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Sam Hall Kaplan

L.A.'s Surviving Film Palaces

July 16, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

During Hollywood's Golden Age, in the 1920s and '30s, some of the more sumptuous movie theaters in the world were built in Los Angeles.

If Los Angeles was the movie capital of the world, it seemed reasonable that the city should have appropriate settings in which to show and herald films. Movie fans expected no less. After all, this is where the films were made and where most of the stars lived.

And it was felt by the movie moguls of the time that the theaters should in some way architecturally express the myth and mysteries of the dreams Hollywood plied; that the theaters in effect be dream palaces, designed to help transport viewers into the make-believe world of films.

The result was that many of the theaters took on the look of opulent stage sets, right out of the films themselves. These included Egyptian and Mayan temples, Moorish mosques, Chinese pagodas, Spanish Baroque cathedrals, Gothic castles and Renaissance and Romanesque palazzi, with lavishly ornamented and furnished interiors to match. They were indeed the stuff of dreams.

But time, television, shifting real estate values, the convenience of neighborhood movie houses and the recent rise of multiplex facilities have taken their toll on the palaces. Many have tragically fallen before the wrecker's ball, which apparently is happening to the Beverly Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, while others have faded and are being threatened with closure.

Still, Los Angeles has a wealth of these palaces, which, of course, can be seen for the price of a film admission ticket. A few, happily, have been gloriously restored, such as the Wiltern Theatre, at the southeast corner of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, and most recently the Pacific Crest, 1262 Westwood Blvd. Both are Art Deco-style delights, with the Wiltern now more devoted to music and stage productions and the Crest to first-run films.

To focus a spotlight on these evocative landmarks and rally support for their preservation, the Los Angeles Conservancy once again is hosting a Wednesday-night series of classic films and live entertainment, beginning July 27, for four weeks at select theaters.

The first setting of the series will be the Orpheum Theater, 842 S. Broadway, a Baroque-styled and Art Deco-detailed extravaganza where Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last" will be featured, along with organist Gaylord Carter on the Wurlitzer. Much of the Lloyd film was shot in the downtown area.

On Aug. 3 the series moves to South Pasadena and the Spanish Baroque-styled Rialto Theater, 1023 Fair Oaks Ave. On display there in addition to the theater's rich interior will be Jean Harlow in "Bombshell," and an illustrated tour of the early studios narrated by film archivist Marc Wanamaker.

It's back to downtown on Aug. 10 to the pre-Columbian-styled Mayan Theater, 1044 S. Hill St., for a showing of "That Night in Rio," with Carmen Miranda, and a performance of the Xipe Totec Aztec Dancers.

While it is the interiors of the Orpheum and Rialto that are their most attractive elements--you have to go into these two theaters to really appreciate them--the architectural focus of the Mayan is its decorated cast-concrete, sculptured facade. Pure fancy in a not particularly pure setting.

The last offering in the series will be Aug. 17 at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., and will feature a rare showing of Busby Berkeley's "Footlight Parade." Curtain time for each event is 8 p.m.

Because of the popularity of the series last year, which attracted some 6,000 people, the call is going out early for reservations. Tickets for the four-event series are $35 for conservancy members and $42 for the public, or $10 and $12, respectively, for single showings. Tickets at the door (if available) will cost $12. For information and reservations, contact the conservancy at 433 S. Spring St., Suite 1024, Los Angeles 90013, or call (213) 623-2489.

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