To a certain extent, exploring Los Angeles’ historic Broadway theater district feels like stumbling upon King Tut’s tomb. Some of the most unassuming exteriors give way to sumptuous interiors, caverns adorned with gold baroque carvings punctuated by the leering faces of exotic royalty, the ceiling dripping with glass chandeliers.
Their charms are hidden for the most part. Our docent from the Los Angeles Conservancy pointed out details we never would have caught. One run-down marquee had a couple of shops crowded under it. The owner of the electronics shop kindly let us through the back into his storage room – the former theater stripped of its chairs, but still grand with its vaulted ceiling and touch of decoration.
Some were tragically beyond repair, nothing left but the shell of the building. Others were preserved even as their purpose had changed. Two of the theaters that were in the best shape were now under heavy and radically different uses by their current owners – one as a church, the other a jewelry shop, its floor as packed as the cosmetics section of Macy’s.
Theater isn’t the right word – at the time, these spaces were known as movie palaces, a far more accurate moniker. In the 1930s, this short stretch of Broadway supported a dozen theaters offering a mix of cinema and vaudeville. They could accomodate 17,000 people on a single night. Any world culture and any historic motif was fair game. Los Angeles is the capital of make believe after all, where appearances sometimes matter more than substance. Perhaps as a result, the architectural styles are a mishmash of influences. The Citadel mall – L.A. does Egypt. The vast outdoor mall in Irvine – L.A. does southern Spain. Grauman’s Chinese Theater – L.A. does the “Orient.”
Historians here are perhaps better off celebrating the eclectic influences than trying to get developers to be true to a single style. After all, L.A. is no ancient city so any way you cut it, the architects here are probably copying someone else.
There are too many treasures along Broadway to name, too many good stories so you’ll just have to take the tour for yourself.
It was exciting to see those theaters that are still vibrant, perhaps most notably the Orpheum which now hosts world-class concerts and even American Idol try-outs. The owner kindly let us take a seat in front and a man headed to the stage, plopped down on the bench seat of the organ and proceeded to play us a bit of an epic movie score. It was about as close to time travel as I’ll ever get.
Take a little walk for yourself with my interactive map. I’ll add some more pictures next week.