The Studio City Theatre, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Celebrities and movies have existed as an integral part of Studio City’s economic life from its very beginning. Established as a motion picture district in 1928, Studio City would see entertainment-related businesses spring up over the years, as well as retail and restaurant establishments run by motion picture and television stars. What had originally been ranch and farmland would eventually become an entertainment hub for the city of Los Angeles.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
Studio City gained its name when comedy producer Mack Sennett opened his Mack Sennett Studio on Radford Avenue in 1928, as part of an area called the Central Motion Picture District. Investors hoped to lure several studios to build between Ventura Boulevard and Radford, and hoped that their employees would then in turn buy land the real estate syndicate owned between Ventura Boulevard, Tujunga Avenue, and what is now Magnolia Boulevard. Unfortunately, the stock market crash in October 1929 killed any other studio construction.
Studio workers did purchase plots and build homes in their residential land, as did celebrities like director Rex Ingram and his wife, Alice Terry, actress Mary Brian and her husband, cinematographer George Tomasini, and child actor Frank Coughlin Jr.
Though Studio City churned out movie product, residents lacked a theater in which to watch them for years. Since the area was a movie town, films could never be previewed here, and its still somewhat rural location also hampered possible theater construction.
Finally, on Dec. 12, 1937, groundbreaking announced the start of construction for what was then called the Laurel Theater at 12136 Ventura Blvd. The Los Angeles Times reported that Wesco Corp. would build the 881-seat theater for Pacific States Theatres, Inc., estimated to cost $100,000. Brothers Mike and A. L. Gore owned Wesco along with Adolph Ramish, all long-time theater magnates. Ramish had constructed theaters as early as 1907, before joining the Gore Brothers, Joseph Schenck, and Sol Lesser in 1922 to construct a chain of film theaters throughout California under the name Wesco. They were eventually bought out by Fox West Coast Theaters, and went back into business themselves.
On June 11, 1938, the now Studio City Theater opened, a simple Streamline Moderne structure with its colorful neon sign gaily announcing its premiere film, Universal Studios’ “Tap Roots,” starring Susan Hayward and Van Heflin. The theater ran independently, showings films from many studios, but by the early 1940s, it ran mostly Republic Pictures films.
On Sept. 19, 1946, the Studio City Theater held its one and only premiere, screening Walter Wanger’s western picture, “Canyon Passage,” starring Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy. The theater held a lavish premiere by Studio City standards, with stands erected for fans to watch celebrities arriving at the theatre, such as Clark Gable, Ella Raines and Sonja Henie.
The Studio City Theater took an active part in the neighborhood from its beginnings, holding charity group meetings and fundraisers. On June 1, 1941, stars such as Groucho and Chico Marx, Billy Gilbert, and Olsen and Johnson performed in a fundraiser to help construct San Fernando Valley’s first Jewish temple. In 1946, Phil Silvers, Gene Lockhart, the Three Stooges, and Rudy Valley appeared at another fundraiser. Carpenter Avenue Elementary held a Halloween event at the theater at 9:30 am on Oct. 31, 1948.
During the 1950s-1970s, women’s groups held their meetings in the theater, and the American Cancer Society held a talk about Breast Self-Examinations here on Oct. 28, 1955. Various fundraisers by the Girl Scouts and private schools such as the Country School and Garden West School occurred there. Studio City itself hosted Wheel of Fortune Days in the late 1940s, and Jumbo Sales Day in the early 1960s. The site even hosted Christian Science lectures during the day from 1941 through the 1950s, with Studio City’s Church of Religious Science holding services here in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the late 1960s, the theater operated as a true independent, showing everything from children’s films to mainstream fare to art house indies. Mann’s took it over in the 1970s and 1980s, continuing the run of independent fare. The Nov. 3, 1990, Los Angeles Times noted that in February 1991 the theater would go dark, as owner the Rothman family had sold out to Bookstar, a division of Barnes and Noble, when no other chain would acquire it. Bookstar still operates there today, with the building’s lovely marquee, ticket booth, and gorgeous terrazzo tile still proudly noting the building’s film theater background.
Over the years, Studio City has also hosted businesses owned and run by celebrities, particularly nightclubs and restaurants. Cinematographer James Wong Howe and his wife, Sanora Babb, ran Ching How, a Chinese restaurant on Ventura Boulevard from 1940-1952, Roy Rogers invested in a country and western club on Ventura for a short time, and Bob Eubanks ran the Cinnamon Cinder on Ventura Boulevard near Tujunga Ave. in the 1960s. Film villain Jack La Rue joined the act in the late 1930s when he opened La Rue’s, an Italian homestyle restaurant, at 11920 Ventura Blvd.
La Rue, born Gaspar Biondolillo on May 3, 1892 in New York, played threatening heavies in Hollywood films. He got his start on stage playing small roles in the 1920s, and played two years in “Diamond Lil” with Mae West. In 1928, he was in Los Angeles performing vaudeville skits, and won the “Speedy” dance contest at the Million Dollar Theatre. For most of his career, the heavy-lidded, sinister but striking looking La Rue played second or third string heavies, offering a cold-blooded leer and menacing presence to films. He gained notoriety for playing the role of “Trigger” in the risqué pre-code film, “The Story of Temple Drake,” based on what the Los Angeles Times called the “sensational and considerably salacious book, “Sanctuary.” The film portrays the wild ways and comeuppance of a Southern belle played by Miriam Hopkins by the brutal La Rue, who gets his just desserts in the end.
To help support his mother and sisters, who he brought from New York, La Rue established the Italian restaurant, La Rue’s, in the late 1930s, which his family ran and where the actor made frequent appearances. Advertising materials presented La Rue in his gangster garb carrying a gun. La Rue owned only the one restaurant, as the gourmet and upscale La Rue’s on the Sunset Strip were owned and operated by others.
The Studio City restaurant and bar maintained a steady but mostly quiet presence over the years, and in the 1940s-1950s, community groups such as the Los Angeles District Federation of Women’s Clubs, Optimist Club, and the San Fernando Junior Auxiliary held meetings and events there.
La Rue’s did become involved in a few criminal matters over the years, but not because of the actor’s doings. Two young teenagers robbed the restaurant in 1939, but were caught quickly by police. In 1967, former manager Donald Stanley Young and former bartender Arthur Ashley Martin confronted John Baxter, a former bartender now working at the Blarney Stone, who was sitting in his car across the street from the restaurant. Young shot Baxter in the head on Nov. 3, 1967 and was quickly arrested. Police determined the men had been engaging in an ongoing feud and charged Young with murder. Young was found guilty of second-degree murder in October 1968, and was sentenced from five years to life.
La Rue eventually sold the restaurant, which later operated as Uncle Tai’s Chinese restaurant for years. Now a club known as the Tavern occupies the spot.
Studio City’s entertainment focus drew celebrities and regular folks to operate and run all types of businesses to its more upscale residents, and does so to this day, with current businesses run and owned by famous folk. From 1928 to today, the city has produced entertainment as well as hosting businesses attracting celebrities to conduct business in its borders.