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Before historic L.A. movie house is remade, it offers a last peek

The Tower theater in downtown L.A., long a filming location, will be transformed into a concert venue. Final behind-the-scenes tours of the building are scheduled for Saturday.

October 26, 2012|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Hillsman Wright, executive director of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, conducts a tour of the Tower Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The view is from the stage looking toward the back of the theater.
Hillsman Wright, executive director of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

It's time for a retake after 100 years in downtown Los Angeles.

The historic Tower movie theater at the corner of South Broadway and 8th Street is poised to get a dramatic new lease on life — this time as a concert venue with an indoor-outdoor bar and coffee house along 8th Street and a plush basement nightclub-style bar on the Broadway side.

The renovation will cost several million dollars and will take about a year and half, said Shahram Delijani, whose family owns the Tower and three other South Broadway theaters.

Before workers begin the makeover, however, the French Renaissance-style movie house will be open to the public one more time Saturday for a behind-the-scenes tour.

On display will be its small but opulent lobby, said to resemble a Paris opera house with its giant crystal chandelier, marble columns and a huge stained-glass window. Also on view will be the auditorium's sprawling balcony, with circa-1927 seats still equipped with wire racks on the bottom for moviegoers to stash their hats.

Higher in the back of the theater, visitors will walk through the ancient projection booth, with its built-in toilet for the projectionist and its steel safety shutters designed to automatically drop down in case the projector's hot carbon arc light ignited the flammable nitrate film.

They'll be led through basement tunnels that connect the theater's boiler room and its huge, built-in Carrier air conditioning machinery to hidden rooms under the front of the auditorium. That's where an orchestra pit and blowers that powered the mighty 216-style Wurlitzer pipe organ were located. A hydraulic lift could make the pipe organ majestically rise so organist Stephen Boisclair could accompany silent movies.

The outlines of the original stage can still be seen. Behind where the movie screen once stood is the spot where the pioneering Vitaphone sound system speakers were fitted into the theater wall.

The theater auditorium's main floor was stripped of its 600 or so seats in 1988 after film screenings were halted and plans were made to turn the Tower into an indoor swap meet.

That fell through, however, and three years later the sloping floor was evened out with plywood terraces to create a set with a ballroom dance floor for the 1992 Warner Bros. movie "The Mambo Kings." Since then the theater has been used to film movies and commercials for products such as Nikon cameras and Dr Pepper.

But those details barely touch on the Tower's history, according to experts with the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation who will lead Saturday's tours. Doors open at 10:40 a.m. The two-hour tours will be led by docents, and tickets are priced at $10 for the public and $1 for foundation members.

A 1987 spinoff of the Los Angeles Conservancy's ongoing Last Remaining Seats film-screening series, the foundation has sought to restore and sustain the Tower and 11 other movie houses that made South Broadway the entertainment center of Los Angeles from the late 1920s through the mid-1960s.

Foundation president Bill Givens said the Tower and 10 others remain intact because they have been used for film shoots, religious services and occasional screenings and live events during the last several decades. The 12th, the nearby Rialto theater, has been gutted and is slated to become a clothing store, but Givens considers it a victory that its marquee has been saved.

Movie theater historian Edward Kelsey said the Tower's roots stretch back to 1911, when an 800-seat silent movie house called the Hyman Theatre opened at 802 S. Broadway. A year later it was renamed the Garrick Theatre, and in 1921, Chicago investor H. L. Gumbiner leased the site with plans to build an office building.

Gumbiner ended up operating the Garrick for another five years, hiring future producer Hal Wallis to manage it, according to Kelsey. When Gumbiner decided to replace the boxy silent film house with a fancier, more elaborate theater wired for sound, he hired fledgling theater architect S. Charles Lee to design it.

Lee, then 26 years old, drew up the plans for the distinctive, seven-story tower that anchors the theater and gives it its name. It formed part of an ornate facade and entry. "Lee's famous for saying, 'The show starts at the sidewalk,'" said Hillsman Wright, executive director of the foundation.

The Tower's management changed several times over the years. So did its name. In 1940 it became known as the Music Hall, and in 1949 it was renamed the Newsreel. It morphed back into the Tower Theatre 1965 and showed films until it closed for good in mid-1987, Kelsey said.

Starting with the Tower, Lee designed some 400 movie theaters in the West. He died in 1990 at age 90.

"The miracle is this place has been taken care of over all these years," Wright said.

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