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United Artists Theatre, opened in 1926

Downtown Los Angeles has seen a lot of change and transformation within this past century—and quite a bit even just in the past few years. The street was home to the first and largest theater and cinema district in the country, including twelve that still exist today. Once considered the main commercial district and center of the city, the area largely fell into disrepair during the ’70s and ’80s—some movie palace sites now live on only as parking lots. But seven years ago, local Councilman José Huizar established the Bringing Back Broadway initiative, which now includes a free annual event to encourage more visitors to check out the area. This year’s Night on Broadway took place this past weekend, and was a wonderful experience for any fan of classic movie theaters.

The official confines of the event cover about six blocks of Broadway, including three blocks that are completely closed to traffic, and instead filled with food trucks, classic cars, artists doing live paintings, kids’ activities, and lots and lots of pedestrians. An official festival stage at one end of the area also hosts a variety of acts—when I passed by, the Mariachi Academy of Carson was performing, but depending on the time of night you happened to arrive you could have seen dance flash mobs, ukulele strummers, or burlesque dancers. All acts were chosen by the Bringing Back Broadway committee, and there seemed to be a good commitment to showcasing the diversity of talents that the city has to offer.

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Inside the Orpheum Theatre, opened in 1926

Each theater also had events going on inside, often related to the historical nature of the venue. The Palace, for instance, was a renowned vaudeville house, so the entertainment there was mostly musicians, dancers, and other live acts. The United Artists Theatre (now officially known as the Theatre at Ace Hotel) threw back to its silent movie legacy and hosted a screening of Metropolis to a fairly packed crowd. And while I can’t say with certainty that the Tower Theater, which opened in 1927, had ever before hosted “chessboxing” matches (in which opponents alternate rounds of chess with rounds of boxing), it certainly seemed well-equipped for it now.

The crowd was a diverse mix of artsy folks, families, hipsters, and downtown residents (and sometimes a combination of all four!), co-mingling in the streets and in the elegant mezzanines and basement lobbies of the theaters. There seemed to be a fair split between people who were there specifically to attend the performances, and those people (such as myself) who were more interested in wandering from theater to theater, sneaking around hallways and admiring the ornate detailing. For the most part the mixture worked, though I did feel bad for those people who had come to watch Metropolis in its entirety (especially those seated near the doors), as looky-loos were continually wandering in and out trying to get a look at the theater interior. This was the only theater that didn’t have breaks in the performances every 20-30 minutes, so I’d love to visit another time and get a better look at it in the light.

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The Palace, opened in 1911

Volunteers from the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation were manning tables at each location, ready for questions and promoting their group’s cause. It was interesting to see the difference in preservation between each theater; the Palace, Orpheum, Los Angeles, and United Artists, for instance, are all still used regularly for theatrical, film, and music events and have been, for the most part, lovingly restored. The former Rialto is now an Urban Outfitters store, though they have left the marquee standing and were projecting film on the back wall as a sort of homage to the former space. The Tower has gone through a number of roles in the recent past (it closed as a film theater in 1987), including night club, rock concert venue, movie filming location, and Evangelical church. The Globe has also not seen a lot of use lately, but that’s in part due to its ongoing restoration. Our entry here was deemed a “sneak peek” in advance of its grand re-opening sometime soon. The LAHTF volunteers also made sure to mention their Osca— er, that is, their “Hollywood’s Biggest Night” event being held at the Million Dollar Theatre on February 22.

Artwork by Vyal Reyes (left) and Kaleb Higgens (right)
Artwork by local artists Vyal Reyes (left) and Kaleb Higgins (right)

If you’ve gone on the TCM bus tour, you’re familiar with a bit of the history surrounding this street, beyond the theaters. The Eastern Columbia building, the Bradbury building, and the historic Clifton’s Cafeteria are all located on this stretch of Broadway, though they weren’t open to the public for the event. Currently undergoing a massive restoration, Clifton’s did turn on their neon sign for the occasion however, and more food was available from Grand Central Market, which has a similar historical pedigree.

It was a truly special treat to be able to explore all of these theaters in a single evening, and with such a receptive crowd. I’ve visited the Los Angeles Theatre before, but it was great to be able tick off a few more from my list. I’m looking forward to spending some more time on Broadway, and being able to visit each of the theaters in more depth as time goes on.

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