Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Earl Carroll’s Swanky Sunset Boulevard Theater

earl_carroll_fields

Photo: Earl Carroll at the groundbreaking for his nightclub, with Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. Courtesy of James Curtis.


In the late 1930s, Earl Carroll reigned as Broadway’s exotic showman, producing splashy musical revues featuring statuesque, sultry showgirls. There was only one place left to conquer: Hollywood, the mecca of entertainment. If he was going to shift operations to the West Coast, Carroll wanted to knock Hollywood’s socks off with an elegantly flamboyant nightclub restaurant.

Carroll hired renowned architect Gordon Kaufmann, designer of such beautiful and diverse structures as the Los Angeles Times Building, the Santa Anita Race Track, Hoover Dam and the Doheny Mansion, to create a stylish Art Deco building at 6230 Sunset Blvd. Per an Oct. 16, 1938, Los Angeles Times story, the $500,000 project would be the first to include dining, dancing and stage shows under one roof.

To add a dash of exoticness, Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, the originator of “streamlined design,” created the interior. His unique additions to the property included a black patent leather ceiling, colorful paneling, and gracefully lined walls, along with other elaborate decorations. Neon tubes suspended from the ceiling and extending around the auditorium added sparkly glamour. The interiors also included a 15-foot tall nude statue of Carroll’s headliner and lover, Beryl Wallace. Her 20-foot high neon profile also graced the exterior of the building, with the words, “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world,” along with plaques signed by celebrities.

The structure would include 72,000 square feet in the theater, allowing room for two revolving stages, one at 80 feet, the largest of its kind ever constructed in the world.

To help finance the costs and add a touch of celebrity, Carroll established The Inner Circle, composed of such Hollywood dignitaries as Darryl Zanuck, Harold Lloyd, Walt Disney, Walter Wanger, Bing Crosby, and others, who put up $1,000 each allowing them lifetime cover charge and a reserved seat at the club.

Earl Carroll’s Theater wowed audiences when it opened Dec. 26, 1938, with the musical extravaganza, “Broadway to Hollywood,” featuring a cast of 100 and “the 60 most beautiful girls in the world,” the main draw for the mostly male audience. Ray Noble conducted the house band, accompanying scenes like “Candlelight,” “The Bolero,” “The Can-Can,” and “The Tyrolean.” During “Candlelight,” dancers ascended 100 treads of stairs 135 feet in the air.

As the business advertised, “Seats always reserved, no cover charge.” For $2.50, or a top price of $3.50 per seat on Saturdays, patrons enjoyed dinner, dancing, and a lavish show in the six-level theater seating 1,000. The club featured a special Sunday through Tuesday nights of $1 seats for the show and dancing. Earl Carroll’s nightclub quickly became one of Tinseltown’s premier nightspots.

Hollywood quickly came calling to use the facility as a filming location in 1939. A March 24, 1939, Times ad stated that “This Sunday night, March 26th, 20th Century-Fox is using the interior of our theatre for the new Sonja Henie picture and no seats are available. All tickets purchased for this date will be honored any other evening.”

The Paramount film, “A Night at Earl Carroll’s”, of course employed the nightclub as a location, shooting patrons entering and exiting the theater the week of March 21, 1940, for the movie.

The Times also employed the club for fashion shoots, decking Carroll’s showgirls in furs, hats, gowns, and shoes promoting local businesses as well as the nightclub. A Sept. 17, 1939, ad proclaimed, “Already acclaimed by over 250,000 satisfied patrons for its elaborate interiors, the lavishness of the stage revues, the excellent food, the most significant thing about the Earl Carroll Theater-Restaurant is the moderate prices.”

