Friday, April 11, 2008

L.A's historic theatres

Everyone knows about L.A.'s historic theatre district downtown on Broadway - and it is truly magnificent. But there are historical theatres all over the city, and some are in unlikely places. The Westlake Theatre is located at the northeast side of MacArthur Park, a lively neighborhood that includes the famous Langer's Deli as well as storefront botanicas, fabric and yard good stores, and 99 cent stores. On the south side of the park is Mama's Tamales, where you can get a variety of wonderful tamales and aguas frescas. Fruit vendors and trucks do business on the streets, and ice cream vendors push their jingling carts along the sidewalks. A sidewalk preacher with a makeshift bull-horn and microphone PA system harangues passersby at the southeast entrance to the park. The Red Line stop is right here, making it convenient whenever you get a hankering for pastrami or tamales.

The Westlake Theatre is now a swap meet, and the building has been brightly painted with murals and signs to attract buyers. Amazingly, its huge roof-top neon sign is still intact, and, I'm told, still lights up. The glass box office in the front entry has been converted to a vendor's shop, and when you walk into what was once the lobby, you can see beyond the vendors' stalls the ornate plaster ceiling. Passing into the auditorium itself, at first you see only the racks display cases crammed tightly inside, selling everything from ball caps to packaged socks and pajamas. but if you look up at the ceiling, you see the wonderful painted mural from the theatre's glory days.

The once magnificent theatre fell on hard times, and in the 70's became a grind house, showing porno. It's said that the Reverend Jim Jones, notorious as the leader of a cult that committed mass suicide in Jonestown , Guyana, was once arrested in the men's room of the Westlake for committing a lewd act.

I think the place is happier now - the good natured hustle and bustle of the shoppers and families continues on beneath the flowery, delicate painted frescoes above.

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