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“Broadway,”specifically referring to New York City’s Manhattan theatre district, has long been practically synonymous with American theatre. Downtown Los Angeles also has a Broadway, a major north-south thoroughfare. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Los Angeles Broadway had the country’s largest concentration of entertainment venues— vaudeville theatres that became cinemas. It was also a major shopping and commercial district, with a diverse collection of department stores and office buildings between the movie palaces. And the intersection of Broadway and 7th Street was the official western end of Route 66, the fabled “Mother Road” traveled by so many seekers of fame and fortune in California.
After World War II, Broadway’s movie palaces and commercial buildings became the victims of the decentralization of cinemas to suburban multiplexes, along with the general decline of Downtown Los Angeles. Flea markets and merchants selling clothes, electronics, and tchotchkes to Hispanic shoppers took over the ground floors of historic buildings. The upper floors remained vacant; and wind, rain, and smog were allowed to erode ornately-decorated facades.
As Downtown enjoys a renaissance, public and private programs are underway to revitalize the “Historic Broadway Theatre District.” It’s now a street in transition: The Hispanic emporia still bustle on the ground floors, even as some buildings are renovated under a shroud of scaffolding. (The owners of those decidedly “low-end” businesses and their customers are understandably concerned about being swept away in a rising tide of gentrification.) Some buildings are newly restored as hotels, stores, and residences, while others remain in decaying condition. But that variety makes Broadway a fascinating place to explore and to photograph. I suspect it may be less so after the promoters of the various restoration projects realize their apparent vision of a decorous upscale historically-inspired theme park.
Here are 11 historic places you’ll see if you stroll south on Broadway from 5th
Street— near the Pershing Square subway station, probably the most convenient
access to the area— to Olympic Boulevard. (The district also extends north on
Broadway to 3rd Street, where you’ll find the Grand Central Market food court and
the Bradbury Building.)
Built in 1924, the Arcade Building at 540 South Broadway is actually two 12-story towers, joined by an indoor pedestrian arcade that spans the full block between Broadway and Spring Street and gives the building its name. The arcade actually dates back to 1904, when a very popular outdoor mall called Mercantile Place first opened. The mall was built on land leased from the Board of Education, originally the site of the first public school in Los Angeles.
In 1919 the Board of Education decided to take advantage of a Downtown real estate boom, and sold the land for $1.16 million. The new owner promptly flipped it (at a $1 million profit) to a group of San Francisco investors. Seeking to upgrade the old outdoor mall, they held a design competition for a new, classier Mercantile Place. The winners were San Francisco architects Kenneth MacDonald and Maurice Couchot. Along with the two towers, their design included a three-story indoor Mercantile Place with a glass skylight, modeled after the latest European shopping arcades. (MacDonald had studied in Paris; Couchot was French.)
The towers themselves are in the rather plain brick Beaux-Arts style popular in the early 1920s. But the bottom floors and the semicircular “lunette” above the arcade entrance are trimmed with filigreed terra-cotta decoration in the Spanish Renaissance style. A radio station moved into the Arcade Building in 1932. Its owners chose the appropriate call letters KRKD. The station moved out decades ago, but the towers that once supported its antenna wires remain emblazoned with the old call letters (which as of 2015 are assigned to a community FM station in Texas).
Joseph Hellen, an Australian shopping-mall magnate who also owns eight other historic Downtown buildings, bought the decaying Arcade Building in 2012. He transformed the abandoned towers into loft apartments under the City’s “adaptive reuse” scheme. Rather than demolishing the rusting radio towers, he refurbished and updated them to meet current aviation safety standards so they could serve as a highly visible advertisement for the building. Hellen also evicted the Hispanic merchants whose shops occupied the ground floor and the arcade, before restoring the arcade into a space for upscale eateries.
The Arcade Building’s windows reflect the Richman Brothers Building, across the street at 537 South Broadway. An Art Deco building from 1930, it was the Downtown branch of Richman Brothers, a nationwide chain of men’s clothing stores based in Cleveland, Ohio. The F.W. Woolworth Company (known for its “five and dime” stores) bought Richman Brothers in 1969, and continued to operate 260 of the clothing stores until Woolworth shut them down in a 1992 reorganization. Woolworth itself went out of business in 1997. The building has recently been renovated.
North of the Arcade Building at 518 South Broadway, the 1932 Roxie Theatre was the last movie palace built on Broadway, and the only one in the Art Deco style. Joseph Hellen bought it in 1992, intending to demolish it along with two adjacent buildings and replace them with upscale shopping. Protests from private preservationists and the intervention of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency quashed Hellen’s plans. The Roxie remains in decrepit condition (with Hispanic clothing vendors on the ground floor), awaiting a more acceptable redevelopment option.
