Los Angeles and Hollywood have been the Mecca and Medina of movies, where their acolytes came to worship, work and learn in the teens and 1920s. After making movies, reverent places of worship were required to view them in style. Broadway in downtown became Los Angeles’ Great White Way, containing elaborate and beautiful film and legitimate theaters that drew thousands.
Most of the major theatrical chains built flagship theatres in downtown Los Angeles, palaces to host film premieres as well as screen their released product. One of the last to jump on the bandwagon was United Artists, founded in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to own and control their films. Originally releasing only films by its four founders, the studio required films by other major stars to bring in enough revenue to cover production costs. Major stars such as Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton and Norma Talmadge joined the company, as well as producer Samuel Goldwyn, all creating quality film productions.
Production head Joseph Schenck, husband of Norma Talmadge, organized Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sid Grauman and Lee Shubert into forming United Artists Theatre Circuit Inc. in May 1926. They would build and operate 20 theaters in various states with approximately 1,600 seats each, and charging top prices up to $2 or $2.50. Grauman would act as president, operating the chain along the lines of his Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. That is, each film would have an unique presentation, exclusive long runs, and be opened simultaneously in all United Artists Theatres.
By Nov. 21, 1926, UA announced that it would soon break ground to build its $3-million theater with over 2,200 seats at 9th Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, along with a 12-story office building connected to it. Both would be constructed in Spanish Gothic style, with the building at the height limit imposed by the city of Los Angeles.
The March 6, 1927, Los Angeles Times reported on the May 5 12:30 groundbreaking for the theater, with Mary Pickford operating a steam shovel that turned over the first earth of the project. Director Fred Niblo acted as master of ceremonies, with Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Estelle Taylor and Vivian and Rosetta Duncan in attendance. During his remarks, Fairbanks stated that he hoped the theater “will always be a reminder of the fact that Los Angeles is the center of production of the film industry.” Because of Doug and Mary’s appearances, the newspaper estimated that more than 5,000 people attended the ceremony. Also attending were executives from California Petroleum Corp., which had already signed a $3-million 30-year lease on the 12-floor office building.
To achieve its own unique look, United Artists hired Gladding, McBean and Co. to provide 600 tons of polychrome and pulsichrome terra-cotta in a light tan color, unlike anything else in the city. Architects C. Howard Crane and Walker and Eisen had drawn up the palatial plans. Supporting the massive structure would be a frame consisting of 2,000 tons of steel.
United Artists wanted to open the theater before the end of 1927, so it was a race by the contractor to try and meet that date. Men worked 24 hours a day in three eight-hour shifts to accelerate construction.
By November, The Times could report that “The United Artists Theater will be to Los Angeles what the Roxy and the Paramount Theaters are to New York.” That is, the theater would be one of the most elaborate and sophisticated showplaces on the earth, the perfect place to world premiere United Artists films. Interestingly, West Coast Theaters, Inc. would manage the facility, under the direction of Harold B. Franklin. Carli Elinor would leave his position as leader of the Carthay Circle orchestra to headline as musical leader for the planned 60-member orchestra.
Photo: The United Artists Theatre at 9th Street and Broadway, via Google’s Street View.
Edwin Schallert of The Times reported that “The dominant note in the auditorium itself is gold–distant spaces of greenish gold for the ceiling and walls, crystallizing directly overhead in a brilliant sunburst. Aisles are roomy and chairs comfortable…Mural paintings adorn the side walls, depicting film portrayals and personalities.” In fact, the murals depicted UA talent like Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, Valentino, Barrymore, Swanson, Talmadge, Dolores Del Rio, and D. W. Griffith, along with cameramen and angels with the faces of UA executives. The journalist noted that Schenck had canceled any prologues or other stage shows before film screenings but approved a fine musical accompaniment. “Attention will be concentrated on the shadow entertainment.”
The theatre opened to grand fanfare Dec. 26, 1927, premiering Mary Pickford’s film “My Best Girl.” The Anthony Heinsbergen designed lobby and foyer soared three stories, resembling a Spanish cathedral with a ceiling painted to resemble stained glass. The stage was not deep, designed exclusively to show films, but featured a wide proscenium arch. The film theater featured plush, luxurious seats, wider than those in average theaters. Spacing between rows was also much larger than normal, so that late patrons would not bother others. A mezzanine directly under the balcony contained no boxes. Pickford’s private theatre was located under the mezzanine.
John Barrymore performed as master of ceremonies, with Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, Talmadge, Swanson, Griffith, Ronald Colman, and others giving short speeches at the dedication. Colorful banners and pennants decorated the street, and huge arc light generators illuminated all the sophisticated goings-on. One microphone was located in the lobby, one in a sound booth, and another on stage, all broadcast by 20 loudspeakers along Broadway. Announcer Freeman Lang would pick up the program on his long-wave length mobile set and then it would be rebroadcast over KPLA Los Angeles and KTA San Francisco, starting at 7 p.m. and lasting until 8:30 pm. Before the feature, a short about New York screened along with a color film called “Comrades.” The orchestra was supported by a chorus singing from off-stage, and a Maxfield Parrish-like setting functioned as tableau during the evening. At the conclusion of the feature, the audience saw film shot of the stars arriving at the premiere.
Within nine months, prologues and other entertainment returned. The theater remained as UA’s flagship for the next couple of decades, but gradually saw decline in attendance and care. Wide-screen processes were added in the 1950s to draw audiences to the next big thing, and the mezzanine was removed to create a new projection booth. By the 1970s Metropolitan Theatres owned it, and soon it became a strictly Spanish-language theatre. Dr. Gene Scott and his Los Angeles University Cathedral congregation moved in during 1989, actually improving the theater’s condition. The church group restored and carefully maintained the structure. Scott died in 2005 and his widow carried on until putting it up for sale in 2010. Greenfield Partners of Connecticut purchased it in the fall of 2011, announced that they would convert the office tower into the boutique Ace Hotel.