Sunday, August 19, 2007

Downtown Los Angeles, Part 1: The Broadway Theater District

Since we moved to Los Angeles, I’ve been collecting books about the city: travel guides, history books, and novels alike. It started when my brother and his wife bought me a copy of "L.A. Bizarro," a 1997 book that offers readers a voyeuristic tour of “the obscure, the absurd and the perverse” in Los Angeles – bringing casual curiosity-seekers to places that they may not want to physically visit. A fair amount of those sites are in historic downtown, where (as the authors put it) “what was once the bustling nerve center of our city is now… a crumbling, putrefied, God-forsaken wasteland.”

Anthony R. Lovett and Matt Maranian approach most of their downtown destinations with a mix of admiration and revulsion. Take, for example, their description of Clifton’s Cafeteria, one of the original theme restaurants: “The Clifton’s décor looks like the kind of hallucination a glue sniffer might have if he used pine-scented air freshener instead of model airplane cement. The main wall inside Clifton’s stretches two stories high and is painted floor to ceiling to look like a forest clearing complete with cedar tree trunk relief and an illumined full moon… If you’re thinking of ending your life, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautifully macabre setting than in Clifton’s.” Don’t even get them started on the food.

The only overwhelmingly complimentary entry in the entire book is a four-page spread for the Los Angeles Conservancy Walking Tours. For years, the Conservancy has been dedicated to preserving the architectural history of downtown Los Angeles, and every Saturday they offer tours of the city’s forgotten center. The most popular tour is one that focuses on the old theater district, a seven-block section of Broadway (between Third Street and Olympic Boulevard) that became home to a dozen major theaters between 1910 and 1931. In the late 1920s, a new theater district popped up on Hollywood Boulevard (now L.A.’s most notorious tourist trap), but the downtown theater district remained relatively popular until the 1960s, when theaters in Westwood began to draw the crowds away. Most of the Broadway theaters continued to operate as grindhouses through the 1980s. In 1997, when “L.A. Bizarro” went to press, only three of the original theaters were open to the public. Ten years later, none of them are operating as movie houses. The best way to see those historic theaters today is to take the Conservancy tour.

SO at 10AM on Saturday, we arrived at The Million Dollar Theater on the corner of Broadway and 3rd Street, to get started. The Million Dollar Theater was commissioned by Sid Grauman, who later built the famous Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, in 1918. The MDT was designed in a Spanish Baroque style characterized by extreme decorative detailing, especially over doorways. The interior is equally striking, partly because of elaborate details on the ceiling and walls (there are two huge terra-cotta sculptures, on either side of the stage, that incorporate the skulls of dead animals) and partly because of the steepness of the seating arrangement. Not knowing much about architecture, the place seemed vaguely medieval to me. With all the warm colors, it even made me think of Dante’s Inferno.

Across the street, we made an unofficial stop at another distopian setting: The Bradbury. The Bradbury is the oldest commercial building in Los Angeles. Built in 1893, it was designed by a man who took his inspiration from a novel about a utopian community in the year 2000. The novel – Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” – describes the average commercial building in the community as a "vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above ... The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior." Film geeks know that the Bradbury was not a “vast hall of light” when it appeared as J.F. Sebastian’s home in Ridley Scott’s film “Blade Runner,” which is set in 2019 Los Angeles. In "Blade Runner," it’s always night. (I guess the smog finally eclipsed the sun???) For more photos, see this website. For comparisons to screen shots from "Blade Runner," go here.

Afterwards, we headed south down Broadway. Lovett and Maranian have written a more vivid description of this section of town than I could come up with, so I’ll let them set the scene: “Trekking through the dense and chaotic street scene of downtown Los Angeles on a Saturday is an experience unto itself. The noise level alone is enough to make a reasonably sane person tear off all their clothes and run screaming down the middle of Broadway; the oppressive din from the abundance of audio-video stores and mega-arcades is matched only by the barkers in front of jewelry shops and the pushy street vendors peddling everything from Selina T-shirts and electroplated gold chains, to live turtles and home-grown produce. On virtually every street corner is stationed a toothless wheelchair-bound religious zealot screaming passages from the Bible, as well as non-religious zealots who stand on the street corners screaming simply because they just have a lot to say to the world. A multitude of languages are spoken here, and fortunately English isn’t one of them; that the cacophony of Broadway is indistinguishable is its only saving grace.”

We saw and heard (and smelled) all of the things that one expects in downtown L.A., but it was all fairly subdued this weekend, perhaps due to an overwhelming police presence. Bike cops were out in droves, preparing for an immigration protest march. Police presence or no, I’m going to give the merchants and residents of Broadway the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they are never quite as forbidding as the stories usually suggest. (While writing this post, I ran across a blog that tirelessly laments the current condition of nearby Pershing Square… but, while it had more than its fair share of homeless people asleep on the benches, it still seemed quite safe and was a beautiful bit of greenery in the midst of the asphalt jungle.) When we arrived at a block of theaters between 5th and 6th Street, business owners happily let us inside to see the remains of The Roxie, Clune’s Broadway Cameo, and Pantages Arcade – three theaters that now exist only as storefronts and storage spaces.

