Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: El Portal Theatre Entertains San Fernando Valley

El Portal
El Portal Theatre, courtesy of Mary Mallory.



F
or the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, construction of a grand, elaborately decorated motion picture theatre in a small town suggested either that the burg was developing rapidly into an economic powerhouse with money to burn, or that it hoped to grow into a larger and more sophisticated community by luring upscale individuals to patronize its businesses. The 1926 construction of the El Portal Theater in Lankershim demonstrates that the little farming community was on its way to becoming an economic driver for the San Fernando Valley.

Originally part of the San Fernando Mission lands, the area surrounding Lankershim was broken into ranchos and later sold almost as one piece to Isaac Lankershim and his Lankershim Ranch Land and Water Company. Large groups of settlers began making their way west after the Civil War, growing exponentially after the opening of the transcontinental railroad. The rich soil supported crops such as fruit, grains, and nuts. Lankershim began selling off large chunks to pioneers such as Weddington, Chandler, and Whitsett to subdivide the lands into farming plots, leading to small community areas like Toluca, renamed Lankershim in 1896. By the mid-to-late 1920s, this vibrant area once again exploded, as city folk moved to the Valley seeking a place of their own.

El Portal facade
El Portal Theatre, photograph by Mary Mallory.



I
n 1891, W. C. Weddington bought 23 acres from the Lankershim Ranch Land and Water Company around the little town of Toluca, later Lankershim. The family gave the Southern Pacific the right of way to build railroad lines through their property and later build a train station as well. Pacific Electric streetcar lines came through in 1911. Soon after, the family allowed a bank and the United States Post Office to rise on land near the train station, with Wilson Weddington serving as the postmaster. Business sprang up around these town foundations, and along one of the major streets in the area, named Lankershim Boulevard after the family.

Large plots of cheap land in the bucolic San Fernando Valley lured city folk looking to own their first homes. As more people moved in, real estate prices for commercial properties around major streets like Lankershim exploded. In 1925, the Weddingtons jumped at the chance to gain huge dividends on property adjoining Lankershim’s business area.

The September 10, 1925, Film Daily announced that “the Weddington Investment Corporation leased the southwest corner of Lankershim Boulevard and Weddington Avenue to Hollywood Theatres, Inc. on a 99-year lease for $850,000 in rentals and construction.” The organization, affiliated with West Coast Theatres and led by Mike Gore, President, and Sol Lesser, Secretary, planned to build a $250,000 motion picture house. Initial plans called for a 100 by 210 ft. building seating 1500, with a stage large enough to support theatrical shows. The August 25, 1925 Los Angeles Times article noted the site was currently the location of Guy Weddington’s home, with construction slated to begin December 1.
El Portal Interior
The interior of El Portal Theatre, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.



T
he March 28, 1926, Film Daily reported that “A contract has been awarded to A. V. Perkinson at about $200,000 for a two-story and basement brick theater, store, and office building…” at 5269 Lankershim Blvd. Construction began in June on the Spanish Renaissance building designed by architect Lewis A. Smith, before it opened on October 5, 1926 with the screening of the Fox film, “Blarney,” starring Ralph Graves. The formal opening, however, occurred October 18 per the October 30, 1926 Motion Picture News, with motion picture stars and celebrities in attendance. J. Leslie Swope, treasurer of Hollywood Theatres, Inc., introduced City Councilman Charles Randall, who spoke about how the opening of the theatre supported valley development.

While the exterior of the El Portal façade sported handsome carved reliefs of Spanish conquistadors and decorative scroll work, the house interior remained somewhat subdued and austere, with coats of armor and spears or portraits of new world explorers attached to walls throughout the 1348-seat theatre.

Though affiliated with Fox West Coast Theatres, the El Portal showed first run films from all the major studios from its beginning, starting with silents and moving into sound. On October 23, 1936, the Buck Jones oater, “Empty Saddles” premiered at the El Portal, “a typical small town neighborhood house,” per the Motion Picture Herald. In 1959, the El Portal hosted the West Coast premiere of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” benefiting MEND.

