Blake's Downtown Theatre Guide

by Blake Middleton <Blake@pharm.medsch.ucla.edu>

[Editor's note 05 Oct 99: I've added photos to Blake's report. More photos of the Million Dollar and the Los Angeles are at my Broadway theaters photo page. The Million Dollar has reopened as a theater and the State has become a church. I thought there was a law about that... - Otto]

Here are some notes from my several trips into downtown LA looking at the old movie houses. If you want a little more info on the history of these places, check out the following web pages; they were my initial sources of information when I first started these excursions:
http://www.ci.la.ca.us/tourist/movpalac.htm
http://www.gmrnet.com/theaters.html
http://www.usc.edu/dept/geography/losangeles/lawalk/index.html (link updated 06 Sep 99)

I've placed these in order geographically, starting on the north side of Broadway. Heading south, odd-numbered addresses will be on your right, even- numbered on your left. There's convenient, safe parking slightly north of the Orpheum, between 8th and 9th streets. I've also made a little ascii map for those who are less geographically inclined, which I'll send out if anyone wants one.

Million Dollar Theatre - 1918
307 South Broadway
One of my all-time favorites. This was the theatre across the street from Sebastian's apartment in "Blade Runner." (You know, the one that refused to change back their marquee when the film crew showed up later in the week to get another scene, so it changes while Pris is waiting for Sebastian. Still works, though, if you assume she just sat there and waited for days.) And right across the street, you can see Sebastian's apartment, the historic Bradbury Building. This place has recently been converted into a church, and they've done some rather strange things to the decor of the lower half of the auditorium. Everything below the balcony is brightly lit and painted stark white with gaudy gold trim. Everything from the balcony up is downright gothic by comparison -- lots of ornate black ironwork, and beautifully preserved. If you sit near the front of the balcony and look down it's quite an interesting view. If you want to see this place from the inside, go on a Sunday.


Roxie Theatre - 1932
518 South Broadway
Gone. The lobby is now a shop, and I have no idea what condition the main auditorium is in.


Cameo Theatre - 1910
528 South Broadway
This one is a real tragedy. Supposedly when it closed in 1991 it was the longest running movie house in the world, having run continuously for over eighty years. The lobby is now a shop, and the people running it are jerks. Don't expect much info from them on the history of the place. I haven't seen the auditorium.


Arcade Theatre - 1910
534 South Broadway
Gone. The front lobby area has been converted into a shop, and the main house is just a big empty warehouse. Really great guys run the place now -- the manager I talked to when I saw the place told me that he used to go to this theatre all the time when he was a kid, and when it was converted to a shop he was the first business to move in, and has been there ever since. He took me on a little tour of the place and showed me where everything used to be (concession, restrooms, etc.). He even let me into the main auditorium, which has now been stripped of seats. The decorated frame around the screen is still present (though no screen), and the balcony is still there, complete with seats. Looking around the walls I was shocked to notice the remains of a surround speaker, indicating that the place actually had stereo when it went down. Another of the employees there had a lot of fond memories of the place, too -- his first job when he came to America had been working in that theatre.


Los Angeles Theatre - 1931
615 South Broadway
Boy did I luck out with this one. This theatre is open to the public only once a year, when the LA Conservancy does its annual film festival. Of all the theatres downtown, this is the most impressive, and it is by far the most beautifully maintained. When it opened in 1931, it had all sorts of technical innovations, such as a periscope in the restroom area which enabled patrons to watch the film while they were waiting, and an electronic device which monitored how many empty seats were left. The premiere of Chaplin's "City Lights" was here, and in the middle of the film the theatre management stopped the show and brought up the lights to call the audience's attention to the theatre's many technological marvels. (This, of course, really pissed Chaplin off.) The place went bankrupt less than a year after it opened. Currently, a private organization is responsible for its preservation, and they use it only a few times a year. One my downtown theatre hunting trips happened to be on one of these rare days, and I got to see the place as they were setting up for a rather exclusive party later that night. The man responsible for maintaining this place was there, and he was thrilled to see that someone actually cared about all the work that had gone into preserving it. He let me take a look all around the inside, though I didn't get a good look at the main auditorium because they were checking a print and all the lights were down. What I saw, though, really took my breath away.


Palace Theatre - 1911
630 South Broadway
This was the third Orpheum theatre to be built in Los Angeles, and the oldest one surviving. Its name was changed to the Palace when the new Orpheum was built in 1926. Nowadays it runs mostly first and second run films, usually on double bills, as do the State and the Orpheum. I poked my head in the door here while they were running a film, so I didn't get much of a look. They were running "Anastasia" with a flat lens, so I told one of the concession people they were running a scope film with a flat lens, so he took a look inside. "Damn, you're right," he said and went over and said something in Spanish to the manager. She gave me a dubious look, then said something in Spanish back to concession guy, which from her tone I presume translated roughly as "He's crazy." (I assumed at this point that she must have threaded the film herself.) He said something back to her which seemed to mean "No, take a look. I saw it with my own eyes," and again she protested. I left then, assuming the situation would resolve itself when the manager was finally convinced to go inside and look for herself.


