The Ambassador Theater, as shown in the Exhibitors Herald, 1921.
On February 9, 1919, the Los Angeles Times reported that the California Hotel Company would soon begin construction on a luxurious hotel on twenty one acres adjoining Wilshire Boulevard between Catalina and Eighth Streets. This resort-like property would cater to the upper classes, with bungalows, ballroom, billiards, card rooms, swimming pool, and an arcade of shops catering to every whim of the wealthy clientele. Often overlooked in the hostelry’s many high-end amenities was the plush Ambassador Theatre, intended both as rental facility, host to conventions, and movie theatre.
D. M. Linnard, owner of the California Hotel Company, announced on April 4 that architect Myron Hunt had been employed to design something along classic Italian lines for the $5 million project. The proposed design showed buildings in a giant H shape with a combined 1000 rooms between the main building and annexes. The proposed project also included tea house, casino, and a convention hall with pipe organ and stage. Construction began in June 1919 for the massive project after demolishing the former Ruben Schmidt farmhouse on the property. The hotel’s name changed from California to Ambassador in March 1920 as well.
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On June 27, 1920, the Los Angeles Times reported that architect Myron Hunt was designing a large movie theatre, garage, and servants’ quarters at the west end of the hotel to cost $250,000. Guests would enter the theatre through the west lobby, beyond the grill and arcade of stores. The up-to-date screening facility would include pipe organ, artistic lighting elements, and comfortable seating for 575-600 people. On October 9, 1920, Motion Picture News announced that Gore Brothers and Sol Lesser had signed a deal to operate the Ambassador Theatre, and negotiated an agreement with Associated First National for the theatre “to serve as a world premiere house for all First National attractions.”
Art Smith, supervising projectionist for the Gore Brothers, chose the projection equipment of two “S” Simplex projectors and a signal system in conjunction with the house lights installed between them. Each projector was ventilated through the roof as well for security and safety issues. A special electrical installation allowed control of spot and stereo optical lights as well as projectors. The projection booth consisted of three adjoining rooms: one with motor and generator, another with projectors, and the last a cutting room, thereby reducing a fire hazard. Special rewind machines and cabinets in the cutting rooms were installed making it a top of the line system.
Finishing preparations for the theatre took longer than anticipated, requiring that the Ambassador Theatre open February 5, 1921 rather than January 1, 1921, as did the glamorous Ambassador Hotel. Crews worked double shifts to make the February opening, which included wiring it to allow fanciful lighting effects in seven different colors and combinations. The elegant Theatre rivaled the beauty of the striking hotel, containing large, leather- upholstered overstuffed arm chairs set back from other rows and aisles. It would feature refrigerated air in the summer and heat in the winter.
On January 21, 1921, the Times stated that the sleek, Italian Renaissance-style theatre painted in dove gray would contain a lounging room with luxurious furnishings, stylish light fixtures, a twelve pipe organ, a moveable floor allowing grotto and mountain effects, an eighteen foot screen, and mural paintings on side walls highlighted by beams and draped in velvet, which would be pulled aside after the audience was seated, revealing the glamorous paintings beneath.
They hired S. Barret McCormick, formerly Toledo, Ohio’s Rivoli Theatre manager, to supervise and run the Theatre in December 1920, along with creating artistic prologues based on classical music to match the essence of the movie’s theme to kick off programming. The Ambassador Theatre would present the best moving pictures from all the studios in one week runs, with the December 1920 Motion Picture News stating, “It will be the releasing place for the great test pictures, and the Ambassador production is to be to the picture world what the Metropolitan is to the opera.” McCormick also called it the “National Art Theatre of the Screen,” per Exhibitors Herald.
Photos of an Ambassador Theatre prologue, Motion Picture News, 1921.
The theatre would host twice daily screenings with a matinee cost of 75 cents and evening screening with $2 admission, all seats reserved. very high as compared to regular prices. They hired top musicians, dancers, and acts to fill out the prologue portion of the program, accompanied by twelve piece orchestra. All up-to-date processes would be employed in providing audiences top-notch presentations. Motion Picture News claimed they were the only cinema located in a hotel but catering to outside audiences. The theatre would produce the Ambassador Weekly Magazine to highlight screenings, each with unique cover, and present preview screenings on Friday night.
Advertisements trumpeting the theatre employed the slogan “Toward the Ultimate” in describing their special programs featuring a musical prelude, stage prelude, prologue, and the film, along with a beautiful artistic booklet. As Motion Picture News stated, “The Ambassador Theatre will present each week the most noteworthy of screen productions, giving them in nearly every instance their world premiere several weeks before their presence in other cities…”
The Ambassador Theatre premiered February 5, 1921 with a screening of the Pola Negri film, “Passion” with an elaborate prologue designed by McCormick called “Clay,” featuring a thirty five member cast wearing contortionable masks by Alexander Hall in a show based on a poem by Omar. Choreographer Marion Morgan supervised and created symbolic dances to follow the avant garde sets. These featured bright, vivid trees against pitch black backgrounds. “Short and chic and bobbed hair” usherettes wearing stylish uniforms assisted patrons. Operators admitted to the newspaper that they expected to lose money, but hoped to cover costs of the entertainment and show.
