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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. A separate entrance at the north end of the building led to the Gallery which had its own ticket booth. The Gallery was not connected with the rest of the theatre and had its own 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 source.
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 of the four muses of Vaudeville (Comedy, Dance, Drama, and Music) sculpted by Domingo Mora and executed by the Gladding McBean Tile Company. 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 main 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. Entrance to the office space is from the alley at the south side of the theatre, where two original manually-operated elevators are still to be found.
In February 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 – often suffixed by “the old Orpheum”. The Orpheum Circuit continued managing the Palace but in July 1926 announced a change in programming to a movie-only policy. The “big-picture plan” was again announced in mid-October 1926 so it perhaps took some time to institute the new policy. The theatre limped along for several years and when it was sold in August 1928 to Harry Strere of Pacific Amusement Co., it was reported by Variety as “Orpheum Loses Lemon”. A year later, in September 1929, Fox West Coast Theaters was announced as having taken over the theatre which would reopen on 16th October 1929 as the Fox Palace.
Fox spent $150,000 on “radical wrecking and reconstruction” of the theatre over a short 10-day period from 6th to 16th October 1929. The major change was removal of the auditorium’s boxes which were deemed impractical for viewing the movie screen. The boxes 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 today above the theatre’s entrance. Auditorium seating was replaced and reconfigured however the Gallery 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 “Skouras-style” changes are still in place today, featuring fixtures and fittings common to other Fox West Coast theatres such as 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 Bette Midler’s Gypsy (1993) and Dreamgirls (2006), for which the theatre’s original 1911 auditorium boxes were recreated.
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. In 2019 Toyota filmed a commercial at the theatre.
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 in June each 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.
Cinespia occasionally hold movie screenings at the Palace Theatre, particularly during the winter months. Check the Cinespia website for upcoming events and more info. Other promoters who sometimes run events at the theatre are Spaceland Presents and the Secret Movie Club .
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.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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