Carroll reached out to community groups, allowing the club to be employed for charity events. The National Council of Jewish Women presented the pageant, “The History of Women” at the theater on June 7, 1939. The Southern California Symphony Assn. Held 10 Sunday night concerts there from November 1942 through January 1943, opening with John Barbirolli conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a relaxed, almost Boston Pops-like performance. Five hundred student nurses were inducted into the United States Cadet Nurse Corps here on May 3, 1944, with Edgar Bergen as master of ceremonies. A radio broadcast wire from Washington included Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Hays, and Burgess Meredith in the ceremony.

By 1946, Carroll intended to construct the world’s largest theater seating 7,000 people nearby on Sunset Boulevard, between Gower and El Centro. Once again, Kaufmann designed an elaborate structure to cost approximately $5 million, where ABC would hopefully locate some of its studios. The building would feature a large underground parking garage, one regular stage, one ice rink and one water tank. The lavish three-hour show would include a motion picture, stage show, symphony and choral group. Alas, plans fell through and nothing was ever built.

After Carroll’s and Wallace’s tragic deaths in a 1948 plane crash, the theater soldiered on to middling business. Finally sold to Texas industrialist Frank S. Hofues in 1950 after wrangling between the Carroll and Wallace estates, the theater opened to “snappy, bright sort of shows,” but nothing rivaling Carroll’s opulent revues. Closing quickly, the theater was soon leased by CBS for TV soundstages, where such diverse programming as the City of Hope’s telethon and “Queen for a Day” were telecast.

On the 18th anniversary of its original opening, Dec. 26, 1953, the theater reemerged as the Moulin Rouge under the ownership of Frank Sennes. The operator featured lavish stage shows replicating Paris’ sidewalk cafes. Performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Liberace entertained audiences, surrounded by opulently dressed singers and dancers. The Moulin Rouge operated successfully for seven years, until the draw of high salaries in Las Vegas lured stars away.

Shows came and went, before the theater became a teenage nightclub renamed Hullabaloo in 1966. The plaques bearing stars’ names like Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney were removed and replaced with ones carrying the names Bo Diddley, Chad and Jeremy, Ike and Tina Turner and the Vogues.

By 1968, the theater was renamed the Aquarius, and decorated with an astrological motif. The show “Hair” opened the remade theater. The Dutch rock group the Fool created an outdoor mural called “The Aquarian Age” that covered the entire front and west facades of the building. Per “The Times,” it featured “a panorama of cartoon goddesses and comic-strip landscapes,” with the celebrity-autographed plaques now placed below it.

The Center Theatre Group-Mark Taper Forum took over the Aquarius in the 1970s, and featured touring Broadway shows like “Oh! Calcutta” in 1978. Later that year, they opened “Zoot Suit” at the facility, also filming the stage show for theatrical release. Gordon Davidson envisioned the space as three separate theaters, but the group could never raise the funds for the conversion. Soon, it became the offices of Filmex.

Producer Martin Tahse bought the building from the CTG in 1982, with plans for a full-scale restoration and operation as the Cabaret Theatre presenting Off-Broadway musicals. Unfortunately, Tahse’s plans fell through, and the building languished for several years.

The television network Nickelodeon bought the theater in 1997 to use for recording live-action television series. Now, tweens and their parents pass through the same doors once visited by Hollywood celebrities like Errol Flynn, William Powell and Humphrey Bogart.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1938, Architecture, Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory, Nightclubs and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Earl Carroll’s Swanky Sunset Boulevard Theater

  1. aryedirect says:

    It seems as though the difference between success and failure at the Earl Carroll Theater was the showmanship of Earl Carroll himself. Kinda fitting and proper.

  2. Benito says:

    Thanks for this missing piece of L.A. history. Saw “Hair” in 1969 at the Aquarius. People fired up joints during the show. Heady stuff for a lone 13 year old.

  3. Eve says:

    Poor Beryl Wallace.

    • lmharnisch says:

      That was my suspicion, but the ribbon she’s wearing threw me off. The way we used to hand out beauty contest titles in L.A., she could have been “Miss Earl Carroll Nightclub Groundbreaking of 1938.”

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