The grand opening of what was then the Warner Western Theater, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
The history of one street corner can often show the growing pains of a burgeoning city. What started out as a rural location can often times become a gorgeous office tower drawing all eyes to its sleek structure. Such is the case with the magnificent Wiltern Theatre, still proudly standing at the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue, an emblem of a city dreaming of a spectacular future.
Since the 1880s, the 80 acres southeast of Wilshire Boulevard at Western Avenue had been the Germain Pellissier family ranch, green pasture housing merino sheep. As early as 1913, they smartly recognized the economic potential of the area and subdivided their 80 acres southeast of the intersection of Wilshire and Western into residential lots in a district named Pellissier Square, nicknamed “Uptown.” The land included a provision that the area would remain single-family homes until Jan.1, 1925. In 1916, some homeowners attempted to get this covenant overturned so that the land would always remain residential, but lost.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
Heather Angel and Walter Abel promote the Wiltern Theatre, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Los Angeles was exploding in population, and by the 1920s, office towers were growing all over the city. In 1925, the Pellissiers joined with Henry de Roulet to begin planning for business development along Wilshire Boulevard as property values soared and commercial districts spread out. The Los Angeles Times noted on Sept. 2, 1928, that 75,000 cars a day drove through the intersection of Wilshire and Western, with the tract now worth $675,000. De Roulet built a tiny real estate office facing the intersection to begin selling, after Superior Court Judge Collins removed the residential deed restrictions for business construction. Local property owners sued again, but lost.
Even as the Depression hit in 1929, de Roulet pushed sales. The partners announced audacious plans for the busy street corner in 1930. The Feb. 21, 1930, Southwest Builder and Contractor stated that de Roulet intended to establish a large structure called the Pellissier Building containing two show houses, one a legitimate theater and one a motion picture theater, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million to $2 million, replacing his tiny office.
The March 21, 1930, Southwest Builder and Contractor revealed the final decision: the architectural firm of Morgan, Walls & Clements and architect G. Albert Lansburgh were preparing plans for a Class A theater seating 2,500 and a commercial building of large shops and lofts, with individual elevators, to employ reinforced concrete, structural steel, modern-style cast stone work, marble and tile, plate glass, ornamentation, steam heat and a ventilating system. William Simpson Construction Co. would erect the Pellissier Building and theater, one of the first mixed-use structures, starting Oct. 27, 1930, with a height limit 12 stories for the tower and a two-story annex for retail, with a two-story parking garage under the building.
When actual construction was underway, Serrano Corp. served as contractor. Plans revealed the diagonal-standing office tower looming behind the shop area, featuring an l-shaped lobby and circular rotunda, The inviting entrance at the corner would function as a giant funnel leading people toward the theater. Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls & Clements, designed a beautiful decorative facade that extended the skyscraper heights of the building by emphasizing vertical lines. Blue-green terra cotta cladding emphasized the former pasture.
G. Albert Lansburgh’s last major theater design was deemed “delicious” by a colleague and focused on visually arresting Zig Zag Moderne salutes to the beautiful and visionary: the giant sunburst exploding skyscrapers, ornamentally curvy wrought iron staircases, cut-glass stainless steel light fixtures, and blue and bronze terra cotta geometric decoration enveloped audiences into sensual splendor. Anthony J. Heinsbergen’s luscious mural work saluted the pastoral background of the site as well. The theater featured asbestos, main, and title curtains lavishly decorated to match.
Barker Brothers provided the appropriately sleek furnishings: white leather chairs, back-to-back divans, and other luxurious furnishings, which unfortunately didn’t last long.
Warner Bros. operated the Western Theater at 3790 Wilshire Blvd. as a link between its downtown and more western theaters, adding elegance to that stretch of Wilshire. On Oct. 7, 1931, the grand premiere of “Alexander Hamilton” showcased the gorgeous building. Tens of thousands watched glamorously dressed celebrities like Dolores Costello, Loretta Young, Dorothy Mackaill, and Joan Blondell, many clad in clingy white satin and dripping with furs and jewels, walk over the unique “Bridge of Stars,” “a bridge built across Wiltshire (sic) leading to the theatre lobby,” as described by Film Daily in its Oct. 13, 1931, edition. A klieg light-filled sky illuminated the larger-than-life stars crossing single file over the elaborate bridge like angels entering heaven. Making the evening even more special, KFWB, Warner’s own radio station, broadcast the premiere live.
A 1938 program for the Wiltern, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $9.99.
