Bringing back the United Artists Theatre

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Downtown Los Angeles has seen a revival of historic theaters, but there’s one theater that stands out for its opulence and, now, its diversity of programming.

When I was asked to do a story about the history of the United Artists Theatre on Broadway in downtown L.A. I assumed the piece would be short and simple. But the more I learned about the magnificently over-the top theater, with its movie star murals, ornate organ grilles, and encrusted stalactites dripping from the ceiling, the more intriguing that history became.

From its construction as a flagship for the fledgling film studio founded by silent film stars including Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, to its days as home to eccentric preacher Dr. Gene Scott, who was immortalized in Werner Herzog’s documentary God’s Angry Man, to its current incarnation as the Theatre at Ace Hotel, the building has been an evolving reflection of cultural trends, L.A.’s downtown district, and the ambitions of some larger-than-life characters.

United Artists founders Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The story begins in the 1920s as the era of silent movies was winding to a close. “In 1925, eighty million people a week went to the movies,” reports Cari Beauchamp, resident historian of the Mary Pickford Foundation. “That’s almost once a week for every person in the country.” Hillsman Wright, co-founder of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, points out that part of what people were paying for were the ornate movie palaces themselves. Lavishly decorated to evoke then-exotic lands like Egypt and China, the theaters offered patrons royal treatment that included uniformed doormen and ushers, and live shows that preceded the movie. “You’d have dancing,” says Beauchamp, “and you could have an M.C., maybe some comedians, and you’d have a great orchestra too.”

“They would traditionally play an overture and some music,” adds Wright, “and there would be a live show, a cartoon, a newsreel and then the movie itself.”

Many theaters were built and owned by the studios themselves. The big players at that time were Warner Bros, Paramount, RKO, MGM and Fox. The smaller players included United Artists, which was founded in 1919 by actors Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith. Chaplin is the best remembered of that group, but in those early days Pickford was an even bigger star. Beloved as “the girl with the curls,” she started acting in silent films as a teenager and gained fame playing spitfires who invariably triumphed over adversity. In 1920, she married Fairbanks, a major star in his own right and the first screen swashbuckler Zorro, and thus was born the movies’ original power couple.

Creating United Artists “was really an attempt for the artists themselves to have complete control, from the beginning to end,” says Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation head Escott Norton. The four founders brought in additional partners, including producer Joe Schenck and actors Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson, and by 1926 they were turning out enough movies for the company to flourish. It was a fragile success, however, as the premier theaters across the country were owned by rival studios that refused to book U.A. films. It was then that the partners decided to build their own chain of theaters – with its flagship location in L.A.

In Los Angeles, in the 1920s, there was only one place to put your movie palace. “It had to be on Broadway,” says Norton. “All of your shopping, your theaters, your business — everything was in downtown Los Angeles and Broadway was the entertainment capitol.” Annie Laskey, program manager at the Los Angeles Conservancy says that theaters were going up all over the district, including the State (1921), the Orpheum (1926) and the Tower (1927). United Artists picked a location on Broadway south of 9th Street, and hired architect C. Howard Crane to create the theater and the firm of Walker & Eisen to design the 13-story office building that would rise above it.

In May of 1927, five thousand people came to the site to watch Mary Pickford press the lever on the steam-shovel that broke ground for the new building. While other theaters on the street resembled opera houses or the inside of a Spanish galleon, the United Artists would be a European castle — or more accurately, a Hollywood version of a European castle. Escott Norton notes that the frescoes in the lobby have “a medieval English with knights and Robin Hood” theme, while the theater itself is decorated in a Spanish Gothic style.

For the interior of the theater, the partners took a “more is more” approach that includes two large murals painted by the A.B. Heinsbergen Decorating Company. Enlightenment depicts Mary Pickford sitting primly in a shaft of golden light, surrounded by her U.A. colleagues D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Gloria Swanson. Many other stars are there, too — most of them shown in costume from one of their films. Swanson reportedly objected to her first husband, Wallace Beery, appearing behind her in the mural, so he was transformed into an anonymous crusader, while legend has it that the naked horsemen and golden-haired nude flying above them represent the U.A. board of directors. The second mural, modestly titled The Motion Picture Industry Encircling the Globe, also shows United Artists actors in costume, with a posse of hideous demons massed overhead said to represent the heads of rival film studios.

