Downtown Los Angeles has the most wonderfully diverse collection of historic movie and legitimate theaters in the country. The district is unique in the number of surviving structures, their state of preservation and the amazing variety of architectural styles. As the industry changed and business left downtown for Hollywood and other suburban areas in the 20’s and 30’s, there was little incentive to modernize the downtown theaters. Many of the auditoria are quite unchanged from when they opened. Although there are currently numerous retail stores in the lobbies of many of the theaters…beyond that, it’s an architectural wonderland of hidden beauty!
To personally experience the historical and architectural landmarks of this unique district, we recently went on the Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Broadway Theater and Commercial District” walking tour.
At 10 a.m., we met at Pershing Square Park, where our guide gave the group a quick prelude. During the two-hour tour, he led us to hidden places and theaters we never would have seen on our own or would otherwise be closed to the public.
Across the street, we headed south down Broadway...
The Roxie Theater (movie palace) was built in 1932, the last of the movie palaces built on Broadway. The Roxie had a seating capacity of 1,600 when it opened and was noted for its Art Deco or Zigzag Moderne style, including its stepped roofline, angular grillwork, chevron ornament and terrazzo sunburst in the sidewalk. The theater’s sleek Streamline Moderne ticket booth was removed when the theater was converted to retail use.
The Cameo Theater (nickelodeon) opened in 1910 with a seating capacity of 775. Designed by Alfred Rosenheim in a Renaissance Revival style, the Cameo was originally known as Clune’s Broadway. Until it closed in 1991, it was the oldest continuously operating movie theater in California. The Cameo has been converted into a swap meet-type market.
Opened in 1910 as a vaudeville house, the Arcade Theater (English-music-hall-style theater) was part of the Pantages vaudeville circuit. Morgan & Walls designed the Arcade in the Beaux Arts style with tripartite vertical division of the façade.
Our guide led us to a storefront just south on 6th street to see inside the restored Dutch Chocolate Shop. The famous tile mason, Eanest Batchelder in his first major commission, designed the 1914 Dutch-themed, tiled interior. The interior is completely covered in Batchelder’s chocolately brown tile work—floor, walls, and ceiling, with larger tiles (around 4” x 4”) laid into the walls while bigger murals beneath the arches are more mosaic. We were not allowed to take photographs inside, but this original view from the USC Archives gives you a historic peek of this elaborate gem.
As we continued along Broadway, the street scene of downtown Los Angeles on a Saturday is an experience unto itself…storefronts are lined with tech stores, arcades, jewelry shops, ethnic eateries, vendors selling clothing in all colors and styles, to name a few.
The Los Angeles Theater (movie palace) opened in 1931 for the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights”. It had a seating capacity just short of 2,000. Designed by Charles Lee with Tilden Norton in the French Baroque style, the interior boasts the most elaborate of all the Broadway theaters. Our tour guide said that even the bathrooms are a sight to behold—each stall is made from a different color marble.
The nearby Broadway Arcade Building caught our attention. Thin twisted and beaded columns shape the delicate Spanish Baroque arch that traverse the basement level. The 88-year-old building is known for its retail arcade and 3-story glass ceiling between its two towers spanning from Broadway to Spring Street.
Continuing south, we reach what was once the busiest intersections downtown—7th and Broadway, the end of the fabled Route 66. Because of its location on this particular corner, Lowe’s State Theater, with its Beau Arts exterior and eclectic Spanish interior, was once the area’s most profitable theater. Designed by Weeks and Day, the vaudeville theater opened in 1921 with a seating capacity of 2,450 and is said to be the largest brick veneer facade in Los Angeles. Today, the State is home to a church congregation that keeps it in fairly good shape.
On the other side of the street, the Pantages Theater, later known as the Warner Bros. Theater, opened in 1920 as a vaudeville house. Designed by Marcus Priteca, the Pantages is a rich ornamented Beaux Arts structure built to house a theatre and shops, with offices above. The white terra-cotta façade is covered with decorative details, including beautifully sculpted female herms (posts topped with busts of divinities). The theatre entrance faces the corner, at the base of a rounded tower crowned by a dome. Although converted to a jewelry mart in the 1980’s, much of the theater’s original ornamentation survives.
Between 8th and 9th Street, there are three more theaters sitting side-by-side: The Tower, Rialto, and Orpheum. A quick glance down Broadway, the Eastern Columbia Building is considered to be the most beautiful of Los Angele’s historic buildings, as well as its finest surviving example of Art Deco architecture. It is easily spotted from Interstate 10 due to its bright turquoise color. In the fall of 2006, a developer turned the property into condominiums.
Opened in 1927 with a seating capacity of 1,000, the Tower Theater (movie theater) was the first of dozens of movie theatres designed by legendary architect S. Charles Lee. The opulent French Renaissance designed Tower was the first movie theater in Downtown Los Angeles equipped to accommodate talking pictures.
The Rialto Theater originally opened as a nickelodeon in 1917. The exterior elements date from a 1923 remodel by architect William Woolett. A spectacular neon marquee representative of flickering candles and with the emblazoned words ‘Rialto’ is the longest on Broadway. Today, the theater has been retrofitted to house an Urban Outfitters store.
The final stop on our tour took us to one of the best-preserved Los Angeles movie palaces. Opening in 1926, architect Albert Lansburgh designed the Orpheum Theater with a seating capacity of 2,190.
The French Baroque fantasia is one of his more elaborate theaters, and the Françoise Premier style interior is amazing! It’s hard to get a sense of the grandeur of the old movie palace by looking at photos.
The Orpheum is lavish with an abundance of marble in the lobby, towering crystal chandeliers, and plush furnishings. Currently, the theatre regularly hosts many concerts and other events plus occasional film screenings sponsored by the L.A. Conservancy.
Whether you’re an Angeleno or from out-of-town, LA’s Conservancy’s Broadway Theatre tour is fun way to spend a few hours on a Saturday while enjoying the California sunshine. To make reservations, call 213-623-2489 or visit their website