The Metropolitan Theatre Annex at 553 South Broadway is all that remains of what was one of the largest cinemas in Los Angeles. The Metropolitan Theatre was built in 1923 by Sid Grauman, best known for his Chinese and Egyptian Theatres on Hollywood Boulevard. The Annex was an earlier office building, appropriated to provide a Broadway entrance to the theatre at 6th and Hill Streets via a bridge across an alley. Renamed the Paramount in 1929, the Metropolitan Theatre was demolished in 1961. The Annex avoided demolition because Paramount-Publix, to which Grauman sold the theatre in 1924, converted it back into an office building in 1929.
The Los Angeles Theatre at 615 South Broadway has the fanciest facade of the Broadway theatres, and is even more opulent inside. Built in 1930 at the then-astronomical cost of $1.5 million, it represented the “last hurrah” of movie palace construction before the Depression. (The Roxie Theatre opened after the Los Angeles, but its design is much more austere.) It opened in January 1931, with the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.
The exterior is a French Renaissance fantasy, the work of architect S. Charles Lee, who designed some 300 theatres and cinemas. When the theatre’s construction got seriously behind schedule— Charlie Chaplin had to put his own money into the project to ensure that it and City Lights could open on time— Lee had the facade built off-site in sections as the rest of the theatre was completed. Workers then assembled the sections onto the building like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
The interior invokes the Versailles palace of Louis XIV. The original stage curtain depicted events in the Sun King’s life, in silk and gold thread. Along with state-of-the art projection and sound systems and a large screen, the theatre’s innovations included periscopes that projected an image of the screen for patrons of the downstairs lounge, and two “crying rooms” where parents with noisy children could watch films through soundproof glass.
The Los Angeles Theatre remained in use as a first-run cinema until 1994. Then it closed to the public, and served as a set for feature films and television. After renovation, the theatre’s stage is now a live performance venue. Its various other facilities are available for special event rental.
The Palace Theatre at 630 South Broadway opened in 1911 as the Orpheum. It was the Los Angeles venue for touring vaudeville acts that played the “Orpheum Circuit,” a chain of affiliated theatres around the country. The faded painted logo of the “Orpheum Circuit of Theatres” is still visible on the north-facing wall next to the PALACE sign. (Yes, this is the Orpheum Circuit that Mama Rose dreamed about in the musical Gypsy.)
Orpheum management sold this theatre in 1926, and built a bigger, more opulent Orpheum further south on Broadway. The new owners renamed it the Broadway Palace. The Palace became a movie theatre in 1939, showing newsreels and the occasional feature film. Like Broadway’s other fading movie houses, the Palace spent its final years as a Spanish-language cinema before shutting down in the 1990s. It underwent an extensive restoration for its 100th anniversary in 2011.
The exterior design is a fantasy of a Renaissance Florentine palazzo. It’s
brightly painted with colorful designs, including four panels depicting the “muses
of vaudeville,” Song, Dance, Music, and Drama.
Clifford Clinton opened the first of eight Clifton’s Cafeterias in 1931. (“Clifton” is a portmanteau version of his name.) A devout Christian, Clinton was particularly influenced by a missionary trip to China in his youth that gave him direct experience with the realities of poverty. The “Cafeteria of the Golden Rule” had a sign advising customers to “Pay What You Wish,” and Clinton expected to average half a cent profit per customer. Many impecunious Depression-era patrons (including science fiction writer Ray Bradbury) greatly appreciated that business plan, even if Clinton’s bankers might have found it less than appetizing.
Clinton opened Clifton’s Brookdale at 648 South Broadway in 1935. It was the second “Golden Rule” cafeteria, and the only one that still exists. Clinton had spent time in Brookdale, a small rural town in the Santa Cruz Mountains along California’s Central Coast. He decorated the new Clifton’s to invoke the scenery he enjoyed in Brookdale, including a three-story redwood tree sculpture in the middle of the building, a waterfall, niches with stuffed game animals, and chairs made of animal horns.
The other seven Clifton’s Cafeterias gradually shut down during the 1990s and
early 2000s, but the Clinton family continued to operate the Brookdale until they
sold it to nightclub owner Andrew Meieran in 2010. Meieran closed the cafeteria in
2011 for an extensive renovation that restored its original 1930s appearance. After
Clifton’s reopened in October 2015, Meieran retained the meat-and-potatoes American
cafeteria menu that had evolved over the years, including Jello salads and the
traditional cakes and pies. But he augmented the “retro” dishes with modern vegan
On the southwest corner of Broadway and 7th Street stands an unmistakable square 12-story red brick building trimmed with terra-cotta, claimed to be the largest brick-facade structure in Southern California. (Many historic Downtown buildings are 12 stories high because of a 1911 ordinance that limited building heights to 46 meters. 12 stories— or sometimes 13— was the maximum that limit could accommodate. Los Angeles residents voted overwhelmingly to repeal the ordinance in a 1956 referendum.)