Mary Pickford’s first talkie, Coquette premiered at the UA in 1929. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The opening of the theater on December 26, 1927 was a spectacle. “The United Artists Theatre flung open its portals for the first time Monday night,” gushed the Los Angeles Times. “The occasion was one of super-brilliance, with virtually all of the first magnitude stars of filmdom present.” The opening night presentation was Pickford’s newest film, My Best Girl, and the reviews for the movie were good. The reviews for the theater were ecstatic. Motion Picture News called it “the final word in theater construction,” while the Times said it was “a rhapsody in gold.” Unfortunately that flashy opening would be the high water mark for U.A., Pickford, and Fairbanks. Silent films, their careers, and their marriage were in decline. Pickford made her last film in 1933 and the couple divorced in 1936, setting another precedent for Hollywood power couples.

Surprisingly soon after its spectacular debut, the theater entered a long period of instability, opening and closing repeatedly during the Depression before experiencing a resurgence when America went to war in the early 1940s. “This was the biggest time for the Broadway theaters in their entire history,” says Ed Kelsey. “So many people were working long hours and downtown was where everybody changed streetcars and buses. Most of the theaters were open up to 20 hours a day.”

The U.A.’s fortunes changed again when the war ended and returning soldiers started families that stayed home watching television in the suburbs. Downtown audiences declined dramatically, and the U.A. closed its doors until 1955, when producer Mike Todd made it one of two L.A. theaters screening Oklahoma in Todd-AO, a widescreen process that used 70mm film turned on its side. The proscenium on both sides of the U.A. stage was torn out to install a huge curved screen, and the lower balcony was removed to accommodate a new projection booth.

Gene Scott renamed the theater “The Los Angeles University Cathedral,” but kept the original United Artists marquee. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Oklahoma kept the U.A. buzzing for almost a year, but after that the theater sat empty once again. The city demolished the nearby Bunker Hill neighborhood to develop a new downtown center, and many old buildings on Broadway emptied out. Texaco, which had occupied the office building over the theater for decades, moved out in the 1960s, giving way to a series of small garment trade businesses. Struggling owners of the showcase theaters responded to the changing demographics of the area by programming Spanish-language films, and filled their lobbies with video arcade machines.

The U.A. Theatre went this route until 1989, when preacher Gene Scott took over the property. Scott rechristened the building the Los Angeles University Cathedral and began broadcasting unconventional church services that included whiteboard diagrams of the ancient Greek meanings of Biblical terms, singing groups, footage of his team of show horses, and emphatic demands for donations. Whatever one makes of Dr. Scott’s theology, he was a good steward of the theater: he recovered two massive JESUS SAVES signs from a nearby building that was being demolished and mounted them on the roof of the U.A. He displayed his huge collection of rare bibles in the lobby of the theater, and put his congregation to work cleaning up the building. Scott was at the helm of the U.A. until his death in 2005 when his widow put both the theater and office building on the market.

She was determined to find a buyer who loved the buildings as much as Dr. Scott had. “There were some very, very rich offers thrown at her by buyers who would have torn the theater down as a construction staging site and eventually would turn it into a garage when the office building was converted into condos,” says Hillsman Wright. But all offers were rejected until Ace Hotel entered the picture. Ace had hotel locations in New York, Seattle, Portland and other cities, and ran some small performing venues, but the company had never attempted anything on the scale of the 1600-seat United Artists. But Mary Pickford’s movie palace worked its worked its magic on the company partners, as it had with so many others. “It was one of those things that you look at and you’re like, this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy, let’s do it, and you jump,” says partner Kelly Sawdon. “I would say that the theater sold us pretty immediately. Right out of the gate we were like, we just need to figure this out.”

There were some challenges, mostly in finding financing, but the Ace recruited partners and set about transforming the office building into a hotel, and breathing life back into the theater. “It still had the original 1927 air conditioning system, the original electric system, and the original plumbing,” says Ed Kelsey, who worked on the renovation. “None of that had ever been improved.”

The renamed Theatre at the Ace Hotel – now equipped with new electrical, sound and lighting systems, and state-of-the-art digital projection — opened in early 2014 and was immediately successful with a range of programming that includes concerts, lectures, movie screenings and art events. Almost 90 years after Mary Pickford’s My Best Girl premiered there, the theater is part of a larger effort by businesses, property owners and elected officials to revitalize Broadway and prove that an abandoned district – and an architectural showpiece long out of fashion — can come back stronger than ever. “Never say never,” says Ed Kelsey. “It’s been a history of up, down, change, and adapt. You’ve got to keep reinventing yourself and your theater.”

Photo by Wendell Benedetti/Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation
Photo by Wendell Benedetti/Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Special thanks to Dea Lawrence for reading the Los Angeles Times account of the 1927 grand opening, and to Eric Drachman for audio editing assistance.