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Touring Broadway's Last Great Movie Palace: the Los Angeles

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[Photos by Elizabeth Daniels]

This past weekend, Cinespia hosted a screening of Romeo + Juliet at the seriously over-the-top Los Angeles Theatre on Broadway--the event was a benefit for the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the group's head, theater genius Hillsman Wright, gave Curbed a tour of the old movie palace before the screening (do see above for the mindblowing photos). The Los Angeles opened in 1931 with the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights; it was perhaps the last really opulent old-fashioned movie palace built on Broadway; by then, the Depression was in full swing and the dominant style had become Art Deco anyway. Its development is a little complicated: the Broadway-to-Hill site was leased by William Fox from a family called the Nortons and the theater was developed by independent exhibitor HL Gumbiner, who wanted to stick it to the studios that owned most of the theaters back then. He hired S. Charles Lee (of the Tower Theatre) to design the theater, but the lead architect was listed as S. Tilden Norton (heir to the family that owned the site). Norton had a couple of clever moneymaking ideas: he recommended that they build the Fox office building on the Hill Street side of the lot and make the Los Angeles's lobby especially narrow to accommodate retail on both sides (now jewelry stores).

The Los Angeles was built with all kinds of bells and whistles: a radio broadcast room, a restaurant with soda fountain, a wood-paneled basement lounge meant to resemble an ocean liner's, a nursery (don't miss it in the photos!), an electric indicator panel to let ushers know which seats were open, soundproof crying rooms with sound piped in for mothers, blue neon aisle lighting, and a periscope/mirror system that allowed films to be simultaneously shown in the basement lounge. On the less glamorous side, the stage is only 25 feet deep, the heating had to be piped in from the building across the street, and gold paint was frequently substituted for gold leaf.

The theater opened on January 30, 1931, with Chaplin and Albert Einstein in attendance. As rich Hollywood folks paraded in in mink and jewels, a line of people waited across the street at a soup kitchen and something like a riot broke out. As the year wore on, construction bills came due and the studios refused to let Gumbiner show their films. He lost the Los Angeles by the end of 1931. The theater made it through the '30s showing second-run and B-pictures, but flourished in the 1940s after Metropolitan took over its lease. Like the rest of Broadway, the theater slowly declined over the decades. Current owners the Delijani family bought it in the mid-'80s and it closed to regular use in 1994. Since then, it's mostly been used as a filming location.

But! The Delijanis announced last year they'd be reopening the Los Angeles and adding more programming. Meanwhile, Cinespia and LAHTF are hooking up for more events this spring (more on those as we know it).
· Four Historic Broadway Theaters Being Brought Back to Life [Curbed LA]