Every year, the Los Angeles Conservancy presents the Last Remaining Seats classic film series in several historic Los Angeles movie palaces. Most shows in the series also present the opportunity to purchase a spot in a group architectural tour led by one of the Conservancy’s knowledgeable docents. While the tours will give you a rare, up-close view of the amazing design and ornate detail that have survived almost a century, have you ever wondered how the theaters looked when they were new?
Imagine what it must have been like to attend the October 21, 1927 opening night showing of Mary Pickford’s My Best Girl at the Spanish Gothic-style United Artists Theater, with its grotesque gargoyles, stained glass windows, intricate chandeliers, and an auditorium decorated with custom-painted murals featuring the founders of the United Artists in their most iconic roles.
While you can’t travel back in time, you can see historic images of the old movie palaces. TESSA has historic photos of every theater in the series. I’ve compiled a few below.
Loew’s State Theater
The West Coast flagship theater of Marcus Loew’s national chain, Loew’s State Theater was the largest brick-clad building in Los Angeles when it opened on November 12, 1921. Located at the busy intersection of 7th and Broadway, Loew’s State Theater was the most successful of all of Los Angeles’s Broadway theaters for more than half a century (Berger, Robert, The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown. 1997, P. 31).
The theater was originally styled after a Spanish castle. To capitalize on its excellent location, Loew’s State had two marquees and two entrances–one on Broadway and another on 7th Street. Unfortunately, a change in ownership in the 1930s resulted in several changes to the building, including the removal of the 7th Street marquee, and the replacement of the original Broadway marquee with the large, multi-line neon marquee you can still see today. While it is more visually arresting than its understated predecessor, the “new” Broadway marquee covers part of the row of distinctive arched second-floor windows.
Another change made during the remodel was to add Greco-Roman elements to the decor of the theater. Below, you’ll find photos of the original exterior and interior, as well as a photo of the “new” marquee.
The Million Dollar Theater
The Million Dollar Theater was originally named after its owner, Sid Grauman, who decided to rechristen it in honor of its supposed construction cost, though Robert Berger and Ann Conser’s 1997 book, The Last Remaining Seats reports it was rumored to have cost twice as much. Whatever its price, the theater, which opened in 1918 and features fantastical Spanish-palace architecture inspired by the fairy tale, “The King of the Golden River,” is truly amazing. It’s at the corner of 3rd and Broadway, across the street from the famed Bradbury Building, and next door to Grand Central Market.
United Artist Theater (Theater at Ace Hotel)
Located at the southern end of the Broadway theater district, between 9th and Olympic, architect C. Howard Crane’s 2,214-seat United Artists Theater opened in December of 1927 with the Mary Pickford film, My Best Girl. According to a Los Angeles Conservancy walking tour guide, the Spanish Gothic theater’s cast-plaster ornamentation is “complemented by a remarkable series of frescoes and murals by the firm of Anthony Heinsbergen. The vaulted ceilings of the foyer are painted to resemble tapestries, and those of the lobby imitate stained glass. In the auditorium, the original United Artists and their co-stars are depicted as characters from their most popular pictures.”
The United Artists Theater was restored by the Ace Hotel chain, and reopened to the public in 2014 as the Theater at the Ace Hotel. You can learn more about the Theater at the Ace Hotel history and restoration in this KCRW post.
The Los Angeles Theater
The most opulent and most recent of the Broadway theaters, the 2200-seat French Baroque style Los Angeles Theater opened in 1931, and became the Fox Studio’s flagship theater in 1932. The crowning achievement of famed theater architect S. Charles Lee, the Los Angeles Theater construction cost $1.2 million, and featured a number of interesting amenities such as an electric indicator of available seats, blue neon floor lights in the aisles, and sound-proofed “crying rooms” from which parents could soothe unruly infants without missing the movie.
The fourth of four Los Angeles vaudeville theaters to bear the Orpheum name, architect G. Albert Lansburgh’s French Renaissance-styled venue opened in 1926 as a vaudeville theater, and continued as such for nearly thirty years. Known for its marble and faux-marble foyer, and sumptuous, European-styled appointments, the theater has long benefited from the work of preservation groups like the Friends of the Orpheum and the Los Angeles Theater Organ Society. It remains in excellent condition as an entertainment venue to this day, making it downtown’s longest-operational picture palace.
San Gabriel Mission Playhouse
Since it opened in 1927, the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse has been home to a world-renowned play about California history, a movie theater, and numerous civic events. During World War II, its dressing rooms were converted to apartments to help ease the housing shortage in Los Angeles. Near the end of the war, a citizens’ committee convinced the city of San Gabriel to purchase it, and the playhouse served as the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium until the original name was restored in 2007. 2018 was the first time that this well-preserved historic theater has been part of the Last Remaining Seats series.
If you’re a fan of Los Angeles movie palaces, or just want to know more about them, check out the 1997 book The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown photographed by Robert Berger and Anne Conser, with an introduction by Stephen M. Silverman.