Symbolic structures usually dominate the hills of cities--for example, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Sacre Coeur Basilica on the Butte Montmartre in Paris, Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
And now in Los Angeles, it's the 18-screen, 5,940-seat Cineplex Odeon sitting atop Universal City. Certainly it is only fitting that what has been billed as the world's largest cinema complex be built on a hill in this city of movie dreams. We went there this week to see and experience it, bearing in mind that movies are in effect a form of religion in Los Angeles and the theaters wherein they are shown are places of devotion. As such, they deserve an appropriate architecture.
To its credit, the complex developed and designed by a Toronto-based company and design team attempts to be something more than just another multiplex facility shoehorned into a corner of a shopping mall between an undersized bathroom and an oversized candy counter.
The Cineplex Odeon is in effect its own shopping center, for films. Unfortunately, its stucco-clad exterior looks a little like a shopping center itself. With its arbitrary colors accented by slim tile work, and sporting a flimsy marquee, the complex does not present a gracious facade.
The interior is much more successful. The lobby is well scaled and welcoming, a 70-foot-wide, 46-foot-high space of gray and pink marble floors, marble columns and a curved, grand staircase. The decor is "Pop Deco," marked by garish colors and neon tubing.
Particularly diverting is a cafe with European pretensions, offering espresso, gourmet pastry, pasta salads and other snacks. Man does not live on popcorn alone.
As for the theaters, judging from No. 14, in which we sat, and from the random comments of others who sat elsewhere, they are quite comfortable. The upholstered seats are wide and do not squeak, the sight-lines good, the concrete floors clean and the sound a bit deafening (10 of the auditoriums are equipped with Lucasfilm THX systems).
There also are elevators for the handicapped and special facilities for the hearing-impaired, though I received no reports on how they worked.
The total is a valiant effort by the Cineplex Odeon corporation and its architect, David Mesbur, to lend the complex a hint of the style that was once associated with going to the movies.
Some of that style still exists in select theaters in various neighborhoods and, in particular, along Broadway--albeit faded and threatened with closure. Of course, the exteriors are on view daily to passers-by and, for the price of admission, the interiors.
To call attention to the grandeur of these downtown palaces, and to their precarious state, a Wednesday-night film and vaudeville series was launched last week by the Los Angeles Conservancy, in cooperation with a local revitalization effort known as Miracle on Broadway, with an assist by the Metropolitan Theaters, A. T. Heinsbergen and Yellin companies.
Scheduled this Wednesday is a night of vaudeville at the Palace Theater, 630 S. Broadway, a terra-cotta-ornamented French Renaissance-styled indulgence designed by Albert Landsburgh in 1910. The palace used to be called the Orpheum, and was once a major stop on the vaudeville circuit.
On July 29 there will be a screening at the United Artists Theater, 933 S. Broadway, of "The Taming of the Shrew," a 1929 production starring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who in part financed the construction of the theater. It was designed in 1927 by architect C. Howard Crane in a Spanish Gothic style, with opulent interiors that still survive.
The last offering in the Wednesday series will be held in the Los Angeles Theater, 615 S. Broadway, a Baroque-styled fantasy fashioned in 1931. The evening's program will feature the film "Dames," a 1934 musical starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, followed by a reception for S. Charles Lee, the theater's architect.
Curtain time for these glorious glimpses of our past is 8 p.m. Tickets at $12 will be available at the door, or at $10 advance purchase through the conservancy at 849 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, 90014. The closing-night reception will cost an extra $10. For more information, call the conservancy at (213) 623-2489. The series should be memorable, as are the theaters.