The Palace Theatre (1911)
(Formerly the Orpheum)
Architect: G. Albert Landsburg
From its beginning in the late 1800s, the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit ruled the west coast. The most popular singers, dancers and comediennes played the circuit which extended from the Midwest through the West to the Pacific; the most elite played in Los Angeles. The first Orpheum Theatre was built in Los Angeles in the 1880s. When the second L.A. Orpheum Theatre burned down, a larger, more ornate palace was built; opening in 1911, this is the oldest of the remaining Orpheum theatres in the United States.
The Palace's principal architect was G. Albert Landsburg, a principal theatre designer in the west between 1909 and 1930 - he later designed the new Orpheum Theatre down the street. His local work includes the Warner Bros. Theatre Building in Hollywood, and the interiors of the Wiltern and El Capitan theatres. The intimate scale of the Palace, in concert with its elegant French details, reminds one of a 17th-century European opera house and offers an unusually charming and graceful setting. As an early vaudeville house, built without amplified sound, it was designed so that no seat is further than 80 feet from the stage.
While the interior is French, the exterior is loosely styled after a Florentine Renaissance palazzo, with multicolored terra cotta swags, flowers, fairies and theatrical masks illustrating the spirit of entertainment. The façade includes four panels depicting the muses of Song, Dance, Music and Drama (sculpted by Domingo Mora, a Spaniard whose work also decorated New York’s old Metropolitan Opera House.) Landsburg loved to use recessed lighting, which can be seen in the three ceiling mural domes. As you look at the borders of the balcony you can see bare light bulbs; since it was very exciting for a theater to have electricity at the turn of the century, they showed them off. The theatre was also built with fire safety in mind. During a children's matinee show in Chicago in 1906, patrons were trapped behind exit doors that only opened inwards -- all perished. As a direct response to new fire concerns and codes, the Palace was built with 22 fire escape exits and has one of the first sprinkler systems built in the city.
In 1911, the theatre could house 2,200 people in the orchestra and two balconies, the mezzanine and the gallery. The gallery was designed for “Negroes Only,” - a rare artifact of the generally tolerant Los Angeles. There is some controversy whether it was used as a minority balcony for people who were not white or if it was a "third class" balcony for the poor with cheaper seating. Either way, the gallery had a separate entrance from the alley and separate restrooms. The gallery was closed in the forties when the theatre was renovated to be a movie theatre; as altered, the theater currently seats 1,050.
After its opening, every major vaudeville star on the Orpheum circuit performed in this theatre including the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Sarah Bernhardt, Bob Hope, Al Jolson and Will Rogers. When Harry Houdini performed his stage magic and death-defying escapes, an ambulance was kept parked on the curb in case of emergency. In 1926, after a new Orpheum theatre was built two blocks away, the third Orpheum was renamed the Palace Theatre and transformed into a silent movie theater showing a continuous bill of newsreels and shorts. Later, it became a first run movie house for features with sound.
When the primary entertainment shifted to film, the beautiful box seating along the sides of the auditorium were removed. They were replaced with two beautiful murals done by Anthony Hiemsburgen, a famous Los Angeles muralist. These murals were revealed again five years ago after having been covered with red velvet.
After a long history as a first run movie theatre, the Palace declined along with Broadway and its once flourishing entertainment district. Showing second-run and Spanish language films, the theatre eventually closed in the mid-nineties. Recently, the theatre has become a featured location for film and television shoots. In the coming year the Palace Theatre will reopen as a live performance venue, once again serving all of Los Angeles. (www.losangelestheatre.com)