In 1911, there were about 300,000 residents living in Los Angeles. Hollywood was still a small town and movies were silent. D. W. Griffith was two years away from making Birth of a Nation, and Charlie Chaplin was an English actor who hadn’t made any films yet.
In 1887, the Orpheum chain opened its first theatre in downtown LA. It was designed by architect George Albert Lansburgh, who had previously worked on the Grand Opera House in San Francisco. He wanted to create an Italianate style palace, inspired by the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The design included three floors of seating and nearly 2 thousand seats. It was meant to impress, and it did.
The Orphéum Theatre was located on Broadway in downtown LA. At the time, Broadway was the city’s main shopping street, and the theatre was the place to go if you wanted to see a show. The Cameo and the Arcade were two other vaudeville houses that had been built earlier, but the Orpheum was different. It was a brand new venue, designed to appeal to modern audiences. It featured state-of-the art lighting and sound systems, and its interior design was inspired by European opera halls. It also offered an innovative seating arrangement: instead of rows of seats facing each other across a stage, there were individual booths, like those found in restaurants.
In the early 1900s, the Orpheum Theatre was the place to see all kinds of performers, including comedians like Will Rogers, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Abbott & Costello, Groucho Marx, and many others. Vaudeville was a big deal back then, and if you were a performer, you had to play there.
Broadway also had room for the legitimate stage, which welcomed the opening of the Globe Theatre in 1913. With a seating capacity of only 782, it lacked the grandeur of the Orpheum, but it took its place among the growing cluster of ornate theatres lining Broadway.
In the early 1900s, movie theaters were becoming increasingly popular. As the number of cinemas grew, so did the need for them to be built. At the same time, the population was growing, and there were many more people living in cities. These two factors led to the construction of larger buildings, and more space for seating. People wanted to see movies in large groups, and the first movie houses had large auditoriums.
First came the Rialto Theatre in 1917—a nickelodeon that was purchased two years later by Sid Grauman, whose Chinese Theatre in Hollywood would soon become a city landmark. Grauman also built another palatial movie theatre on Broadway, the Million Dollar Theatre, which opened in 1918. A year after opening, Grauman sold the Rialto to Harry M. Warner, who renamed it the Warner Grand Theatre. Soon after, he added an adjacent wing called the Loew’s State Theatre, which became the flagship location for Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corporation.
In 1921, the Loew’s State Theatre on Broadway opened its doors, dethroning the Orpheum as the Broadway theatre with the largest number of seats. With a seating capacity of 2,450, the Orpheum sought the best of both worlds, by hosting both movies and live vaudeville performances.
Vaudeville was still alive and well in the 1920s, but the rise of motion pictures meant that vaudeville could not compete with Hollywood. Vaudeville theaters were forced to close down, and many performers moved to Hollywood to pursue careers there. The theater chain that owned the Orpheum Theatre decided to construct a new theatre on Broadway in 1926, calling it the Orpheum. The old Orpheum became the Broadway Palace. The Orpheum was now at the heart of the vaudevillian circuit in LA, while the Broadway Palace performed mostly musical comedies and variety acts. While the strategy was effective in drawing top talent, the success of the Orpheum would be short lived. A technological breakthrough had occurred that would change the world forever, and usher in the end of vaudeville.
In the 1920s, the motion pictures industry experimented with ways to bring sound to the movies. They came up with an idea to record actors’ voices while filming them. Then, when the film was projected, they added the sounds to the images. People heard the actors speak, move, and sing along with the action on the big screen. These silent films became known as “talkies”.
The first talking pictures were short films, and very few cinemas at the time had the required equipment to show them. It was inevitable that film studios would begin making feature length movies, and that cinemas across the country would be built to show these films to audiences.
On October 5, 1927, The Jazz Singers’ sneak preview took place at the Tower Theater in Los Angeles, California. The theater was the first movie theater in Los Angeles to be equipped with sound equipment, and the event made the Tower the first movie theater in the world to show a feature-length talkie.
That same year, United Artists, the movie studio that had been founded by four giants of the motion picture industry—Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford—built a new theatre on Broadway called the United Artists Theatre, devoted exclusively to showing films made by their company. It was the first cinema dedicated to showing movies produced by the company. At the time, there were already several other cinemas on Broadway, including the Gaiety Theater, the Criterion Theater, the Globe Theater, the Capitol Theater, the Lyric Theater, the Rialto Theater, the Selwyn Theater, and the Strand Theater. These theaters all offered different kinds of entertainment, ranging from vaudeville shows to musical revues to silent films. But none of them could compare to UA’s grand new venue. The UA Theatre was designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb, and it featured an ornate façade of white marble and gold leaf. Inside, the auditorium was decorated with murals depicting scenes from classic American film history. The lobby boasted a large fountain, and the foyer was lined with red velvet curtains and gilded mirrors. The theater also included a restaurant, a barber shop, and a souvenir store. It was truly a place fit for kings.
The Los Angeles Theatre opened its door in January 1931, just before the start of the Great Depression. Despite being delayed, the theatre was still completed in time for the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s movie, City Lights. To help pay for the construction costs, Chaplin invested some of his own money.
In the 1930s, Hollywood became the center of American culture. As the population moved away from downtown LA, many theaters in the Broadway Theater district started closing down. Some were turned into parking lots while others were converted into second rate movie houses. Over time, the theater district declined until there were only two remaining theaters left. One was renamed the “Roxy” after its original name, the Rialto. The other, the Pantages, was named after the famous Greek actor. Both theaters are still standing today.
In the early 1970s, the city of Los Angeles began an ambitious plan to revitalize downtown L.A., including the area around Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. The goal was to create a vibrant cultural center that could rival New York City’s Times Square. The idea was to transform the area into a tourist destination, complete with theaters, restaurants, shops, hotels, museums, and other attractions. The project was called “Downtown West” and included plans to renovate many of the old buildings along the boulevard. One of the biggest challenges facing the city was finding funding for the massive project. To help raise money, the city decided to sell tax credits to developers willing to invest in the area. On May 9, 1979, the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places placed the Broadway Theater and Commercial District of Los Angeles on its list, making it the first and largest historic theater district in the country to appear on the National Register.
Ezat Delijani bought the old LA theatre In 1982 because he wanted to preserve it. He also bought other theatres around town to help revitalize downtown L.A. His family then took over those theatres and started the Broadway Theatre Group. Their mission was to restore all four theatres as part of an effort to bring back downtown Los Angeles as a vibrant place to live.