February 10, 2013

Photo Essay: A Night at the Los Angeles Theatre

I'm not able to do everything in LA.

Not yet, anyway.

There are always those who are shocked when I haven't done some obvious tourist activity, haven't visited some must-see attraction. You see, I've earned a reputation for myself.

Last year, one of the many things that I did miss out on in LA was the Los Angeles Conservancy's "Last Remaining Seats," a program that opens the doors of many of Broadway's historic movie (and former vaudeville) theaters for one-night-only screenings of classic films. For many people, it's their only chance to see the interiors of these grandiose movie houses that once dazzled audiences before Hollywood even became a thing.

Fortunately, as a member of the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation, I've been able to get a look at Broadway's Palace and Tower theaters (as well as Hollywood's Chinese), and their respective nooks and crannies.

But I haven't actually seen a movie in any of them yet.

Saturday night, the Los Angeles Theatre (famously home to the premiere of Chaplin's City Lights) opened its doors to moviegoers as a benefit for LAHTF with a screening of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, a film I somehow missed its first time around, this time with cocktails.

With a long line outside to get up to the ticket booth...

..and the resulting delay in start time, I had plenty of opportunity to take a self-guided tour though multiple levels of the movie palace.

And palatial it is. An explosion of French Baroque decor adorns the lobby...

...which actually extends six floors high...

...with chandeliers hanging at every turn...

...cherubs gazing down...

...and ornately carved plaster columns rising high.

Inside the auditorium, intricate panels light the seating under the loge level...

...but you can't take your eyes off the stage...

...and the surrounding ceiling detail, replete with more cherubs, as well as Bacchus depictions...

...viewed best all the way at the top of the third balcony.

The grandest way upstairs is past the main fountain... a comparatively simple hallway...

...which can also be reached by a couple of side stairwells, whose ceilings showed the only real visible signs of deterioration.

Then again, the lighting, though ubiquitous, was pretty dim.

Downstairs is equally as sprawling...

...featuring a ballroom...

...with lots more chandeliers (and sconces)...

...though reportedly some have been lost over time particularly after movie shoots.

As with many of the classic historic theaters of the Broadway era, the powder room is a must-see...

...with enough mirrors in the lounge to satisfy the female contingent of a 2000-seat sellout show.

The sinks are now outfitted with modern faucets which pale in comparison to their surroundings.

Even the stalls that flank the "hall of lavatories" are intricately designed...

...and the unpleasant still seems somewhat...elegant.

Appropriately next to the Ladies' Room is the circus-themed nursery...

...where disquieted children once played with toys...

...under a circus tent ceiling...

...comforted by their mothers, while their fathers watched the movie upstairs.

The building is endlessly interesting and worth another visit for sure, if not only to visit the kitchen, mechanical room, and other support spaces, but also to figure out the puzzling misspelling of the word "aisle" as "isle" on the balcony-level signage.

When it opened, the Los Angeles Theatre was billed as "The Theatre Unusual," in a time when the venue was just as much an attraction as the films it was showing. But, like many of its neighbors, the Los Angeles declined in the 1960s as attention was drawn away from Downtown LA (to the suburbs), and it finally closed its doors to the public (at least for regular events) nearly 20 years ago.

It was nice to see it come alive again - and for an audience much younger than those usually interested in historic buildings and Chaplin-related history.

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  1. Isn't it the most amazing place? I love the nursery and the murals there. Also, in the balcony you can really see the soot and schmutz of old dirt, and realize how old and unused it has been.

    I think we joined the LAHTF when we went on the Tower Theatre tour this fall, but we haven't received any notifications....hmmmm......

  2. Much of the soot and schmutz was caused by decades of cigarette smoke. (Hard to believe, but audiences were once allowed to smoke cigarettes while watching a movie. Cigar and pipe smokers were relegated to the basement ballroom, where they could sit in club chairs and watch the same movie on a small projection screen.)

  3. Ms Snow,
    I am with the LAHTF an will be glad to help you woth you membership.
    I have sent you an email but if you want to email us please do so or visit our website at

    We are a internet based non-profit and sendthe out emails only, no snail mail, so you would not get a membership card.

    I am sure we can straighten this out with easy.

    Thanks for joining and see you all at the historic theaters of LA
    Michelle Gerdes

  4. Tonight I looked at Bob Hopes 'Volcano' home. Which I found astonishing which lead me to wonder if the architect was Frank Lloyd Wright. The style was bold like Wright but it was too space age for Wright. So I found out who the architect was and looked at some of his creations and bumped into your article. So now I must ask you how you get into all of these places which are closed to the public and were you allowed to take photos of the theater or did you have to be undercover about it?

    Thank you,


    1. I'm almost always permitted inside and to take photos. I try not to break in or sneak anything unless the place is totally abandoned. (I do have a couple stories of being kicked out of places, though nicely. Check out the Ventura Oil Refinery posts.) For many of the Lautner houses, I accompanied a private conservation group led by Lautner expert Frank Escher, and for the most recent Sheats-Goldstein Residence, I bought an expensive ticket to a cocktail party hosted by the A+D Museum. I obsessively research, and follow many relevant Facebook and Twitter accounts and subscribe to lots of event emails. I also have a map so I can remember all the places I want to go, and all the places I've been. :)

      I'm a member of the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation so I've managed to get some pretty good access to LA's old movie houses. Next up is the Million Dollar Theater!