Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pentimento Memento

Historic image from

Recently I was walking through downtown Santa Monica at lunchtime, and I walked down Santa Monica Boulevard past the old Majestic Theatre. The Majestic was built in 1911, remodeled a couple of times. It was a movie-vaudeville house, then just a movie house, showing grindhouse films. It was a venue for rock bands like Siouxie and the Banshees, and for a brief period, a home for English Music Hall acts - by that time it had been renamed the Mayfair.

It was also used as a film location. It's said that Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" used the Majestic for the theatre where Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster perform "Putting on the Ritz."

The Majestic was severely damaged in the 1993 Northridge Earthquake. Since then, it's been boarded up. The City of Santa Monica designated it as a landmark in 1994, and there has been a struggle over it ever since. Here's an article about the current owner, with some details of the building's history.

We took a photo of it not too long ago, with its marquee fenced off and covered with wooden scaffolding.

The other day, while walking past it, I noticed something different.

The plywood screening was down. You could see the facade of the building now. You could see on one side, the barroom that once thrived there, and on the other side, the box office.

You could see the entry, the marquee,

and the guano-stained old cases where they used to display posters for coming attractions.

A chain-link fence shielded the sidewalk from the construction area. I took some shots through the chain.

Here's a shot of the stage-house. It's been covered with blue tarps for I don't know how many years. Think of all that winter rain pouring down into the fly-rail all those years.

The next day, I walked by and even the chain-link was gone - a small group of people clustered, and a photographer with a tripod, preparing for a shot. "Looks like a good place to take a photo from," I said. "Mind if I snap some, too?"

There was a guy there who seemed like he was in charge. I asked him if there were any artifacts still inside, and he said everything inside is pretty much crumbled. The earthquake damage was so great, he said - far greater inside than it looked on the outside. There isn't much left of the old Majestic, inside these walls.

When you research the struggle over preservation of this landmark, you find a lot of fingerpointing. The owner blamed the tenants for not keeping it in repair, the tenants blamed the owners. The city, the preservationists, the developers, the business community - the loss of this building is everyone's fault. The struggle dragged on so long, while the rain poured in and the plaster moldings rotted in the darkness inside, that any chance of preserving it as a theatre disappeared.

While I was taking some photos, a young man also looking at the building caught my eye. "Beautiful building, isn't it?" I said. "Such a shame."

He said, "They could fix it up. Have concerts here. I know they could get Bob Dylan or Neil Young to perform here!"

I tried not to but I couldn't help letting a small laugh escape.

It's funny that's what you always hear when people who don't know anything about operating a venue talk about operating a venue. And for some reason, they always seem to cite the same artists - Bob Dylan's name always comes up, oddly.

"Well, they could, you know!!" he said indignantly. "It would be an awesome show!"

I agreed with him. It would be awesome.

But let's face it. The economics don't work.

Let's pretend we already spent the millions of dollars needed to restore the building, outfit it with modern equipment, fixtures, carpets, seat upholstery. And let's pretend we've hired the people to run the place - the technical staff, the box office staff, and the ushers who show you to your seats.

Running a theatre successfully is a terrific challenge, and sometimes the math just doesn't work out. When it was built, the Majestic had 602 seats. That's your product inventory. You can't sell more than that. (Yes, I know about T-shirt and concession sales. 600 people don't generate a lot of popcorn revenue.)

So even though my heart is heavy watching another theatre torn down, I understand why it is inevitable in some cases. This one is too damaged. They are demolishing it and putting up an apartment building.

They are saving the facade. The accepted phrase for this kind of thing is "Adaptive Reuse of a historical structure." Strict preservationists call this technique of pasting a preserved facade onto a totally new structure "Walls of Shame."

I found one artifact of the building's history as busy theatre; a sign painted on the wall, visible from the sidewalk now that the scaffolding has been removed.

This example of the sign-painter's craft is still here. Look at the little touches on this sign that point to the painter's creativity. The delicate lettering for the word "Please." The emphasis of the double exclamation marks. The decorative large "A" in "auto's" - and yes, the incorrect use of an apostrophe!

And the star. Is that for us?

I sure hope they preserve the sign.


Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

I hate seeing old theatres go the way of dust.

I was part of an organization that saved an old theatre in upstate New York (the Earlville Opera House), which is now a going concern - with only 215 seats! However, it's heavily funded by various agencies. With the current economy and cuts, I hope they can keep it going.

cactus petunia said...

I understand the economics of preservation don't always add up, but it's still nice to daydream about Bob Dylan or Neil Young playing a 600 seat restored theatre, isn't it?

Love that sign, too!

imjacobsmom said...

Not only was the old theater in our city demolished but someone chose to deposit it in an abandoned granite quarry on the edge of town. Pathetic! ~ Robyn

momemts in time said...

Hi 'G'

I am sorry your theatre is not going to survive...

Here in Manchester we have many buildings which are deliberately left to decay. Some are renovated and given a new lease of life but there are too many that end up beinmg replaced by poorly designed commercial or residential buildings...

I used to live in Wimbornbe, Dorset in England where we had a restored 500 seater Art Deco theatre the Tivoli (the images could do with improving) but here they use a mixture of theatre, music and fiklm to keep it going - and a crowd of volunteers. You may also like to cast your eyes over a different solution to an old building restoration at the Royal Exchange in Manchester

A few years ago I went to Vacha (it used to be a border town with the iron curtain running just by it) in what was East Germany, and was amazed an the number of really old buildings (1400s) still standing / being renovated or in use. I think we can do it if we try... but too often the site is worth more as offices / shopping... it is sad. Martin