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The Palace theatre was built as a vaudeville house and opened in June 1911 as the Orpheum Theatre. Designed by G. Albert Lansburgh (assisted by Robert Brown Young) in a French Renaissance style, it is the oldest remaining theatre from the original Orpheum vaudeville circuit. The Palace played host to vaudeville stars such as Al Jolson, Harry Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt and the Marx brothers.
Seating capacity at the time of opening was just under 2,000, spread across three levels with – unusually for Los Angeles – the top balcony (the gallery) being segregated for African-Americans. Separate entrances led to the gallery, from the alley along the side of the theatre, and the gallery also had its own separate restrooms.
When the Palace was being designed, theatre fire safety was of paramount concern. A few years previously there had been a devastating fire at the Iroquois theatre in Chicago with a loss of life of over 600. The Palace’s auditorium was afforded 22 fire exits and the building boasted one of Los Angeles’ first fire sprinkler systems.
The auditorium is both elegant and intimate, no seat more than 80ft from the stage, finished in a French Renaissance style with subdued shades of gold, pink and blue/green. Paintings of whimsical girls feature in the ceiling murals, and elaborate plasterwork surrounds the proscenium arch and surmounts the decoration on the flanking side walls. Lansburgh employed innovative recessed lighting to highlight the ceiling features, which appeared to glow without obvious light sources.
The theatre’s façade is particularly grand and is a combination of brick and multi-colored terracotta loosely styled after a Florentine Renaissance palazzo, featuring sculptures by Domingo Mora, including four muses of vaudeville: Comedy, Dance, Song and Music. The original light-up “ORPHEUM” lettering is still visible on the façade above the marquee.
Lansburgh designed the building with retail space at street level flanking the theatre’s entrance, and office space on multiple levels facing onto Broadway. The two-story top level, with its huge double-height windows and lofty outlook, is a favorite for movie location shoots.
In 1926 a new-and-improved Orpheum Theatre, also designed by Lansburgh, opened down the street on Broadway, seeing this theatre renamed as the Broadway Palace. The Orpheum circuit continued managing the Palace but changed programming to movies; the theatre limped along for several years and when it was sold it was reported as the Orpheum circuit having “offloaded a lemon”. By 1929 Fox West Coast was running the theatre, renamed as the Fox Palace.
Around this time the Palace was revamped for movies. The auditorium’s boxes were impractical for viewing a movie screen and were replaced with large oil paintings depicting French-style pastoral scenes, painted by Los Angeles artist Anthony Heinsbergen. The theatre was wired for sound and gained an enlarged projection booth, in addition to the neon marquee which is still in place above the theatre’s entrance. The segregation for African-Americans was removed however the gallery’s bench seating was not replaced and could not have been popular, nor appropriate, for a movie audience.
In 1939 the Palace became a newsreel theatre and was renamed the News Palace, later the Palace Newsreel. Some first-run movie engagements were shown in the mid-1940s, such as “Best Years Of Our Lives” in 1946, however the Palace remained predominantly a newsreel theatre. Metropolitan Theatres took over in 1949 and while there were some first-run screenings, the Palace gradually fell into playing double features and low-grade “B”-movies (a.k.a. a grindhouse) through the 1950s and 1960s. Later it became a home for Spanish-language films from Mexico and occasionally featured stage shows along with the films.
At some point in the 1940s, likely around 1946 when Fox retried first-run screenings, the theatre’s public areas underwent a revamp. The 1940s styling is still in place today, featuring fixtures and fittings common to other Fox West Coast venues (e.g. hanging lights). The gallery was also closed at this time.
Despite something of a revival in the 1990s, thanks to renewed interest from preservationists and Hollywood studios, the Palace could not sustain itself financially and it closed in 2000.
The Delijani family bought the building in 2004 and oversaw a cleaning of the façade in 2007. In June 2011, following a $1 million restoration, the Palace reopened as a special events venue under the management of the Broadway Theatre Group, who also manage the Tower, Los Angeles and State theatres on Broadway.
Of particular interest backstage is the center stage trap[door], specially built for Harry Houdini and affectionately known as the “Houdini Trap”. When Houdini performed his stage magic at the Palace an ambulance was kept parked on the curb outside the theatre in case of emergency.
The Ladies Power Room was located above the inner lobby and featured windows looking down onto the entrance lobby so that ladies could look out for their “date” arriving. In 1911 women were not permitted to go to the theatre without being escorted, nor were they permitted to travel with a young man without a chaperone. The overlooking windows of the Ladies Powder Room protected against these social pitfalls. This space was opened-up in the 1940s revamp and is now generally used as a pop-up bar.
The Palace has been used numerous times as a filming location. Notable movies include Better Midler’s “Gypsy” (1993) and “Dreamgirls” (2006). Part of the 1983 video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was filmed outside the theatre; more recently “Weird Al” Yankovic recorded “Tacky”, his take on Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, in the vacant office space above the theatre, the original 1911 elevators, and the theatre itself.
As of May 2017 The Palace does not offer theatre tours. Instead you may wish to check out the theatre’s website to see upcoming events scheduled at The Palace.
The Los Angeles Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats program generally uses the theatre as a venue for screening classic films several times a year. Pre-screening Backstage tours are often available but very limited in numbers and fill-up quickly. Check out the Last Remaining Seats website for schedule and more information.
The theatre is an active participant in Councilmember Jose Huizar’s annual Night On Broadway event (usually the last Saturday in January) when the theatre is opened-up to the public for free and hosts a variety of live entertainment programming. Check out the Night On Broadway website for more details.
All photographs copyright © 2002-2018 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com. For licensing and/or re-use contact me here.
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