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Exploring The Century-Old University Park Theater That's Revived The Pre-Film Art Of Panoramas

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The Union Theater's marquee lit at night; all photos by John Eder

"Everyone knew Union Square," says Jade Finlonson, resident historian at one of LA's premier time capsules, an early twentieth-century theater in University Park. The Union Theater was named for nearby Union Square, a bustling hub of LA's long gone Red Car trolley system in the early 1900s. "The rails ran right past the front door," Finlonson notes. Today, the theater is home to the Velaslavasay Panorama, run by artist Sara Velas. The name Velaslavasay evokes a mystical swami rubbing elbows with Houdini and sailing on the Titanic, but it's actually a combination of family names related to Velas. The Panorama showcases artwork and entertainment pre-dating the silver screen. No IMAX 3D here—Velas's current 360-degree painted panorama is of the frozen Arctic, complete with sound effects of cracking ice and dripping meltwater. The panorama is compelling, and then there's the building, itself a portrait of LA history.

The theater, one of the earliest made expressly for movies, was built in the 1910s by an unknown builder. The then-affluent West Adams area provided a prime audience, which flocked to this particular outpost of the Fairyland movie house chain. In the 1930s, it became the Union Square Theater, the drama school and stage of silent film actress (and Hollywood Walk-Of-Fame star) Louise Glaum's Union Square Players. But during the Union Square Theater days, the area saw heavy demographic change. Wealthy residents moved to more exclusive Beverly Hills. The construction of the Harbor Freeway in the mid '50s further eroded property values in the area. Louise Glaum moved on, and the theater was once again used as a cinema, finally going dark in the 1950s.

[The theater's exterior.]

The Union was taken over by an actual union of tile layers, which carved much of the seating space into smaller offices. That feature appealed to Velas, who saw them as useful for galleries when she was looking for a new home for her work. That work includes Velas's Panorama project, which dates to her student days at Washington University in St. Louis. In researching the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, she became aware of large-scale panorama paintings as mass entertainment. Audiences of the day flocked to panoramas of faraway places or dramatic historical incidents. But the panorama's days as pop entertainment were numbered, as cinema exploded in popularity.

Here in the twenty-first century, Velas's first panorama revival was housed in the now-demolished, Googie-style Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda on Hollywood Boulevard before decamping to the Union in 2004. Now, the Velaslavasay Panorama is open Friday through Sunday for gallery and garden viewing, with a suggested donation of $6.

This somewhat creepy hallway leads to the Panorama and theater.

View of the Panorama titled "Effulgence of the North." The Panorama features sound effects and a subtle lighting cycle.

The theater as it is today. The Panorama presents all sorts of performances and films in here.

An asphalt lot behind the theater was razed by Velas, and a lush, Orientalist garden installed.

Looking out of the lobby to Twenty-Fourth Street. The Pacific Electric Red Cars passed right by here. The rails were still visible as recently as 2005, but were removed and the road paved over shortly after.

Intricate tile work on the exterior.

Exterior looking toward the former Union Square, today a fairly anonymous intersection.

Looking toward theater from former Union Square side.

—John Eder
· Velaslavasay Panorama [Official Site]