We’ve been finding ourselves in Downtown LA a lot lately. Six years ago when Kevin and I first moved to West Hollywood, we would occasionally brave a trip downtown… more out of curiosity than anything. There were a few coffee shops we enjoyed, but nothing that made us really want to spend much time downtown — and certainly not late at night. But fast forward a few years and something has snapped. Just this past year, a Whole Foods has moved in along with the celebrity-hyped Soul Cycle and its cult-like devotees. And there are people around – and walking!
This weekend, we decided to do some walking ourselves and joined along the Los Angeles Conservancy’s historic theatre district tour. Once the entertainment epicenter of Los Angeles, Broadway was home to dozens of major retail and clothing stores, as well as twelve movie palaces built between 1910 and 1931.
Some have stayed – such as the Rialto Theatre (now converted into an outpost of the clothing store Urban Outfitters) or The Theatre at the Ace Hotel (which hosts screenings, concerts… we’ve been here about 5 times in the last few months!). However, some theaters just couldn’t make it after World War II. Driven by the great urban sprawl and our love for cars, families moved into the suburbs of Los Angeles (giving way to the birth of the Valley girls! Ah, thanks for that…).
One of the coolest things we discovered is that the outward appearance can be deceiving with these theaters. Many of these theaters looks VERY tiny from the street, but have thousands of seats. And pretty much the most unbelievable thing was wandering into the Jewelry Theater Building (411 W. Seventh St.). Upon walking in, you’ll see rows of jewelry shops… looks normal until you get to the back of the store and look up. The place was once an old time theater (that even has the balcony with seats). Kevin was intrigued and thoroughly creeped out at the same time! You gotta check it out.
But onto the tour — here are some of the highlights:
First stop: Los Angeles Theater
Constructed in 1931 at an estimated cost of more than one million dollars, the Los Angeles originally boasted a number of unusual amenities including an electric indicator to monitor available seats, soundproof “crying rooms” (for parents with crying children), a staffed playroom in the basement, and a glamorous ladies’ lounge featuring sixteen private compartments, each finished in a different marble. Special events are now held here – including the creepy Broadway revival of the horror movie “Carrie.”
Stop 2: Palace Theater
So much history here. This theater hosted many major stars early in its history, including Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, Fred Astaire, and a young Rita Hayworth. The greatest singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, and animal acts in vaudeville performed here until 1926, when the Orpheum moved to its fourth and final location at Ninth Street and Broadway and the theatre was renamed the Palace. And this place is massive – it has 1,000 seats!
Next Stop: Orpheum Theater
We passed several other theaters along the way to Orpheum – much of the tour is outside. But we were able to get a peek in one of LA’s last vaudeville theaters on the strip. It is spectacular. In 2001, the Orpheum underwent a $3 million renovation that upgraded production capabilities and audience amenities while cleaning and restoring the theatre’s historic elements. The upper floors of the former office building were converted into live/work spaces. It’s a favorite among film/TV production companies, including where they tape “So You Think you Can Dance?”
Last Stop: The Theatre at the Ace Hotel (formerly the United Artists Theater)
In 1919, director D. W. Griffith and screen stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin broke from the studio system to form United Artists (UA), thus gaining complete control over the creation, production and distribution of their work. Seven years later, the United Artists Theatre Circuit was formed to showcase first-run UA productions. This theater was the flagship for UA’s West Coast operations. Now the Ace Hotel owns it and holds events nearly every night! Screenings, film premieres, you name it!
The tour, which costs just $10 per person, is one of the best bargains around. Held every Saturday at 10 AM (rain or shine), tours meet in the middle of the gaudy Pershing Square Park and run about 3 hours.
The Los Angeles Conservatory has a variety of tours, including the historic Biltmore Hotel (which I did with my mom) and the Last Seats Remaining program, where classic movies are screened in the historic theaters. Sign me up!