Los Angeles' Broadway Theater and Commercial District in the downtown Historic Core is the oldest historic theater district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Million Dollar Theater, Roxie Theater, Los Angeles Theater, Loew's State Theatre, Globe Theater, Tower Theater, Rialto Theater, Orpheum Theater and United Artists Theaters were mixed movie and vaudeville theaters, dedicated movie palaces and nickelodeons that became movie theaters. With twelve of them within a six-block stretch of Broadway, it is also the only large concentration of picture palaces in the US and the largest historic theater district in the county.
Broadway was originally named Fort Street when it was laid out in 1849. It was renamed Broadway in 1890 and runs from Lincoln Heights through Chinatown, the Civic Center, (Old) South Park, South Central, (New) South Park, Florence, Broadway-Manchester, Willowbrook, West Compton, to Carson where it ends. The twelve theaters were built between 1910 and 1931 with a combined filmgoing capacity of 15,000. At that time it was the entertainment hub of Los Angeles. After World War II, it began to decline as first-run moviegoers began to favor theaters in Hollywood and Westwood, and later, the suburbs.
Broadway's theaters were saved by Latinos who rescued and revitalized the area with Spanish-language films and variety shows. In the 1950s, the Million Dollar Theatre hosted some of the biggest names in the Spanish-speaking world. After the Vietnam War, however, the area became infamous for drug dealing and prostitution.
In later years, most of the theaters converted to grindhouses where for a small entrance fee, large numbers of homeless could sleep until the early hours of the morning. With the closure of the Loew's State Theater in 1998, the Orpheum and the Palace were the only two still screening films. Eventually most of the theaters were converted to churches and flea markets which were shuttered at sundown. Downtown LA was largely abandoned in the evening hours as the homeless population increased and the area was viewed, quite rightly, as rather scary at night.
Broadway is absolutely bustling during the day with masses of people converging to buy cheap clothes, electronics, phone cards and food. However, the ground floor vacancy rate still hovers around 20% and the more than one million square feet of space on the upper floors is barely used at all, save for underground art happenings, squatters, urban explorers and the occasional clandestine police activity.
Nowadays there are large-scale efforts to revive this beautiful and historical neighborhood that's long carried on in a shabby shadow of its former glory. Every Saturday the Los Angeles Conservancy offers three hour walking tours of the historic district with varying degrees of access.
Bringing Back Broadway is a public-private partnership whose aims are, according the their website, thus:
- Revitalize the historic Broadway district between 2nd Street and Olympic Boulevard
- Reactivate inactive theaters
- Reactivate more than a million square feet of vacant commercial space
- Assist retailers and prevent further retail vacancies
- Implement infrastructure improvements
- Increase parking and transit options to serve Broadway
- Encourage cultural, entertainment and retail uses on Broadway that will sustain generations
- Create a sense of place and history through urban planning, historic preservation, urban design, lighting design and streetscapes
- And make the dream of once again riding a streetcar downtown a reality
As part of this program, the three oldest remaining historic theatres (The Arcade, The Cameo, and The Palace) in the district are being honored series of special centennial events under the banner Broadway 100. The three oldest theaters are:
The 1400 seat Arcade was built in 1910.The Beaux-Arts style vaudeville theater was designed by Octavius Morgan and John A. Walls of Morgan, Walls & Morgan. It was the first Pantages theater in LA. It became a grindhouse before closing in the late 1980s. Since then the lobby has been used as an electronics store and the auditorium has been used for storage.
The 775 seat Cameo theater opened as Clune's Broadway Theatre on November 10, 1910. The nickelodeon was designed by A. Godfrey Bailey and Alfred F. Rosenheim in the Renaissance Revival style. It too operated in later years as a grindhouse until its doors closed on December 3rd, 1991. The lobby is used as a swap meet and the auditorium is used for storage.
Several theaters have operated as The Palace in Los Angeles. This one was a 2,200 seat building built in 1910 and opened in 1911, first as an Orpheum vaudeville theater. The Renaissance style building was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh and features muses sculpted by Domingo Mora. Its life as a theater was short. In 1920 it was remodeled into retail space for the Vogue Millinery Company and the Model Cloak and Suit House.
So far, of the three oldest, only the Palace is hosting an event. However, other events, tours and productions will be announced as they are confirmed throughout the year.
March 26, 2011: Theatrefication, the world-premiere of an avant-garde celebration of art, music and theatre, featuring two musical theatre productions by Helene Federici and David J at the historic Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway.
April 2, 2011 - April 3, 2011: Broadway 100 will welcome REDCAT’s Broadway debut at the Million Dollar Theatre with the U.S. premiere of Tempest - Without a Body by renowned New Zealand director and choreographer Lemi Ponifasio.
June 16, 2011: A History of L.A.’s Iconic Street, a free event at the Los Angeles Theatre which will provide an historical and visual retrospective of the history of Broadway as the birthplace of entertainment in Los Angeles and the former commercial capital of the west.
June 26, 2011: Los Angeles Conservancy’s 25th annual Last Remaining Seats series will offer two screenings of the classic film Sunset Boulevard with a special celebration to commemorate the Palace Theatre’s 100-year birthday happening that very day.
June 30, 2011: A two-weekend run (Thursday through Sunday each week) for the Lucent Dossier Experience at the Palace Theatre in celebration of the theatre’s 100th birthday.