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Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen

Seeking new life for the former showcase of Hollywood and Latino stars, managers schedule weekend variety shows catering to Hispanic audiences.

April 08, 1999|JOSEPH TREVINO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish attended its luxurious opening in 1918. About 150 Hollywood films premiered there in the 1920s. By the 1950s, the postwar rush to the suburbs was taking its toll, and what had been a glamorous downtown movie house began to fade, reemerging as a showcase for Latino music performers.

And on Friday, the long ride of the Million Dollar Theater at Broadway and 2nd Street will yet take another turn.

The architectural landmark, its once-lush red seats worn thin, will reopen to host Latino stage shows seven years after it closed and became a site for evangelical revivals.

Bruce Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theaters Co., the family-owned firm that has run the Million Dollar on and off since the 1940s, plans to hold two vaudeville-type acts known as variedades per month. The lineup this Friday through Sunday includes ranchera performers Juan Valentin, Mercedes Castro and Alicia Juarez.

"You have so many parents and grandparents that remember going to the Million Dollar," Corwin said. "To them the Million Dollar is a magical name," conjuring up memories of stars like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Maria Felix.

Rafael Reyes, a 40-year-old theater manager who worked at the Million Dollar in the early 1970s, added: "Anyone who was anybody in Latino entertainment performed here. Some of those artists have died and others are still living, but they all made it big here."

The late Mexican actor Mario Moreno "Cantinflas," an international star who performed at the Million Dollar, still smiles from a tiled portrait encased in the wall behind the main candy counter. It is a memento from a scene of his 1978 film "El Patrullero 777."

His portrait had been covered up since 1993, when the Iglesia Universal took over the Million Dollar. Corwin said the church moved four blocks south on Broadway to the State Theatre because it was felt the location was better. Church officials were not available for comment.

Anne Mueller, vice president of Yelline Co., the principal owner of the Million Dollar building, said she hopes the reopening of the theater will bolster the revitalization of Broadway. As part of a $16-million project, old offices that had been empty for decades in the Million Dollar building were turned into 121 apartments, all of which have been leased, she said.

For weeks, workers have been replacing old lightbulbs and painting the theater's interior, preparing it for reopening night.

One of them is Silverio Reyes, who has been a maintenance worker for the Million Dollar and other Broadway theaters since 1970.

As Reyes goes down a dark pathway deep under the theater, he reaches a brick-layered room. There, amid broken glass, are stacks of dusty posters dating to the 1950s.

The name of one of Mexico's greatest ranchera songwriters, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, is on a yellowish poster from the late 1960s. Movie star Isela Vega grins seductively from an enlarged black and white photograph from the mid-1970s.

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre fondly remembers his boyhood trips to the Million Dollar during the 1950s, where appearances by Latino stars were supplemented by showings of Spanish-language films.

"Every Monday I'd bring my grandmother downtown to see the doctor," he said. "My treat would be lunch at Clifton's and a movie at the Million Dollar."

The 2,332-seat theater's lavish grand opening prompted The Times to praise the Million Dollar as "The handsomest motion picture theater in the world."

Operator and showman Sid Grauman lived up to his promise during the 1920s by showing only "a high class picture program." Grauman gave up his interest in the theater in the late 1920s and was replaced by the Fox West Coast Theater chain, which was later acquired by Metropolitan Theaters.

Another enthusiastic entertainer, Frank Fouce, a Latin American entrepreneur, leased the Million Dollar in 1949 and probably prevented it from being crushed by downtown's decline. Along with exhibiting the greatest Spanish-language films, mostly drawn from Mexico's golden era, Fouce began showing variedades, drawing the biggest performers from Mexico, South America and Spain.

"There were lines all the way up to Hill Street," said Jorge Torres, an Ecuadorean nightclub owner who remembers seeing Trio Los Panchos at the Million Dollar in 1970. "Latinos used to go dressed in their best clothes to see the shows."

But when larger venues started booking Latino artists and Mexico's film industry declined, so did the theater.

The Million Dollar now lacks projectors. But with Mexico's cinema showing signs of making a comeback, the equipment can be installed, Corwin said.

What matters is making the theater a living testament to its past, he said. "A lot of kids don't know of that [era]. We have a lot of great memories. I want to bring some of those memories back."

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