The Ambassador Theatre screened Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” soon after, which brought out scalpers who corralled most of the tickets, selling out the venue a week in advance. While it was good for the theatre’s business, it was bad for the general public.
A prologue for “The Passion Flower,” Motion Picture News, 1921.
The Louis B. Mayer organization employed the Ambassador Theatre as one of two picture houses to host the premiere of his film, “The Woman in the House” on February 12. A few weeks later, Variety reported that the film played to only six people in one screening., calling the theatre a flop on February 25, stating that it appealed to only the high brow because of its location in the hotel, with a deluxe charge that millionaires didn’t want to pay and too high for middle class patrons. Management needed to think of something fast to maintain cash flow.
The Bakersfield Morning Echo reported on March 13, 1921 that management was now adding a series of one-act plays stated in conjunction with first-run films, replacing the more elaborate prologues. These would be staged by Frank Egan, formerly of Figueroa Street’s Little Theatre, in the style of Paris’ Grand Guignol. The “Ambassador Players” consisting mostly of film stars would act in these productions seeing as curtain raiser before the intermission, overture, and screening of the film.
Egan premiered “Fancy Free” as the first stage play, starring film actors Crane Wilbur, Mary McLaren, and Kathleen Clifford. Later one-acts featured cinema players Helen Jerome Eddy and Gaston Glass.
On September 10, 1921, Arthur L. Bernstein, formerly manager of the Fanchon and Marco Revue took over operations, devising ways to bring in revenue. During the daytime dark hours for the theatre, social and charity groups employed the space for meetings and special occasions. Mary Miles Minter performed in support of disabled ex-servicemen April 27, 1921 in support of the Assistance League’s efforts to help veterans. The Assistance League took over the theatre each Wednesday in support of a different charity.
The Ambassador Hotel now has a movie theater, Motion Picture News, 1921.
While changing up programming helped for a time, management was forced to consider changes in scheduling by 1922. It began renting out the facility to other groups for meetings and presentations in order to help pay the bills. The newly formed Wilshire Boulevard Congregational Church began holding services January 1, 1922 while they raised funds to locate a permanent location.
In the March 15, 1922 Los Angeles Times, the Ambassador Theatre noted that the week of March 22 they would become “the National Preview Theatre of the Screen,” showing previews three nights a week at 8:15 pm with opinion cards distributed to audience members. Regular screenings on other nights and Saturday’s all comedy night would continue. Such major attractions as the “Merry-Go-Round,” Jackie Coogan’s “Oliver Twist,” “The Lost World,” and others screened during the silent era.
On September 27, the Ambassador hosted the world premiere of the stereoscope film “The Power of Love” employing the Fairall Process using “eye screens” for film executives, exhibitors, directors, cinematographers, projectionists, optometrists, and scientists. “The Greatest Menace,” a film delving into the evils of drug use, premiered February 23, 1923.
Uncle John and the stars of KHJ (The Times radio station) are mobbed at Ambassador Auditorium, Sept. 8, 1925, Los Angeles Times.
By the 1930s, the Ambassador Theatre functioned more as a trade and press screening location, hosting screenings for journalists who needed to submit reviews to their magazines and newspapers. Colleen Moore’s film “Smilin’ Through” played in 1929, followed through the years by such films as “Pinocchio,” “This Gun For Hire,” “Pride of the Yankees,” in which many of the press shed tears at the screening, “Random Harvest,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “Anchors Aweigh.” “Citizen Kane” previews the week of April 10, 1941 at the Ambassador, with Terry Ramsaye calling it “a magnificent sleigh-ride” of a picture.”
Over the next several decades, social, charity, nonprofit, and community groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Confederation of Women’s Clubs, California Women of the Golden West, Matinee Music Club, Opera Reading Club, and Assistance League held meetings and presentations, while groups like the Nine O’Clock Players and Hollywood Opera Company presented recitals, concerts, and the like. Groups hosted lectures and food demonstrations in the theatre, and such organizations as radio, optometrists, exhibitors, and even morticians presented conventions.
By 1954, no more advertising appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the theatre appears to have shuttered, with entertainment focusing on the Cocoanut Grove.
The Los Angeles Unified School District took over the former Ambassador Hotel property to eventually construct schools in the 2000s, demolishing the buildings rather than remodeling and renovating them for a repurpose. While the Ambassador Theatre is no more, it operated as a high class, sleek screening facility during the hotel’s glamorous heyday of the 1920s through 1940s.