The Los Angeles Theatre (1931)
Architect: S. Tilden Norton and S. Charles Lee
The Los Angeles Theatre opened on January 31, 1931, with a world premier of Charlie Chaplin’s silent screen classic "City Lights," an Irving Berlin Musical "The Little Things in Life," on stage and a concert on the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. Celebrities on hand for the opening included Mr. Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Carl Laemmle, and S. Charles Lee, the Architect of the theater.
The Los Angeles Theatre was the fourth and final theatre to bear the city’s name, and the last motion picture palace constructed in Los Angeles. Built at a cost of nearly $2 million in depression dollars, employing fast-track construction methods, it may still be the most expensive theatre ever constructed in Los Angeles, on a per-seat basis.
The auditorium is based on the much larger San Francisco Fox, which was destroyed in 1963. Unlike its predecessor, the Los Angeles has a coffered ceiling, lunette murals by the Anthony Heisenberg Studios, and a House Curtain that ranks among the most costly in the nation – a B.F. Shearer panel depicting an 18th century garden scene with three dimensional figures installed at a cost of $50,000 in 1931.
The theatre was constructed by H.L. Gumbiner, a local exhibitor who believed that opulence could attract top billings, even from recalcitrant studios owning their own theatre chains. He gambled and lost within a year. In fact, the escalating cost of the Los Angeles exceeded even Gumbiner’s resources. A second entrance proposed on Sixth Street was never built, and even though Chaplin put up money to finish the theatre, only the front half of the stage received a scenery loft.
The Los Angeles opened with a host of innovative features that later found common usage around the world. The auditorium is complemented by a cry room for infants, a glassed-in smoking room for smokers, neon aisle lighting beneath frosted glass strips on either side of each orchestra level aisle, and six main floor aisles, so no one has to climb over more than two patrons to reach the aisle. Two shallow balconies provide an optimum view of the cavernous auditorium from nearly every seat, at the expense of seating capacity. The volume of the auditorium would have permitted nearly 3,000 seats, if a single span balcony had been employed. By reverting to the dress circle and upper balcony configuration, seats were sacrificed for effect. The present seating capacity is just under 2,000.
In addition to auditorium features, the original direct current electrical system included prototype Westinghouse miniature boards in a horseshoe configuration, employing miniaturized switching to access more rectifiers. This novel experiment permitted one man operation for the equivalent of a 30 foot board, and would later be employed at Radio City Music Hall. A seat indicator beneath the mezzanine stairs alerted ushers whenever a patron stood up to leave his seat.
The lobby and lounge spaces at the Los Angeles are unrivaled on the west coast. The half-block long lobby employs mirrors on either side to disguise the narrow fifty foot frontage for a 150 foot wide auditorium. A basement ballroom was intended for patrons awaiting the next performance, and was originally equipped with a periscope viewing screen from the booth, as was the ticket lobby. A children’s playroom, ornate powder room, coffee shop, and women’s lavatory with full marble rooms instead of stalls, are adjacent to the ballroom.
City Lights was only the first of many openings and first run screenings at the Los Angeles. Gumbiner, who failed to heed Lee’s advice to lease the theatre to Fox, soon lost the property to the major studio; for the next 25 years, it would be the downtown home for Fox films. The Los Angeles flourished as the heart of the Broadway Entertainment District into the 1960s. Although still owned by the Fox estate until 1988, the theatre has been operated by Metropolitan Theatres since the early 1960’s.
As the fortunes of Downtown declined, the interest and attendance of the Los Angeles Theatre waned until it closed its doors to regular screenings in the 1990s. The Los Angeles Historical Theatre Foundation, the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Da Camara Society have successfully used the theatre for live performances and film festivals, and a live chamber orchestra concert has amply demonstrated the fine acoustics of the theatre. Sustained as a film location and through special events, including the star studded opening of Chaplin, the Los Angeles has waited for Downtown’s resurgence. This gathering revitalization will see the Los Angeles Theatre return to its past glory within the heart of our city’s entertainment district. (The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation; www.lahtf.org)