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The Montalbán opened in January 1927 as the Wilkes Vine Street Theatre, a legitimate Broadway-style theatre in Hollywood. The early 1930s saw it have a run as a movie theatre for a few years, before becoming the CBS Radio Playhouse – and home of the Al Jolson Show.
The theatre was originally planned by movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille and referred to as “DeMille’s Playhouse” during the planning stages. Architect Myron Hunt designed the theatre (other works in the Los Angeles area included the Rose Bowl, the Huntington Library, and the Ambassador Hotel), however for reasons unknown DeMille’s plans fell through. Frank B. Strong and John F. Wilson picked up the idea and built the theatre based upon the original plans.
According to a story printed in the Los Angeles Times in May 1926, the theatre was originally planned to be called The Queen Theater, however by the time it opened in January 1927 it was called the Wilkes Vine Street Theatre, the Wilkes brothers being the first lessees of the theatre.
When the Depression hit the theatre was lease-out as a movie theatre, then in early 1931 sold to Howard Hughes and movie executive Harold B. Franklin. The theatre reopened as the Mirror Theatre.
Hollywood historian Mary Mallory notes that the Hollywood Theatre Guild brought legitimate drama back to the theatre in 1935, however a lack of interest resulted in films being shown again, and the Guild ultimately selling the theatre to CBS in 1936. It reopened as the CBS Radio Playhouse on 2nd January 1937 and was the new home of The Al Jolson Show.
CBS hosted the long-running anthology series Lux Radio Theatre at The Montalbán featuring Cecil B. DeMille as producer and host for many years, an interesting turn of events given DeMille had originally planned the theatre.
In 1953 the theatre was sold by CBS to businessman Huntington Hartford, who remodeled it “at great expense” – according to the Los Angeles Times, renamed it the Huntington Hartford Theatre, and reverted it to hosting legitimate theatre. The inaugural production was What Every Woman KnowsPeter Pan fame) and featuring Helen Hayes.
James Doolittle, who operated the Greek Theatre at the time, purchased the theatre in the Spring of 1964, and following some updating work it reopened on 21st September 1964 with a production of H.M.S. Pinafore directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie. The production had previously played the Greek Theatre during the 1962 season where it broke attendance records.
In 1984 UCLA and Center Theatre Group, operating as a co-venture called The Theatre Group Inc., entered into talks regarding purchasing the theatre. By mid-February 1985 the deal was confirmed with renovations underway. The theatre would be renamed as the James A. Doolittle Theatre with Doolittle retaining a five year option to fill the theatre for seven weeks per year. Reopening was 8th October 1985 with a production of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Martha Clarke.
During the years when the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center hosted multi-year runs of Phantom of the Opera (May 1989 to August 1993) and Miss Saigon (January 1995 to October 1995), and was under renovation between those productions (August 1993 to January 1995), the James A. Doolittle Theatre was home to many of Center Theatre Group’s productions including Fences featuring James Earl Jones, Six Degrees of Separation featuring Marlo Thomas and Donald Sutherland, Jake’s Women featuring Alan Alda, Fool Moon featuring Bill Irwin, and Falsettos.
In December 1996, Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame played his one-man adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the theatre to much critical acclaim. The show closed on 29th December 1996 with the theatre seemingly going dark thereafter for an extended period.
In 1999 the Ricardo Montalbán Foundation bought the building with the vision of providing inspiration and training for emerging artists in the Hispanic community and thus enabling them to mainstream into the performing arts and the broader entertainment industry. Reopened in 2004 The Montalbán now runs a variety of film festivals, rentals and the hugely successful rooftop cinema club.
The theatre’s façade underwent a remodel in the 1950s but has since been restored to more closely match its original 1927 appearance with signature triple windows. The interior has been redecorated many times, most notably during the theatre’s 1950s modernization, and as such little remains of the original interior design.
First established in 2015, the Rooftop Cinema Club utilized the theatre’s roof as an open-air movie theatre, with a large projection screen in place on the stagehouse’s fly tower wall. Warm summer evenings screening classic movies, coupled with artisan eats and craft beverages, have proven very popular with Los Angeles movie-goers. The rooftop cinema now operates independently.
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Text copyright © 2017-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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