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The Broadway Theatre District in Downtown Los Angeles is the first and largest historic theatre district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With 12 movie palaces located along a seven-block stretch of Broadway, it is the only large concentration of movie palaces left in the United States.
The theatre 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 cinemas in the world, with theatres ranging in capacity from several thousand down to 900. 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 area entered a decline with the general move out to suburbs. Local, small theatres became much more popular. Many of the Broadway theatres turned to newsreels, Spanish-dubbed films and entertainment, soft porn, or any combination of the above. Had it not been for the activities of the Hispanic community the Broadway theatres would likely not have survived.
The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 as the six-block stretch of Broadway from 3rd St to 9th St.
With the closure of many theatres in the 1980s, alternative tenants were sought. Churches moved into some spaces (notably the State and United Artists, now the Theatre at Ace Hotel), with other spaces such as the Globe being given over to a swap meet, a fate which almost befell the Tower as well. Some of the theatres also became regular fixtures as locations for movies shooting in Los Angeles.
In the 1980s Broadway started to receive some preservation attention. In 1985 the listing on the National Register of Historic Places was amended to extend the district by approximately half a block in both directions, resulting in the district becoming the stretch of Broadway from approximately 250 Broadway (between 2nd and 3rd Streets) to 950 Broadway (between 9th St and Olympic Boulevard). By 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 2008, 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 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 continues annually, with eight by three blocks of Downtown Los Angeles closed to traffic for the day, and permits access to over half of the historic Broadway theatres, some of which are not generally accessible to the public. Attendance 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 having ended, the Night On Broadway event continues, and although it went on hiatus for 2019 it promises to return in 2020. The following theatres participated in the most recent (2018) event:
As of mid-2018 the Million Dollar Theatre is leased by cobird and occasionally hosts events. 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. The Orpheum, Theatre at Ace Hotel and Globe theatres host a healthy variety of events most weeks. The Roxie, Cameo, and Arcade theatres are currently closed but open to re-use proposals. The Tower Theatre is currently being converted into a flagship Apple Store.
The Globe Theatre was built in 1913 as the Morosco Theatre, designed for full-scale productions at a time when theatres were being built solely to house vaudeville. The theatre was 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, modeled on 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. Officially called “Grauman’s Theatre”, it was informally known as the Million Dollar theatre for its opulent interior and rumors of the price tag. The theatre’s name was officially changed in 1922. It was the first movie theatre to break with generally classic design conventions and use fantasy themes throughout.
The Orpheum theatre 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 LA. The theatre is home to a Mighty Wurlitzer organ which is still in service today. Architect G. Albert Lansburgh designed the theatre and it remains one of his most elaborate examples, including plush fittings throughout the theatre and lobbies.
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.
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 on Broadway by audience capacity (originally reported 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 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, one of the most prolific and distinguished movie theatre designers of his time on the US West Coast. Lee’s design for The Tower replaced the 650-seat Garrick Theatre and is notable for fitting a 1000-seat auditorium (906 as built), plus street-level retail stores, into a lot measuring just 50ft by 150ft.
The Belasco Theatre opened in late 1926 under the management of Edward Belasco and partners – Edward was the brother of famous New York theatre producer David Belasco. The same management team operated the Mayan Theatre, which was built next door immediately after the Belasco was completed.
The Regent Theater is a small 600-seater theatre on Downtown LA’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 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 nightclub and events space. Between times it has showcased movies, blue movies, and has been the scene of many movie locations.
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: the Los Angeles Theatre, the Theatre at the Ace Hotel (formerly United Artists Theatre), and the 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 normally run every Saturday at 10am and last approximately 2.5 hours. Tickets $15 ($10 for 17 and under). More info and tickets are available on the Conservancy’s Walking Tour website .
Photographs copyright © 2002-2019 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2019 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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