Tuesday, February 4, 2014

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway

I first visited Los Angeles's Broadway maybe ten years ago, and started going there whenever I could find the time. I was fascinated by its tawdry yet vital energy. Downhill from the movers and shakers on Bunker Hill, it carried on without notice from the city's big business community or the celebrity scene, or even - then - the hipster cachet. No, it was Spanish-speaking, dirty, cheap, a little dangerous and full of life.

Cameo Theatre, 2005
Among Broadway's attractions for me is the fact that it was home to over a dozen historic movie palaces, neglected, vacant, unrestored, and magnificent.  Over the next ten years, the Los Angeles Conservancy gave me a glimpse of them, by way of their Last Remaining Seats series, where theatres that were at least functional had their doors open to screen classic movies, and also through docent-lead tours, where a walk through the "staff only" doors behind electronic stores or swap meets would reveal the remains of a movie house built in the silent film era.

Roxie Theatre, 2006
As more people took notice of downtown's neglected heritage, the buildings began to be reclaimed. Old-fashioned office buildings were renovated into hip new urban condos, or residential "lofts." Ancient boozy dives were cleaned up, with enough historic preservation to make them authentic, and staffed with weskit-clad cocktillian bartenders. The Orpheum Theatre and the Million Dollar Theatre became operational running live performances and films regularly.

Tower Theatre, 2005
So fascinated was the public with these shuttered palaces that when the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation announced a tour of the rarely-seen Tower Theatre, the line of ticket-holders stretched around the block. Once at the lobby registration table, I pulled out my checkbook and became a member of the organization.

The most fascinating theatre of all was the one no one could see. The United Artists Theatre is at the southern end of the downtown core, south of 9th Street. Built in 1927 by architect C. Howard Crane, it was the flagship theatre of the United Artists Studio, a group of leading film actors who broke away from the major studios to control their own artistic careers.

Since 1990, the 13 story office building the theatre was housed in had been owned by the evangelist pastor Gene Scott, who broadcast television sermons from the building, which he had topped with a giant neon "Jesus Saves."  A secretive group, the church refused access to non-members, even those interested in historic preservation.

In 2011, several years after Scott's death, the building was sold and over the last couple of years it has been converted into a boutique hotel, part of the Ace Hotel group. The theatre has been restored, anticipating a regular schedule of entertainment events. The Ace Hotel opened in January, and on February 1 the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation conducted the first public tour of the United Artists Theatre in over twenty years.

It's been six months since I've visited Broadway, and as you might expect of an area in transformation, a lot has happened in that time. Boutiques, art galleries and home decor stores have opened in former vacant spaces, and trendy restaurants have sprung up replacing the taquerias and hash houses of the working class.

Renovated marquee
The Rialto Theatre's fanciful marquee has been restored, and it sure looks beautiful, but the price for this is chain store gentrification. Urban Outfitters has moved in, having stripped the building to its beams. On the broad back wall where the projection screen would have been, there's a digital projection display.  I know it's meant as a tribute, but it's definitely an ironic turning point to see this palace of hipster consumption crop up on historic Broadway.

Urban Outfitters interior
Although the Ace has been open only a few weeks, the street life on the south end of Broadway has a different feel, with its umbrella'd valet stand out front, and the pleasantly hedged sidewalk tables of the hotel's first floor restaurant occupied by diners.

The little Taco Mexico stand up the block was doing a brisk business. Some customers, especially the historic preservationists,  prefer $1.50 tacos to $15.00 hamburgers.

Just across 9th Street, the beautiful Eastern Columbia Building made a good companion for the United Artists Building, echoing its vertical lines with its own Art Deco design, clad in stunning aqua terra-cotta tiles.  Built just 3 years later, in 1930, it one-ups the gothic verticality with stylized zigzags and chevrons, and carved stone tracery for gold and copper bling.

A home d├ęcor boutique in the Eastern Columbia's lobby is full of colorful, fun, retro items, targeting affluent young tenants of the condos in the building.

Click all photos to "embiggen"
A young woman in a red dress was posing for a photo shoot on the terrazzo pavement.  Though the street has cleaned up, traffic was still light enough for her photographer to stand out in traffic lanes to get a shot of the vestibule.

After a tour of the neighborhood, I went back to the theatre to await the tour. More about that later.

Yes, Broadway has cleaned itself up, but part of me misses the old grit.


21 Wits said...

Wow, I like the looks of the outside.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

About twelve miles north of me, in the beautiful village of Tarrytown, the Music Hall is spectacular. I love those old theaters, but they are so rare these days.