Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: William Pereira, Entertainment Architect

Pereira_boxofficejulsep137unse_0478 Elmer Balaban, left, Mary Martin and William L. Pereira, Boxoffice, Aug. 3, 1940.

Almost a year to the day after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved funding to construct a new Peter Zumthor-designed building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard, demolition began on the William L. Pereira three-building campus for the museum erected in the 1960s. Academy Award winners Brad Pitt and Diane Keaton lauded the work of Zumthor and praised the number of awards he had received, without realizing that original architect Pereira had not only had won architectural awards, but also served as an academy member and had shared the 1942 Oscar for special effects for the film “Reap the Wild Wind.” Pereira began his architecture career with a focus on entertainment, and over the next 20 years, he made a major impact on the field through both architecture, charitable efforts, and films.

Born April 25, 1909, in Chicago,  Pereira graduated from the University of Illinois School of Architecture in 1931, joining the firm of Holabird and Root. He contributed to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair master plan before helping found his own film with his brother Hal called Pereira, Senseney and Pereira, quickly gaining recognition for their design of Chicago’s Esquire Theatre for Balaban and Katz. Within seven years, the film designed 74 other motion picture theatres and contributed buildings to the San Francisco World’s Fair before the Pereira brothers moved to Los Angeles in search of bigger challenges.

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An architect’s rendition of the Hollywood Museum, designed by Pereira, Business Screen Magazine, 1964.

Ambitious, driven William Pereira found success combining architecture with film work, be it designing buildings or sets. Quickly establishing a niche at Paramount with President Barney Balaban, for whom he had designed the Esquire Theatre, Pereira designed plans in 1939 for a proposed new $12-million studio for Paramount in West Los Angeles, an unrealized project, while also serving as a member of the Advisory Board of the Modern Theatre Planning Institute. The Scarab National Architectural Society awarded him their Scarab gold medal in 1940 for “significant professional achievement” for an architect under 35.

Pereira continued important work for entertainment projects in 1941. In April, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Walter Wanger appointed Pereira and director Sam Wood to study location sites and types of buildings for possible construction of a new academy building. At the same time, he had served as co-art director for the Paramount films “Aloma of the South Seas” and “New York Town.”

The architect’s most important project that year served the needs of the motion picture industry’s veterans by providing them a home in old age or medical need. Entertainment trades noted at the end of March that Pereira volunteered his services to design a main building and exterior cottages for the Motion Picture Relief Fund after it acquired land outside Calabasas and Woodland Hills to build a “retirement, rest, and recuperation facility.” Directing construction of the project with Paramount’s Keith Glennan, Pereira worked with the Screen Set Designers Guild in laying out the interior design of the structure, opened to its first residents in 1942. For his dedication to the project, Pereira received the group’s first humanitarian award “for outstanding charitable efforts” designing the home.

Prolific as well as organized, Pereira also served as art director and contributor to special effects for Paramount films “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” “This Gun For Hire,” and “Reap the Wild Wind” for which he earned an Academy Award for special effects in 1943. Trades noted in 1942 that Pereira also converted Hollywood’s legitimate El Capitan Theatre into a first-run motion picture house for the studio, which they renamed the Paramount.

'Jane Eyre,' Photoplay Magazine
An image from “Jane Eyre,” set design by Pereira, from Photoplay Magazine.

Always looking for new challenges, Pereira moved on to projects offering more opportunity to shape the look of films. Early in 1942, David O. Selznick hired him to serve as production designer for his film “Keys of the Kingdom” but when it was postponed, Pereira moved on to Twentieth Century-Fox. He served as assistant director on the studio’s gothic release “Jane Eyre,” starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, with Film Daily calling the film “atmospherically impressive, offering solid architectural settings.” Motion Picture Daily’s February 2, 1944, review stated, “Creatively, honors clearly go to William Pereira, who designed the production… .”

