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Kings of the Big Screen

Come on, couch potatoes--you're in the center of the movie universe, home to the finest single-screen palaces ever built. Before time and multiplexes take their toll, check out these 20 gems.

June 16, 1996|Chris Willman | Chris Willman is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly

New York is a theater town--no argument there. But it's sure as hell no movie theater town. With the exception of Radio City Music Hall, which no longer exhibits films, the city's great picture palaces are long demolished, memorialized only by cheesy plaques inside Sony's shiny new Lincoln Square complex.

Los Angeles, though . . . now that's a city to see a movie in. Preservationally lax as we've been, L.A. remains the last city in the country where the finicky cineaste can still venture out to see almost any major new release on a big--and, yes, single--screen, the way God and Louis B. Mayer intended.

With its wealth of 60-foot screens scattered across just a few square blocks, Westwood remains the mecca for true enthusiasts who haven't gotten lost like lemmings in the great Santa Monica/Century City multiplex migration. Better (if scarier to yuppies) yet, downtown's venerable Broadway district sports the greatest concentration of remaining pre-World War II palaces anywhere in the world. And, on the more eclectic tip, no other metropolis we know of can lay claim to theaters as wonderful and weird as the Silent Movie or the Old Town Music Hall.

With that thanksgiving in mind, and the cusp of a hot summer at sweaty hand, we bring you this highly subjective list of the 20 Coolest Movie Theaters in Los Angeles. Size does count, but assuredly not for everything; personality, just like your older sister always told you, is key, be it in programming, architecture or both.

Time may be of the essence, though. While tourist traps like the Chinese and the Dome will be around for our grandkids' kids to enjoy, any of the historic downtown houses could go out of business at a moment's notice. (The theater we'd almost certainly pick as the coolest if only it were still open, downtown's Los Angeles, shut down two years ago.) So, by all means, do stop and smell the stylized plaster floral panels.


6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Still the all-time champ, hands down. (Pun intended.) Built in 1927, Sid Grauman's legacy is as enduring a star as any of the celebs who've trod its red carpet. The days when the industry favored the Chinese as Premiere Central seem to have passed, though--all the better to allow rank-and-file Angelenos full-time access to its red carpet (and red neon dragons, and big red pagoda, and . . . ). Really, as we knock aside hordes of nose-to-the-concrete tourists in our last-second rush to get to the box office, which native Hollywoodians among us don't secretly indulge the occasional "Day of the Locust" fantasy?


842 S. Broadway, downtown

Most of outlying L.A. sent its collective regards to Broadway--as in our Broadway--some decades back, never to return to the city's historic core. But the recently renovated, 2,200-seat Orpheum is worth venturing back out of the 'burbs for. The French Renaissance stylings--a marble lobby, gold- and copper-leaf flourishes, twin chandeliers, tiered seats on either side of the proscenium--are still as wow-worthy now as in '26. Come here for an action double-bill on an average sparsely populated weekday and you'll feel like the place is your own private Versailles. (The L.A. Conservancy screens the silent "Black Pirate" with orchestral accompaniment here Wednesday; further down the road, a horror series is set for October.)


6838 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Rumors that cosmonauts have spotted El Capitan's deliriously gaudy exterior from space may be unfounded, but those of us on the ground can still marvel over one place in L.A. that isn't afraid to just let go with a serious case of Strip envy. The blinding Vegas-ness of the facade is matched by the unabashedly color-crazy interior design that Disney and Pacific Theatres unveiled in 1991. El Cap remains one of local preservationists' greatest success stories; they persuaded Disney not to gut and slice up the rather bland theater that had been known as the Paramount since 1941, but return it to the glory of its 1926 legit-house roots, along with some added, ah, flourishes--call it a heightened restoration. Now the Mouse Co. does sellout business with each new animated engagement, throwing in a stage show that has all your favorite toons flying and flopping through a pre-picture revue. Bring on the hoofer hunchbacks.


611 N. Fairfax Ave., Hollywood

You say your list of reasons never to move away from L.A. is shrinking by the second? Here's one to mark down in indelible ink: the world's--that's right, the world's--only regularly operating silent movie house. Portraits of Pickford, Keaton, Lloyd, etc. beckon from the modest exterior; once inside, sipping on Diet Coke right from the can, you'll swoon to some of the great classics of the cinematic century with live organ accompaniment. And even when the feature attractions are just negligible anachro-fun, you can usually count on a Fritz the Cat cartoon for a surrealist fix.


6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

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