I guess I have been in the mood to discover fun random things in Los Angeles. Lucky for me, that’s a pretty easy task.
A friend tipped me off to The LA Conservancy Broadway Theater District walking tour. I love movies. I love walking. And I super love behind-the-scenes stories and sights, especially when it comes to old buildings. The tour sells out every weekend because it’s super interesting, and a fantastic way to spend $5 on a Saturday morning.
(Another great date idea!)
Between 1910 and 1931 there were 17-thousand theater seats on Broadway. Most of those theaters are now closed or used for other things, but there is a revitalization happening, and going on this tour made me want to a- buy one of the theaters (we’ll get to which one) and b- time travel back to a time when I could have seen Broadway the way it was.
We began our tour at the Million Dollar Theater, which as you can see from the marquee, is still a working movie house. Or is again. It was built for Sid Grauman.
The theater opened in 1918 with the premiere of The Silent Man. Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were there. Apparently they were big into going to premieres. As someone who used to work the red carpets at movie premieres, I’m more than pretty sure I would have turned my back on a genius walking down the carpet. But maybe not back then?
In the early 1900s, going to the movies was a huge deal and these opulent palaces were full service. As in, you could get your hair cut in a small barber shop behind the balcony.
Speaking of the balcony, it’s made of concrete and has no supports.
In order to pass inspection, they had to prove the balcony could hold weight without collapsing. They did so by standing on the balcony with 1.75 MILLION pounds of sand bags. If you go on the tour, they have an awesome picture of that event that I couldn’t find on the world wide web.
Needless to say, it worked, and they were approved.
Gorgeous is an understatement for the Churrigueresque architecture featured here. Back then theaters were designed with a theme, and the Million Dollar Theater is based on the parable King of the Golden River.
The trip into the scaffolding was not part of our tour. Instead our guide told us about the amazing murals that existed behind the walls we were looking at, and told us to look it up on youtube. Past meets present.
Next stop: The Bradbury Building. Built in 1893.
From there we moved on to the Roxie.
AKA the theater I want to buy and renovate/restore. It has 1600 seats and is the youngest on the strip. We didn’t get to go inside, but something our tour guide said made it seem like a good idea to want to bring it back to life. I mean seriously, what if I had my very own theater where I could show movies, have premieres, and host concerts of musicians that I love? Dream fantasy. (Not the business part, the fun part.)
We also learned a lot about terrazzo tile on this tour.
This was where Jason Segal stood while performing the musical number in the rain in a little movie called The Muppets. Maybe he would go half-sies on the theater with me? (When I say half-sies, I mean whole-sies and just let me be a part of everything but the boring business stuff.)
Fun fact re terrazzo: There’s more in LA than Chicago or NYC because it’s slippery when wet.
Ok so in the above picture, the Roxie is on the left, and the longest running theater in California is on the right. The Clunes theater opened in 1910 as a nickelodeon. It closed in 1991 and is now a store front. Which is why you would never suspect what happens when you walk through the store and into the back room.
There’s a Bringing Back Broadway initiative that was brought up a few times on the tour, and now I want to be all about it and bring it back. I don’t have any great fortune to share, but if they want to march about it or hold a demonstration, I will be there in a second!! (If we’ve never met in real life, I absolutely love participating in demonstrations.)
The Los Angeles theater is perhaps the most eye-catching as you make your way down the street. It’s so beautiful. Inside and out. The interior wasn’t part of the tour, but I’ve actually seen a movie here. Last summer, as part of the Last Remaining Seats screening series (*cough* another date idea *cough*), I saw The Music Man.
What was even more neat, is that before the movie started, we went up into the projection room. So, if you ever find yourself at a movie here, know that you can walk up to the back of the balcony to a small staircase and show yourself around.
Our tour guide told us a couple of interesting stories about this theater’s history. It opened in 1931 with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. The red carpet was super fancy and located right across the street from a Depression-era bread line. The juxtaposition spawned a riot.
Once inside, everything was going fine until the owner turned up the lights in the middle of the screening to show off how beautiful the theater was. (And it is, with a Frances the First theme. Tres francais.) Charlie was pissed. And, as it turned out, very influential when it came to politics and society. The theater was bankrupt within a year. Don’t mess with the Chap!
Ok, as you can see, this tour is pretty concise…and I’m not even regurgitating everything or mentioning every stop. Like I said, well worth the time. Moving on to one of my favorite music venues here in LA: The Orpheum.
The Orpheum opened in 1926 as a vaudeville theater, but had been built to be converted to a movie house, which happened in 1929. And – amazingly – the pipe organ, which dates back to 1928, is still there and still used! (The only one on the street.) The Orpheum underwent a six-month, 3.5 million dollar renovation in 2001, but they kept pretty much everything the same.
Bee-tee-dubs, the first ten minutes of The Artist were shot here.
I didn’t really see anything more on this tour than I did when I was here for concerts. Which was disappointing. I did learn more than I knew before, but knowing that some place has seven floors of dressing rooms (23 in all) and an animal room (vaudeville!) just makes me want to see all those rooms. Make those part of the tour!!
The next bit of info wasn’t learned on the tour, but I’m really excited about it. The United Artists Theater is about to get an awesome new life…as an Ace Hotel!!
I love me some Ace Hotels!! The theater opened in 1927 and then was a church, so apparently the Spanish Prado theme has been preserved well. And the hotel apparently has plans to use the theater. I’ve heard other great things that would make it very MAB-friendly, so I’m excited to see if those come into fruition.
Our last stop was the Pantages Downtown.
That’s right, the place where the concession stand was apparently invented (as a cart) and a major rape scandal allegedly happened is now a place where diamonds are sold! Again, we couldn’t take pictures inside, but it’s crazy that it still very much looks like a theater and has just been re-purposed.
And I think that’s something I definitely liked about this tour. I’ve walked down this street several times, not even realizing what was behind the doors and stores. I really hope the revitalization thing comes through soon, there is so much potential!
Footnote: we went to the Nickel Diner for lunch, and I definitely recommend it. (I had the stuffed avocado with quinoa salad.) And save room for a donut for dessert.
I know this was long, and at times possibly school report-ish, but for some reason I started taking copious notes during the tour*, and I had to give those notes a purpose. Thanks for sticking with me. Unless you didn’t, in which case you’re not reading this anyway.
*FYI I was not on a date, but with the group of friends whose reflections you can see in the window above. I can’t promise I wouldn’t have taken notes had I been on a date, but I probably would have definitely wanted to. So. much. information.