Impressed, Selznick brought him back to the studio to serve as production designer for “Since You Went Away.” In a story noting the appointment, Showman’s Trade Review called Pereira “an artist of note and one of the country’s leading architects.” The two men planned out the design and look of the entire movie before filming, with Selznick and author Margaret Buell Wilder shaping the story to fit Pereira’s drawings. The architect designed the atmosphere of the film as well as creating structures to serve as factory, stores, and residences.

In 1944, Pereira moved over to RKO to work as an associate producer shepherding films through design, shooting, and editing. Pereira once again crafted an atmospheric production, helping it stand out from typical melodrama. Box Office Daily called the George Raft starrer “Johnny Angel” a credit to Pereira and Film Daily called it “well produced by William L. Pereira for a film of modest proportions.”

Pereira moved on to the Joan Fontaine starrer “From This Day Forward,” with Film Daily calling it an “exemplary production” from Pereira, offering a moving and realistic look at employment for returning veterans. Motion Picture Daily called the film “extraordinary in the timeliness and the breadth of its public appeal.”

Besides working on films, Pereira once again donated his time to assisting the Motion Picture Relief Fund. He worked with others on plans for the rehabilitation of film workers serving in the armed forces, which never came to fruition, but did complete the design of the new hospital for the Motion Picture Home in 1948. On the side, Pereira was signed by Paramount to design a theatre at Wilshire Boulevard and Doheny Drive that could be employed for taping live television, a project the studio soon dropped.

Returning to theater design, Pereira served as architect for the Encino Theatre in 1948 for Jules Seder and Howard Goldenson. Containing an outdoor garden, 400-car garage, and “special lobby features,” the 1,000-seat theatre cost $250,000. Over the next few years, Pereira designed KTTV’s television studios along with other entertainment structures.

Pereira focused on architecture exclusively by 1950, joining in partnership with old college colleague Charles Luckman to form Pereira and Luckman. Though trained in architecture, Luckman had turned to commercial marketing and later served as the president of Lever Brothers, buying large quantities of advertising on CBS Radio.


CBS Television City as it looked in 1952, Sponsor magazine.

Thanks to their connections and talent, the men earned the commission to design CBS Television’s new CBS Television City facility at Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, the first factory designed exclusively for television production. The site was what the November 11, 1952, Variety referred to “Gilmore Island,” the traditional name for a parcel of unincorporated county land annexed by Los Angeles in the 1940s, known for its concentration of Farmers Market, Stadium, Field, Drive-In, and Pan Pacific Auditorium. The 25-acre, $7.5-million CBS Television facility and campus featured moveable walls allowing flexibility, easy taping and production of such TV shows as “My Friend Irma,” “Lux Video Theatre,” Life With Father,” and the “Jack Benny” and “Red Skelton” shows.

In the same issue of Variety, Pereira and Luckman wrote of their trailblazing work, “Our aim was to develop a facility in which the creative elements in television – the actors, musicians, writers and directors – were provided the best environment for working and for projecting their talent; and at the same time design a plant in which entertainment could be mass-produced with enough economy and efficiency to meet the requirements of the management group in reducing operating costs.”

The team of Pereira and Luckman broke up in 1958, but Pereira quickly gained major entertainment related work on his own. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had been discussing the construction of a motion picture museum for several years, and in 1959 they named him counsel and architect for the project. Pereira drew up plans for the large museum and vaults in which to hold film prints donated to the facility, a building offering a foreshadowing of his design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire just a few years later. Financial discrepancies and outrage over the destruction of surrounding houses led to the demise of the project.

While Pereira’s landmark International Style CBS Television City just a few blocks up Fairfax received Historic Cultural Monument status last year from the City of Angeles, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors instead approved the destruction of Pereira’s landmark work for the museum. Celebrate Pereira and other’s historic work while you can as massive, new projects threaten their very existence. Pereira contributed much to the entertainment and cultural fabric of this city, and his thoughtful, elegant, work shouldn’t be forgotten.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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