Once inside, dedication ceremonies opened with a patriotic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before speeches by Los Angeles Mayor Porter, Sen. Shortridge, Harry Hargrave of the “Uptown” Chamber of Commerce, and Jack Warner, assisted by master of ceremonies William Powell. Next came a newsreel, a “Looney Tunes,” an organ solo by Albert Hay Malotte, short films showing Wilshire Boulevard, Western Avenue, and vicinity “as little more than a cowpath,” as the Los Angeles Times described it in its review. Mrs. Germaine Pellissier was introduced from the audience and Henry de Roulet made a brief talk on screen before the start of the feature.
Edwin Schallert lavishly praised the 2,300-seat theater in the review. “The theater itself, modernistic in style, impresses the beholder by its quiet color tones, pastel green verging on blue and suggestion of mauve and old rose under the lights, with not-too-obtrusive gold.”
The buildings included hollow tile partitions, wrought iron, hardwood and carpeted floors, tile, hardwood trim, marble and tile toilet rooms, mail chute, plate and sand-blasted glass, steam heat, incinerator, sidewalk elevator, automatic sprinklers, and automobile turntable, as the theater was planned for live shows, though not put into practice.
Warners premiered or previewed many of its films here over the next several years, like “Five Star Final,” “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” “Jewel Robbery,” “High Pressure” and “Elmer the Great,” which several members of the Chicago Cubs attended. They ran the theater as a first-run one, giving special performances or one-evening performances, but no live shows, though they occasionally featured short organ concerts by the like of Frank Lanterman on the four-manual, 37-rank organ, one of the largest in the United States. By November 1932, they introduced road shows with Goldwyn’s “The Kid From Spain,” hoping to increase business.
The April 26, 1933, Hollywood Reporter noted that Warners would close the theater indefinitely early in May, after employees were given two weeks’ notice, when bad business forced its closure.
Fox West Coast Theatres reopened it about a year later under the management of Ben Bernstein, showing double features along with trade shows, previews, and the like. Gaylord Carter played the first week of November 1936 as house organist. The name was quietly changed to Wil-Tern.
In October 1939, Warners once again returned to manage the theater, converting it to second run on Nov. 2, 1939. By early 1940, Henry Murtagh gave occasional organ concerts, and it returned as a first-run house.
From the late 1930s through the early 1950s, the Institute of Religious Science regularly held Sunday morning worship services there.
Its cavernous size helped it host several War Bond Rallies in World War II featuring performers like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Elvis Costello and the Rude 5 at the Wiltern, May-June 1991, listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $5.25.
Attendance began declining after World War II as the neighborhood changed. The theater hosted several special events, like the showing of the first color newsreel in 1948 featuring the Rose Bowl and Rose Parade, 3-D screenings and tests in early 1953, a screening of Super Scope in May 1954, trade shows, previews, and a closed-circuit telecast of the Indianapolis 500 in 1967. Pacific leased the theater in the 1970s. In the 1960s-1970s, the American Guild of Organists held occasional silent film screenings, with Gaylord Carter returning to play the organ.
The de Roulet family sold out to Franklin Life Insurance in 1956, which attempted to make the theater as profitable as the office building, but its gigantic size brought financial problems. Attendance waned. In 1979, the company announced plans to demolish the complex and sell it to something more viable. The City Council even voted to approve a demolition permit. An outraged public fought back and pushed for preservation.
Councilman John Ferraro led the fight to save and preserve the theater and developer Wayne Ratkovich stepped in at the eleventh hour in 1982 to save the beautiful theater. Buying the theatre for $6.33 million, he promised to renovate and reopen it, after Franklin allowed Pacific to sell off some of its gorgeous interior. Little did he realize how difficult and expensive the job would be, but thankfully he kept at it, though renovations ended up costing $6 million. The theater reopened to the public in 1985, and remains open as a performance venue to this day.
Over the years, the Wiltern Theatre has been named a city Cultural-Historic Monument as well as being named a National Landmark. Besides screening films, the theater has hosted location filming for such films as “American Hot Wax,” “The Rose,” “La Bamba,” and even “Barton Fink.” It can sometimes be glimpsed in film noirs as characters drive down Wilshire Boulevard. RKO Studios found it so telegenic that it posed Walter Abel and Heather Angel in evening clothes walking down the boulevard to promote their film “The Three Musketeers.”
Los Angeles is incredibly lucky to possess so many jewel box film theaters still in operation. May they and the wonderful Wiltern continue operation for years to come!