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The Movie Palaces: : Where Fantasies Replaced Real Life : Architecture: Few of the city's opulent "film cathedrals" have survived the march of time. They evoke an era when fantasy didn't stop at the screen.

May 31, 1992|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was the mid-1920s. The Golden Age of Movies had dawned in Los Angeles.

The city's perpetually balmy climate, romantic landscapes and cheap real estate lured directors in jodhpurs, aspiring starlets and famous producers from the East to shoot countless comedies, musicals, swashbuckling epics and teeth-gnashing dramas.

As a result, competition for audiences grew fierce, forcing exhibitors to erect fantastic "film cathedrals" and "movie palaces" to rival Versailles. Architects were asked to recreate the Parthenon, Gothic churches, Louis XIV's summer home, Far East temples--even the Paris Opera House. Designers filled their breath-taking interior spaces with Old Master paintings, priceless antiques, sculpture and babbling fountains.

"No king or emperors have ever wandered through more luxurious surroundings," said theater decorator Harold Rambach in 1929.

Sadly, by the 1940s, the great movie palaces had succumbed to a terrible, lingering disease that proved fatal in many cases: faltering attendance due, in part, to kid brother television, who had come on the scene.

Thanks to aggressive lobbying by local historical preservation societies like the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage, some of the grand movie palaces have been protected.

Here's what remains:

Broadway between 3rd and 9th streets was the hub of Los Angeles' theatrical activity in the late 1920s. Dominated by a dozen theaters, it boasted an audience capacity of more than 15,000.

The Palace (formerly known as the Orpheum) was built in 1911 at 6th and Broadway--the last two-a-day vaudeville house in America and later an exhibitor of silent films.

Designed in the French Renaissance style, the demure facade hides a white-marbled lobby and spacious auditorium featuring 85-foot, gold-leaf ceilings, two immense chandeliers, Scalamander silk wall paneling (only portions remain), and Broadway's last Wurlitzer organ. First-run movies are still shown here.

The sumptuous Los Angeles Theater (615 S. Broadway) is the last movie palace built on Broadway. Designed in 1931, it was erected in 90 days and cost more than $1 million--a scandalous amount in Depression-stricken Los Angeles. The theater was built to imitate Versailles: its narrow lobby a miniature Galerie des Glaces , its auditorium fire curtain depicting 17th-Century courtesans in conversation in L'Arc du Triomphe.

The sweeping grand staircase is crowned by a four-tiered faux fountain, bubbling strings of crystal beads into a mosaic basin guarded by white marble sea serpents. At one time, the downstairs lobby contained a full-service nursery, replete with sandboxes and slide, a refreshment room and a projection area with a periscope for movie-viewing as patrons enjoyed a smoke. The ladies' lounge features 16 individually hued marble toilet rooms and a Rococo-style makeup area, complete with small marble vanities.

Though the Los Angeles theater is in great need of a face lift, evidence of its former splendor is apparent. It continues to operate as a first-run movie theater.

Farther south is the United Artists Theater (933 S. Broadway), built in 1927. When Mary Pickford was vacationing in Spain, she fell in love with the country's towering Gothic cathedrals. With her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin, Pickford commissioned the architectural firm of Walker & Eisen to create an immense United Artists flagship theater in the style of 12th-Century Spain.

Accentuating the theater's weathered facade are pointed Gothic arches, stone apostolic figures and grotesqueries holding movie cameras. Inside are two high-ceilinged lobbies adorned with plaster frescoes and stained glass windows. The cavernous auditorium drips Gothic tracery; plaster stalactites cluster above the organ screen and proscenium opening. Wall murals by Anthony Heinsbergen depict Pickford and her UA comrades (Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pola Negri and Dolores del Rio) in their most famous roles.

The theater is now operated by televangelist Gene Scott as the University Cathedral. Scott has performed a meticulous restoration, returning the building to its original opulence.

By the late 1920s, palace architects grew weary of imitating Europe's Beaux Arts style. Now they looked toward other worldly Xanadus and exotic vistas for their inspiration.

Around the corner from the United Artists is one such intriguing palace: the Mayan Theater (1040 Hill St.), constructed in 1926 to imitate the hulking ziggurats of Machu Picchu and Teotihuacan. It is the only remaining full pre-Columbian-style movie house in America.

Seven carved robed figures representing Huitzilpochtil, the Mayan God of War, stand sentry above the entrance. The theater's exterior, once bare stone, is awash with brightly colored serpent heads, celestial symbols and hieroglyphics.

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