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With $1-million restoration, the show goes on at Palace Theatre

L.A. Historic Theatre Foundation hosts a public tour of the theater, which first opened in 1911 as a vaudeville stage.

July 15, 2012|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert Harvey checks his phone in the entrance after the tour of the Palace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, presented by the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation on Saturday. The theater was built in 1911, and underwent a $1-million renovation last year.
Robert Harvey checks his phone in the entrance after the tour of the Palace… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

The Palace Theatre is indeed a place fit for royalty. Massive murals lord over the auditorium. Cornucopia moldings hang over the exits. And frescos cover the theater's domed ceiling, a homage to an era when going to a show was truly a glamorous affair.

"It's pretty incredible, isn't it?" David Linderman said as he sat in one of its plush seats. "It's more of a palace than a theater."

Linderman drove in from Moorpark with his wife for a public tour Saturday by the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, which surveyed every nook of the theater, which had its first performance on June 26, 1911. (It was known as the Orpheum then, a vaudeville stage, where Joseph Hart's "The Little Stranger" and "Musikal Girls," were among the acts in the first show.)

The owners of the Palace Theatre, a name it adopted not long after, completed a $1-million renovation last year to restore the luster lost to time and inattention. The Palace is one of four historic theaters on Broadway in downtown purchased by the late real estate magnate and philanthropist Ezat Delijani, whose family continues to maintain and restore them. The family also owns the Los Angeles, State and Tower theaters.

The Palace had faded to a dismal state, said Ed Kelsey, who led the renovation. Leaks in the roof let water trickle in, causing severe damage throughout the building. It had become so humid inside that the paint was peeling. And coats of paint, layers of flooring and new fixtures added over the years, until the theater was closed in 1999, had lacquered over the original craftsmanship.

To reveal what had once been there, the renovation became something like detective work.

Sometimes it required incredible precision: A team had to examine an old photo with a microscope to spot the pattern on the wallpaper so they could re-create it; for the carpet, one person had to scrub off years of wear and dirt until the design was evident. Untangling a skein of electrical wiring from 1911 was certainly a tedious chore.

At other times, they had to be blunt objects, breaking through walls and floors to find the treasure underneath. "Hit it with a hammer and see what's inside," Kelsey said. They discovered the original tiled entryway in the lobby and wood panels in the gentlemen's lounge. A bannister of concrete had a brass handrail inside.

"What a job! What a job! Look at the detail work," Carole Koenig, 60, said as she examined the molding. "The kind of quality craftsmanship, they don't make anymore."

On the tour, the guides showed how the building had evolved in its various iterations: It originally had box seats, but those disappeared with the introduction of talking movies. It had an organ, and then it didn't. There had once been an orchestra chamber, but now it was gone. And the instrument room didn't originally have a functioning toilet right by the door.

Other stops included a ladies' lounge with a window overlooking the entrance so that women could spot their dates, outdoor stairs to the upper-level galleries used at a time when the theater was segregated.

"They're not dead," Koenig said of the theaters. "They're living pieces of architecture for people to continue using in new ways."

Linderman, 54, loves the old theaters. He even sat through a Spanish-language church service once just to see the State Theatre, also on Broadway.

"It gives you a reason to come down, to see things other than closed buildings, wondering what it was," Linderman said of the renovation of the Palace Theatre, which once hosted entertainers ranging from Fred Astaire to Houdini.

A year after reopening, many hope for more: The former shine has been largely restored, but it hasn't come back to life. The Palace is still holding out for a revival.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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