The theatre also occasionally served as a preview house and tryout location for new entertainment possibilities. In 1937, the El Portal hosted a 15-20 minute news broadcast produced on its stage, which lasted but a short time. A one-reel audience participation movie short, “Movie Quiz,” ran in November 1941 as a test for possible pre-show entertainment. Narrated by actor Grant Withers, the game consisted of the audience watching “humorous and educational stock shots” to answer questions posed on screen, which they answered by pulling tabs off numbered cards provided in the lobby. The staff tallied the right answers immediately after the contest and could award prizes, if they so desired. While the audience seemed to enjoy the show, producers and executives perceived that audiences weren’t quite ready for pre-show entertainment, and neither did they desire to present prizes after every screening.

 

El Portal Lobby
The lobby of El Portal, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.



D
uring the morning and early afternoon when no films screened, the El Portal hosted all types of groups to help pay the bills. The Los Angeles District of the Federation of Women’s Clubs held many local conventions there in the 1930s. A cooking school popped up now and again. Los Angeles Mayor Fletchter Bowron inducted actress Glenda Farrell as North Hollywood’s honorary mayor on December 8, 1938, on the El Portal stage. On December 5, 1945, the theater hosted a preview of the music revue, the Hollywood Jazz Jamboree, featuring such performers as Mel Torme and the Mel Tones, before it hit the road.

The El Portal did its part to support the war effort during World War II. The American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) sponsored a show raising funds for Greek war relief on April 21, 1941, with emcee Milton Berle introducing such performers as Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer, and James Monaco. All-night shows for defense workers began November 5, 1941, as a test for all Los Angeles theatres, checking to see if they would actually come to watch movies before or after their shifts. Bob Hope led a war bond rally at the theatre in September 1943, which raised $370,000.

After the war, Fox West Coast Theatres saw updates and renovations under the hand of Charles Skouras, adding tropic touches, swirls and twirls, shiny metallic silver, and curly-q adorned box offices out near the streets, which removed or destroyed many original interiors.

Christian Science lectures filled the theatre throughout the 1940s and 1950s, as did Jewish High Holiday services in the 1950s and 1960s. Pete Seeger even performed in a folk concert there on May 10, 1959. In the 1960s, the El Portal, along with Grauman’s Chinese and several other theatres, hosted closed circuit screenings of the Indianapolis 500, a forerunner to today’s mega revenue closed circuit boxing events and showcase film and opera screenings.

Some small-minded residents of course, complained about film screenings or even the neighborhood. One resident wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1935, complaining about the theatre screening the Marlene Dietrich film, “The Scarlet Empress,” and “When a Man Sees Red.” In 1941, the El Portal hosted discussions with local residents upset about low and stunt flying airplanes from the United States Army.

The El Portal also attracted former or pre-celebrities to its midst. Actor Wheeler Oakman, who starred in Selig Studio films as early as 1909 before becoming a reliable villain in 1930s serials and B-pictures, ended his career as assistant manager at the theatre in 1949. Supposedly actor Alan Ladd worked there as an usher in 1933, while living and going to school in the area. Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony attended the theatre as a kid, catching regular Saturday matinee screenings of Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, and Roy Rogers’ films. Actress Kim Darby also attended the El Portal as a child, long before she starred in “True Grit” with John Wayne.

While North Hollywood grew steadily for decades, by the 1960s and 1970s, residents began moving further north out to new suburbs. The El Portal saw its patronage decline, as it turned from first run into an independent and later Spanish theatre. Threatened with demolition several times, it was named Historic-Cultural Landmark #573 of Los Angeles in 1993 to help preserve it and turn it into a legitimate theatre. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake caused major damage, however, leaving it red-tagged at one point. Funding was raised to finally convert into a multiple house legitimate theatre, which it remains today.

The El Portal Theatre represents the grand beginnings of the San Fernando Valley, as it began its ascent into the economic driver of the Los Angeles area it is today. One of the last vestiges of 1920s-era life in North Hollywood, the El Portal reflects the stylish grace and elegance of that bustling decade.

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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1926, Architecture, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory, Theaters and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: El Portal Theatre Entertains San Fernando Valley

  1. Anthony says:

    This is very interesting information for all of us history buffs. Now if we could get you to voluntarily publish a photo and the name of the Mystery Movie personalities a week or so after they are first posted life would be good.

    Like

  2. mandymarie20 says:

    Cool theater. I’m glad it’s still around.

    Like

  3. Gary Martin says:

    Unless those are wooden bricks I can’t imagine, or perhaps I can, how terrible the sound must have been in this large cold room.

    Like

  4. wilberfan says:

    I believe I saw “Hard Days Night” here in 1964.

    Like

  5. Pingback: It’s Something to Stew About « Observations Along the Road

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