The Roxie was one of the last theaters built on Broadway, and it’s not nearly as opulent as some of the other theaters. In fact, it looks more like the movie theaters that modern audiences are accustomed to – box-shaped rather than bowl-shaped, a very gradual incline from front to back, minimal decoration, and…. air conditioning. Well, sort of. There are holes in the floor, just inside of the main walkway, to allow for the flow of air from an underground storage space. Somehow, it works to keep the space relatively cool. The theater also has a “crying room” next to the projection booth – where mothers with babies could watch the show. Now, there’s something that I wish modern theaters had. Next door, Clunes is equally simple. Built in 1910, it was the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the state until 1991, when the lobby was converted into an electronics store.

On the next block, we stopped outside the Los Angeles Theater and the Orpheum Palace. The Los Angeles allegedly boasts the most elaborate interior of all the Broadway theaters, decorated in the French Baroque style. Our tour guide said that even the bathrooms are a sight to behold – each stall is made from a different color marble! The Los Angeles is frequently used for filming, and was the site of two screenings for this year’s annual “last remaining seats” film festival, run by the Conservancy. The marquee is still promoting the revival of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t open for the Saturday morning tour… so I had to turn to the theater’s website to get a look inside.

Across the street, the Orpheum Palace was also locked up (once again, I had to go to the theater’s website to find interior photos), though the exterior was in better shape than it has been in years. Just last week, the front façade was power-washed for the first time since the building was constructed in 1911 – revealing lively colors that have been covered with dust and grime for the better part of the century. The Palace operated as a movie theater until 2000, and when the authors of “L.A. Bizarro” visited in 1997, they recorded a bit of controversial trivia: “The stately French and Italian influences of the 2,200 seat auditorium are eerily offset by its racially segregated balcony – a creepy feature not entirely uncommon among these early vaudeville houses. Accessible only from an entrance in the alley, this segregated section was location in the second balcony no less, offering both the worst view and the hottest, stuffiest seating to be had in the theater.”

Continuing south, we reached what was once the busiest intersection downtown – 7th and Broadway, the terminus of the fabled Route 66. Because of its location on this particular corner, Loew’s State Theater was once the area’s most profitable theater. Built in 1921 and originally owned by Marcus Loew, founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), it was supposedly the first performance venue for Judy Garland, who appeared onstage in 1929 as one of the singing Gumm Sisters. Today, The State is home to a church congregation that keeps it in good shape. Unfortunately, there was a big wedding there on Saturday morning, so we were confined to the lobby. The Morosco (also known as The Globe), on the other side of the street, has not fared as well. It is now a noisy arcade.

On the next block, between 8th and 9th Street, there are three more theaters sitting side-by-side: The Tower, The Rialto, and The Orpheum. This block is recognizable from the new “Transformers” movie – it’s where the peace-loving Autobots square off against the evil Decepticons. The block also has a much older cinematic claim to fame: Harold Lloyd hung from a clock above The Rialto in his 1923 film “Safety Last!” Not much is left of The Rialto except the name.

In 1997, The Orpheum was apparently a grim sight – “home to whatever transient sets up camp inside the tiled portico,” according to “L.A. Bizarro.” Since then, new owner Steve Needleman has undertaken a 3.5 million dollar restoration, and The Orpheum is now a popular venue for concerts. Needleman kindly met us at the door and took us inside for a tour. And the place was amazing! It’s hard to get a sense of the grandeur of the old movie palace by looking at photos… the photos on The Orpheum’s official website do a much better job than my quick snapshots.

Because the immigration protest was about to start, we had to cut our tour short and head north. A quick glance down Broadway, however, gave us a glimpse of the official theater of United Artists – the production company founded in 1919 by D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin (and recently taken over by Tom Cruise). After a brief stint as a porn house and a panaderia that made use of the theater’s auditorium and lobby as the exhaust duct for large ovens (!), the UA Theater is now a church.

The Conservancy’s walking tour program features one photo of the interior of the United Artists Theater, and makes it look like a forbidding ice world in some elaborate fantasy epic. This is obviously the kind of theater that prompts people to complain that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Stepping into some of these theaters is like stepping into the world of the most imaginative Hollywood films – everything is larger than life. Although it’s a bit sad to see how far some of these historic theaters have fallen, I have to agree with our Conservancy tour guide when he says “at least they’re still there, so that we can stand inside them and imagine what it was like…”

The Los Angeles Conservancy Tour of the Broadway Theater District is only $10 per person (for non-members) and worth every penny. To make reservations, call 213-623-2489 or visit their website. If you can't visit the theaters in person, there are a number of websites featuring photo essays of the district, including GMRnet.

The Million Dollar Theater

The Million Dollar Theater - side door

The Bradbury

The Bradbury - lobby

Looking up toward Sebastian’s apartment

The Roxie - exterior

The Roxie - interior

The Palace & The Los Angeles

The State

The Tower

The Rialto (all that's left is the sign)

The Orpheum - lobby

The Orpheum - first floor

The Orpheum - balcony

United Artists in the background, riot prevention in the foreground

1 comment:

  1. Great post!
    Thankfully the Broadway District is clean and not nearly as dreary as your amusing quotations from "LA Bizarro" ... which led to a fun day!