Now, before Fox bought it, the land was owned by the family of architect S. Tilden Norton. Initially, newspapers announced that Norton would be the one designing the theater, with Lee and Frederick H. Wallis as consulting architects. Ultimately, though, it was Lee who designed the Los Angeles Theatre while Norton was responsible for the adjoining retail/office buildings including the very nice thirteen-story Fox Building on South Hill. Employing thirty-two draftsmen working in two shifts, Lee had the plans for the height-limit theater wrapped up in a mere ten weeks. With 600 people rushing to complete the theater for its scheduled opening, the Sumner-Sollitt Company, the project’s general contractors, finished the building in five months.
The cutting-edge theater opened with an $80,000 air-conditioning set-up and a $34,000 Westinghouse switchboard allowing ushers to keep track of seat counts.
The Los Angeles Theatre, “the Theatre Unusual” and “the ultra of ultras in its modernistic appointments and its conveniences”, opened on January 30, 1931, with the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s, City Lights.
Charlie Chaplin was there opening night and was annoyed when Gumbiner stopped the movie midway to rave about the theater.
More than 25,000 people thronged Broadway that night, effectively shutting down center city. The L.A. Times reported “the traffic on the chief downtown thoroughfares for a mile on either side of the theater was at a complete standstill for more than two hours, store windows were broken, clothes were torn, windshields in cars were smashed and many women fainted in the milling multitudes gathered to make a movie holiday.”
Besides the incredible decor, the Los Angeles was also the most technically advanced theatre of its day. The lighting was controlled by a special Westinghouse dimming system as flexible as any available today. The sound system was also the most modern available. Not only was the film sound state-of-the art, the theatre also had an extensive public address system with banks of amplifiers in the projection booth powering speakers and microphones throughout the theatre.
Large speakers were also installed above the proscenium and in the organ chambers for live shows, and the auditorium was one of the first to be ‘tuned’ for amplified sound. In contrast, most movies palaces of the twenties had to undergo architectural and decorative changes when amplified sound came into use. The movie screen measured almost 60 feet wide by 30 feet high, one of the largest in the city. It was built to accommodate the early Magnascope wide-screen process, which unfortunately never really caught on. The projection equipment was ultra-modern and the large booth was able to hold extra projectors in case of a breakdown, as well as two large spotlights and a Brenograph, the machine that projected song slides and announcements on the screen.
Down in the basement was the main lounge with its glass ceiling, reminiscent of something you might find in a luxury ocean liner.
Back in the day, after the night’s films had ended, the theater would move its orchestra to the lounge, roll up the carpets, and hold dances on the parquet floor.
Off the main lounge was the ladies’ restroom…
…which featured different colored marble in each stall.
There was also a children’s play room/nursery area, with murals by Anthony Heinsbergen and a circus-themed plaster ceiling topped off with decorative severed animal heads.
Maybe it was less creepy back then.
The Depression wasn’t kind to Gumbiner, his company went bankrupt just three months after the theater opened.
By the end of the year, the Los Angeles Theatre had shut its doors. William Fox soon re-opened it as a second-run house, running it until 1939 when Metropolitan Theatres took over the lease. Metropolitan continued the theater as a second-run house until 1944 when they switched it back to first-run pictures.
Fox West Coast operated the theater beginning in 1949 as the major studios were forced to divest their theater holdings. They ran the Los Angeles until 1962. It was then the theater’s future looked sketchiest, but Metropolitan Theatres came back into the picture, again running first-run films, including features from Mexico and English-dubbed Spanish films. The Los Angeles Theatre closed in 1994.
Today it is one of four movie palaces in downtown owned by the Delijani family and Delson Investment Co.
Events are still held, and it’s used frequently for film shoots.
In fact you can see it in Batman Forever, Alien Nation, Man on the Moon, Houdini, Escape from LA, Chaplin, Charlie’s Angels II, and The Prestige. It also makes appearances in New York, New York and 1941.
Now that “Bringing Back Broadway” is on a roll, there’s hope that the Los Angeles, along with all the other amazing theaters within the historic corridor, will be restored and appreciated once again. Break a leg, LAT!