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First Listed on the National Register of Historic Places: 9th May 1979
Listing Updated on the National Register of Historic Places: 12th April 2002
The Broadway Theater & Commercial District in Downtown Los Angeles is the first and largest historic theatre district listed on the National Register of Historic Places . With 12 movie theatres/palaces located along a seven-block stretch of Broadway, it is the only large concentration of movie palaces left in the United States.
The historic district runs along South Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. Pre-dating it is the Main Street theatre district where many nickelodeons and small theatres existed at the start of the 20th century. Many of these theatres switched to movies in the early 20th century, but the grand movie palaces being built a couple of streets west on Broadway drew the crowds away with their larger screens and opulent surroundings.
By 1931, when Broadway’s last movie palace was built, there was capacity for more than 15,000 patrons nightly. Broadway had the highest concentration of movie theatres in the world, with theatres ranging in capacity from several thousand down to 900. The largest theatre by seating capacity was the State Theatre at 2,404 seats, and the smallest was the Tower Theatre at 906 seats.
Broadway was the hub of LA’s entertainment scene, a place where “screen goddesses and guys in fedoras rubbed elbows with Army nurses and aircraft pioneers”.
In the 1950s and 1960s the downtown area entered a general decline as a result of many people moving out to the suburbs and the rise of television. Local neighborhood theatres became much more popular.
Many of the Broadway theatres turned to exhibiting newsreels, Spanish language / Spanish-dubbed films and entertainment, soft porn, or any combination of the above. Had it not been for the activities of the Hispanic community many of the Broadway theatres would probably not have survived.
The area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in May 1979 as the Broadway Theater & Commercial District, a six-block stretch of Broadway from 3rd St to 9th St.
With the closure of many theatres in the 1980s, alternative tenants and uses were sought. Churches moved into some spaces (notably the State and United Artists theatres), with other theatres such as the Globe Theatre being given over to swap meets, a fate which almost befell the Tower Theatre as well. Some of the theatres also became regular fixtures as locations for Los Angeles movie and television shoots.
In the late 1980s Broadway started to receive some preservation attention. In 1987 the Los Angeles Conservancy commenced a program called “Last Remaining Seats” , in which the old movie palaces were opened each summer to screen classic Hollywood movies. 31 years later, “Last Remaining Seats” is still going strong and regularly selling-out theatres during its summer run.
In 2002 the listing on the National Register was amended to extend the historic district by approximately half a block in both directions, resulting in the district stretching from approximately 250 Broadway at the north end (between 2nd and 3rd Streets) to 950 Broadway at the south end (between 9th St and Olympic Boulevard). The boundary increase brought the United Artists Theatre, now The Theatre at Ace Hotel, into the historic district.
In 2008, then councilmember Jose Huizar launched a ten-year strategic economic development plan for the revitalization of the historic Broadway corridor in Downtown Los Angeles, called “Bringing Back Broadway” .
One of the key elements of the Bringing Back Broadway initiative was the “Night On Broadway” event, started in 2015 where several blocks of Broadway were closed to traffic for a free arts and music festival. The event continued annually, with an area of eight by three blocks closed to traffic for the day, and permitted access to over half of the historic Broadway theatres, some of which were not generally accessible to the public.
Attendance at Night On Broadway in 2015 was 35,000, swelling to 60,000 in 2016 and 75,000 in 2017, then ballooning to 250,000 people in 2018. Despite the Bringing Back Broadway initiative ending in 2018, the Night On Broadway event continued. The event went on hiatus for 2019 and promised to return in 2020, however the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in no 2020 or 2021 events.
The following theatres participated in the most recent (2018) Night On Broadway:
In early 2019 Langdon Street Capital, who had recently bought the Million Dollar Theatre along with the adjacent Grand Central Market , submitted an application to nominate the Million Dollar Theatre for Historic-Cultural Monument status with the City of Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation helped facilitate the nomination, and in early July 2019 the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously in favor of granting the theatre Historic-Cultural Monument status. As of 2021 and following the Covid-19 pandemic, the theatre is used as both a church and as a regular location for screening movies.