Pantages Theatre - 1919
Corner of 7th and Hill Streets
This was originally one of Pantages' vaudeville houses. Later it was bought by Warner Bros., and still later used as a church. It has recently been converted into the Jewelry Center, and as far as I know very little of the original theatre survives. I've only seen it from the outside, but it's interesting to note that the marquee still survives, as does the WB shield, though now it's covered by a big diamond.


Lowe's State Theatre - 1921
703 South Broadway
Still up and running. I saw "Volcano" here not too long ago, on a double bill with a Spanish subtitled print of "Alien Resurrection." Beautiful house, with a large balcony, and about as well preserved as you could hope to expect a theatre to be in downtown LA with continual use. It advertises itself to be "stereo" but has no surround speakers, and I'm not even convinced I heard a center channel. There are definitely at least two channels behind the screen, though, leading me to suspect that they simply run the left and right audio tracks off the print itself, without a Dolby processor. While I suppose technically that IS "stereo", it's pretty odd definition of the word.


Globe Theatre - 1913
744 South Broadway
Don't come here unless you want your heart broken. This place went down fighting, and still doesn't know it's lost. The Globe Theatre is now the Globe Swap Meet, with dozens of open air vendors crammed into the space it once occupied. The entire interior has been gutted, but along the walls you can still see the original decor, and when you go to the back you can see where the stage, screen, and backstage originally were. This was originally a stage house, and along one wall you can see the doors to what presumably once were dressing rooms. If you stand center stage and look up, you can see the balcony, which is still in surprisingly good condition, with some of the original fixtures still remaining. Tattered marble staircases lead up to the balcony on either side.


Olympic Theatre
315 E. 8th Street
Don't know much about this place; it's just a theatre I came across on one of my downtown theatre trips. It's currently closed, but available for rent as a filming location.


Tower Theatre - 1927
802 South Broadway
This was the very first Broadway theatre to be equipped for sound; "The Jazz Singer" premiered here in 1927. It is currently closed, unoccupied, and available for rent.


Rialto Theatre - 1917
812 South Broadway
Gone. Again, a small shop has been built where the lobby once stood. I asked the store manager what sort of condition the main auditorium was in, and he described it as a "a big room full of garbage."


Orpheum Theatre - 1926
842 South Broadway
This is by far the most impressive and well-maintained of the Broadway houses still open for business, and there's a lot to see and explore here. The lobby and staircases are simply stunning, and there's a huge, multi-level balcony above. This was the fourth and final Orpheum theatre to be built in Los Angeles. It's been used numerous times as a film location ("Ed Wood" was shot here, for example). Although it runs mostly first and second run films now, every few months an organization called Friends of Orpheum takes the place over, opens everything up (the balcony is usually closed), and runs classic films -- I saw a studio vault print of Disney's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" here during one of these occasional film festivals. The place also has a fully restored original Wurlitzer organ (the last one to be installed in Los Angeles), which still is used for silent films. I've been told that the top section of the balcony was originally a blacks-only section, but this section has since been closed to make room for air- conditioning equipment. Most of the original seats are still there, though, and they're smaller and less comforatable than the seats in the whites-only sections were. I haven't been back to confirm any of this, though the one time I was there I was puzzled by the fact that a huge number of blacks were sitting up in the balcony, while the lower house was mainly white and hispanic. I remember wondering at the time what could possibly account for this strange demographic, but now that I think about it, it's only been about a generation since those laws were enforced, and people who were kids then probably still have rather nostalgic feelings about that balcony.


United Artists Theatre - 1927
933 South Broadway
This theatre was built by the original founders of United Artists (Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith.) It has recently been bought and beautifully restored by Dr. Gene Scott, who uses it as his University Cathedral. I'm told Saturdays are the day to visit if you want to see inside.


Mayan Theatre - 1920's
1040 South Hill Street
Never been here. Supposedly it's been converted into a nightclub, though I haven't confirmed this yet. (I believe "The Replacement Killers" was shot here.)


Belasco Theatre
1050 South Hill Street
Never been here. It's apparently still intact and available for rent as a filming location.

© 1998 Blake Middleton <Blake@pharm.medsch.ucla.edu>
Received 1/22/98


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I can remember a time when where we went to the movies was just as important as the movies we went to see .... From the moment moviegoers arrived to buy their tickets, there was a sense of something special, a feeling that to step inside was to enter another time and place. - Gene Kelly