women clothed in airy, chiffon blouses and dresses trimmed modestly with Irish crochet – lace for those who could afford it.
During that period, enjoying an evening to see a show was more than casual entertainment; it was a social event. The bustling lobby and the foyer-boudoir thronged with chatting theatergoers between intermissions.
Modern-day Palace Theatre - Photo by Tony on Unsplash
Today, it's difficult for our modern imaginations to grasp the mystery of early 20th-century America, and the story surrounding the Palace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles is no different.
Opening night at the new Orpheum Theatre – June 26, 1911
In 1911, the Orpheum Theatre raised curtains for the first time, initially running two shows daily but reserving seating for evening performances. The theater could accommodate about 2,000 visitors, including the luxury boxes flanking the stage and two balconies that afforded great views of the stage.
The Orpheum, constructed specifically for the Orpheum Circuit, sold out time and again, sometimes days in advance for the most popular acts.
If we were approaching the Orpheum on opening night in 1911, we would've marveled at the towering vertical marquee and the four sculptures of the muses of vaudeville – song, music, comedy, and dance – which graced the building's facade above the entrance.
Constructing the Orpheum – A tribute in stone
Today, we can still appreciate the intricate craftsmanship of Spanish sculptor Domingo Mora since the theater's facade remains unscathed by heavy-handed renovation.
As the work of iconic architect G. Albert Lansburgh, who had constructed several theaters in California before taking on the project to build the Orpheum, the Orpheum's aesthetic was essentially a tribute.
One of the only surviving accounts of the early days lies in the 1911 issue of The Architect and Engineer, which published two features on the Orpheum, one written by Lansburgh as a tribute to Mora.
"The affectionate nature, the interested and continually helpful disposition," Lansburgh wrote, "made the man the most lovable character imaginable."
"The refinement of his taste," Lansburgh memorialized, "his original conceptions and the interesting interpretations that he gave to the drawings of the architects for whom he worked, will make his loss keenly felt by the men of this Coast who have lately made his acquaintance and who have benefited so largely from his aid and counsels."
Were it not for Lansburgh's affection for Mora's sculpting, the Orpheum – the modern-day Palace Theatre – wouldn't have the same charm or aesthetic value.
Enter the Broadway Palace theater - February 14, 1926
What began as a west coast vaudeville success story changed course over the next 15 years. The last show at the Orpheum took place on February 14, 1926.
It's still unclear why the Orpheum changed its lineup of entertainment when it did, but from our modern perspective, the rise of motion picture films likely had much to do with the shift.
Perhaps, it was because Lansburgh built another home for the Orpheum Circuit down the street from the "old Orpheum," rebranded as the Broadway Palace?
No longer home to the A-list, the Broadway Palace featured less popular acts and showed movies, too, but the venue still belonged to the Orpheum Circuit.
It's never how that forms the mystery of the Palace Theatre; it's always the why.
We'll never know with certainty why the Broadway Palace flopped in a matter of two years, but it didn't close for long.
Enter the Fox Palace theater – September 18, 1929
Like America herself, the old Orpheum went from boom to bust only to rise and succeed again.
Fox West Coast Theaters took ownership of the Broadway Palace, rebranding the venue again as the Fox Palace. The original concept was to create a whole new atmosphere in the Palace, and rebranding was vital.
It was clear that movies had become more than a fad by this time, so Fox completely re-imagined the venue's interior.
Since the designers needed to make room for the big screen, including sound and projection equipment, they removed the boxes flanking the stage. In their place, Fox placed two large paintings that complemented the elegant French ambiance Lansburgh insisted upon years before.
We should all be thankful that these works of art still stand because Fox had every intention to make substantive architectural changes to the theater. Impressively, they completed the job in only ten days.
To quote a newspaper clipping of the time, upon completion of the renovation, "it will be known as the Fox Palace and will present only premiere attractions of magnitude and special worth."
The Palace's image was so prolific that there was a brewing nostalgia for a bygone era even before World War II.
The Palace Theatre today – A historical treasure in downtown Los Angeles
Over the decades, the Palace Theatre changed hands several more times, running newsreels at one point in the 1940's.
What is it about theaters, those closed and those soon to be opened, that captures the American spirit so poignantly?
Our distinctly American character forms in the conception, building and reinventing of timeless stories.
Closer to our modern time, the Palace Theatre operated as a grindhouse in the 1970s and, at one time, hosted Spanish-language films.
The Broadway Theatre Group currently has ownership of the theater and commissioned a 1 million dollar renovation for the venue's 100th anniversary in 2011.
Without mentioning the Palace Theatre, the story of Los Angeles' theatrical legacy would be missing one of the most important buildings in its history.