The ground floor of this building is the State Theatre, which opened in 1921. Its location made it the most profitable of Broadway’s theatres well into the 1960s. Two of Downtown’s most heavily trafficked shopping streets intersected at Broadway and 7th Street. It was a major stop on the Pacific Electric Railroad, which provided mass transit throughout Southern California through the 1950s. The intersection was also the western end of Route 66.
Despite its successful history, the State Theatre could not avoid Downtown’s
changing demographics and Broadway’s decline. It became a Spanish-language cinema
before falling into decay and shutting its doors. Today it’s owned by the Broadway
Theatre Group, which also owns the Los Angeles, Palace, and Tower Theatres. They’ve
leased it to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Pentecostal sect based in
Brazil, as a Hispanic mega-church called Catedral de la Fe (“Cathedral of Faith”).
The Tower Theatre at 802 South Broadway (the southeast corner of Broadway and 8th Streets) opened in 1927. As the first cinema in Los Angeles specifically built for sound films, it hosted the Los Angeles premiere of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, the first full-length “talkie.” The architect S. Charles Lee designed it as sort of a trial run for the larger and more ornate Los Angeles Theatre. Like the Los Angeles it’s a Renaissance-inspired fantasy, but the exterior design is Spanish and Moorish rather than French. The eponymous terra-cotta clock tower seems to have been intended to make the theatre— built on a lot only 15 meters across— look wider than it is.
The Tower was renamed the Newsreel during the 1940s and 1950s, when it
exclusively showed newsreels. When television made newsreels obsolete, it went back
to feature films and its original name. After shutting down for good in 1988, the
Tower’s seats were removed for a planned conversion to a space for Hispanic swap
meets. That conversion never happened, but the auditorium was used as a setting for
films and television shows before it was briefly leased to a church. The Tower is
currently unoccupied, awaiting renovations that would allow its use as a venue for
shows, concerts, and private events.
The Ninth and Broadway Building at 850 South Broadway— not surprisingly, it’s on the northeast corner of the Broadway and 9th Street intersection— is a 1930 Art Deco design by Claud Beelman. Beelman is best known for the famous turquoise Eastern Columbia Building, directly across Broadway.
The Ninth and Broadway Building has the recessed windows and vertical columns
typical of the Art Deco style. But it’s notable for distinctive exterior decoration
that includes a two-story terra-cotta filigree in the form of stylized grapevines,
in a recess above the entrance and along the second story. The building currently
leases “design studio and creative office space.”
United Artists was a movie studio formed in 1919 by four luminaries of the silent film era: director D. W. Griffith and stars Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. They felt the emerging Hollywood studio system was exploiting them, and sought to take control of their own work and the resulting profits. That control eventually included building a “circuit” of theatres around the country to show their films.
The United Artists Theatre at 933 South Broadway opened in 1927, as United Artists’ main Los Angeles movie house. Its architectural style is unlike any other Broadway theatre, with medieval Gothic styling inspired by the cathedral in Segovia, Spain. That was Mary Pickford’s idea, as she had become infatuated with Gothic castles and cathedrals during a European tour. The theatre is also topped with a distinctive “crown.” Architects could get around the height limit ordinance by putting an unoccupied, purely decorative tower above the top floor. The building is just short of 74 meters high. Because the Texaco oil company leased office space above the theatre through 1958, the building was also called the Texaco Building.
The United Artists Theatre ended its days as a movie palace in 1989. In 1990 it became the Los Angeles University Cathedral, the headquarters of the televangelist Dr. w. euGene Scott (as he spelled his name). During his two-hour services in the theatre’s auditorium, the white-bearded, cigar-chomping Dr. Scott would enthrall his live and televised congregation with a continuous rambling monologue laced with Hebrew, Greek, and occasionally obscene English. The sermons were frequently interrupted with his commands to “get on the telephone,” exhortations that reportedly yielded tithes of a million dollars a month from the Faithful around the world. The “offerings” funded the refurbishment of the theatre building and auditorium, and Scott’s purchase of the building in 2002— along with his Pasadena mansion, private jet, thoroughbred horse ranch, and collections of stamps, cars, art, and historic Bibles and manuscripts.
Scott died in 2005. The Los Angeles University Cathedral continued to operate until 2010, when the church sold the building and moved to Glendale. The restored United Artists Theatre building reopened in 2014 as the Ace Hotel. The refurbished auditorium, now called the Theatre at Ace Hotel, is a venue for concerts. The hotel and theatre, along with the luxury condominiums in the nearby Eastern Columbia Building, seem to be accelerating the gentrification of the southern end of the Broadway Theatre District.