If the saga of the Wiltern Theatre had followed the script played out by other opulent movie palaces built in Los Angeles in the 1930s, there would be no grand reopening this Wednesday evening, certainly not a formal affair featuring a performance of the Alvin Alley American Dance group.
Most likely the Art Deco-style theater and the green, ceramic-clad office tower above it at the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue would be have been demolished long ago, to become just another parking lot with a forsaken for-sale sign on it.
That the distinctive theater and office tower was saved from the wrecker's ball is one of those rare, blessed events that defies logic in the usually unsentimental development of a city such as Los Angeles.
That the majestic 2,375-seat theater also was restored to its original rich Art Deco style, replete with sweeping floral motifs and streamlined ornamentation and improved to handle a variety of theatrical productions, is even more amazing--especially when considering the history of the complex, its location, the timidity of local financial institutions and the inflexibility of city bureaucrats.
The complex had been all but doomed in April, 1979, when, failing to sell the building, its then-owner, Franklin Life Insurance Co., filed for a demolition permit. The assumption of the Illinois-based company was that it would be easier to sell a vacant lot than a near-vacant, deteriorating theater and an odd-color office building, the latter known as the Pellissier Building after a family real estate corporation long involved in development of the area.
But the permit was delayed, due to the vociferous protests by preservationists, in particular the Los Angeles Conservancy, critical support at hearings by area Councilman John Ferrarro and the subsequent designation of the complex as a local and national landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. All noted that the theater built in 1931 and designed by G. Albert Landsburg and decorated by A. B. Heinsburgen, together with the 12-story building designed by Stiles Clements of the architectural firm of Morgan, Walls & Clements, was an exquisite example of the Moderne style, now also known as Art Deco. And, as one delay followed another, a few developers came forward expressing interest in restoring the complex.
Finally, in 1981, Franklin Life reached an agreement to sell the complex and adjoining site for $6.3 million to the development firm of Ratkovich, Bowers & Perez, which under direction of Wayne Ratkovich had recently completed the successful and sensitive renovation of the Oviatt Building downtown. The agreement was promptly cheered by preservationists and city leaders, who assumed at the time that the Wiltern Theatre and Pellissier Building was saved.
But preservation does not come easy in Los Angeles, where landmark structures are looked on with suspicion by appraisers, confusion by financiers and contempt by plan and building inspectors, who seem to resent the extra time and flexibility it takes to review restoration projects.
While civic leaders repeatedly pointed to the planned restoration of the Wiltern and Pellissier project as a civic virtue, patting the city on the back, Ratkovich was being denied financing by a host of local institutions that they in part controlled. "I got a lot of lip service, but little else," he explained. Financing eventually was provided by the First National Bank of Chicago.
And later, while city officials were praising the project at various public functions, the restoration itself was repeatedly delayed by protracted plan reviews and contradictory directives by city workers, according to Ratkovich. "It drove us crazy and the cost of the theater restoration up nearly 50%, from an estimated $3.4 million to about $5 million," added the developer. (The restoration of the office building cost about another $5 million, bringing the total cost of the project to about $16 million.)
Ratkovich added that eventually his chief of construction just threw himself at the mercy of the city's Buildings Department and told them that he would ignore the plans and build whatever they told him to, only he just wanted to be told what. "If I knew the trouble it was going to be to restore the theater, I never would have done it," said the developer.
But Ratkovich persevered. Under the direction of Brenda Levin of Levin & Associates, Architects, consultant Raymond Shepardson and the firm of A. T. Heinsburgen, headed by the son of the original decorator, the Art Deco flavor and the excellent sight lines of the former majestic movie house have been retained.