The Tower Theatre was under renovation for several years however reopened in June 2021 as a flagship Apple store: the Apple Tower Theatre . The renovation included a seismic retrofit of the entire building, a faithful recreation of the theatre’s original 1927 marquee on Broadway, a recreated ornamental cap at the top of the clock tower (removed after severe damage caused by the Sylmar / San Fernando Earthquake in February 1971), and an accessible area dedicated to the renovation project highlighting techniques used in the restoration and replication processes.
The Los Angeles, Palace, and State theatres are managed by the Broadway Theatre Group and are programmed for special events and used for movie/TV location shoots. Since mid-2021 the State Theatre has been re-leased to the church group Cathedral of Faith, who had previously vacated the theatre in early 2018 after a twenty-year lease.
The Roxie, Cameo, and Arcade theatres are currently closed but open to re-use proposals. The Rialto Theatre was adaptively reused as an Urban Outfitters store which opened in December 2013.
The Globe Theatre was built in 1913 as the Morosco Theater, designed for full-scale legitimate dramatic productions at a time when most theatres were being built for vaudeville. The theatre was built as part of a larger office tower called the Garland Building, designed by Morgan, Walls & Morgan. The theatre interior was designed by Alfred F. Rosenheim.
Widely acknowledged as Los Angeles’ most lavish theatre, construction of this 2,000-seat movie palace took only six months and was completed in 1931. Owing to the Great Depression it was the last opulent movie palace to be built in Los Angeles. The stunning French Baroque interior heralds a particularly grand entrance lobby, inspired by the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors in France.
The Million Dollar was Sid Grauman’s first major movie theatre when it opened in February 1918. It was informally known as the million dollar theatre during construction, given rumors of its opulent interior and price tag. Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre was hailed as the first movie theatre to break with classic design conventions and use fantasy themes throughout.
The Orpheum Theatre, named for the Greek mythological figure Orpheus, opened in 1926 as the fourth and final Los Angeles venue for the Orpheum circuit, and the second Orpheum Theatre to be built on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. The theatre is home to a 1928 Mighty Wurlitzer organ which is still in service today. Architect designed the theatre and it remains one of his most elaborate examples.
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 and played host to stars such as Al Jolson, Harry Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt, and the Marx brothers.
The State Theatre opened as Loew’s State in November 1921 and was their west coast showcase movie theatre, later becoming the downtown Los Angeles home for first-run MGM movies. It is the largest theatre within the Broadway Theatre District by audience capacity (originally reported variously as 2,404 and 2,450; now 2,119).
The Theatre at Ace Hotel, formerly known as the United Artists Theatre, opened in December 1927 as the flagship for United Artists’ west coast operations. Starting in 2012 the surrounding office building was converted into the Ace Hotel DTLA, and the historic theatre was renovated and re-opened in early 2014 as a live entertainment and special events venue.
The Tower Theatre was the first theatre designed by architect S. Charles Lee, who would go on to become one of the most prolific theatre architects of his time on the U.S. West Coast. Lee’s design was notable for fitting a 900-seat auditorium plus retail units onto a 150x50ft lot. In mid-2021 the Tower Theatre opened as an Apple Store after a lengthy refurbishment.
The Mayan Theatre in downtown Los Angeles is a stunning example of the 1920s fascination with revival-style theatre architecture, in this case Mayan Revival. The Mayan opened its doors in 1927 as a legitimate theatre; it is now used as a music/nightclub and live events venue. Between times it has showcased movies, blue movies, and has been the scene of many movie location shoots.
The Regent Theater is a small 600-seat theatre on downtown L.A.’s Main St. Originally opened as the National Theater, the first theatre built on this site around 1910 had a capacity of just 350. It was rebuilt and opened in February 1914, retaining the National name but with a boosted capacity of 600. The theatre was renamed The Regent around 1917.
The Los Angeles Conservancy runs weekly tours of the Broadway Historic Theatre District. Subject to availability, the tour visits the interiors of one or more of the following theatres: Los Angeles Theatre, The Theatre at Ace Hotel (formerly United Artists Theatre), Orpheum Theatre.
Access is not guaranteed to any theatres due to events programming and logistics on the day so call ahead for details if you are concerned.
Tours run every Saturday at 10am and last approximately 2.5 hours. Tickets $10.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2023 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2023 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.
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