I went on my first excursion with the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation on Saturday. They were hosting the first public tours of the United Artists Theatre since it was renovated and renamed “the Theatre at Ace Hotel” (in this post, I’ve chosen to just utilize the original name, which I believe is much more appealing). The United Artists Theatre, located on 933 South Broadway, both began construction and opened its doors in 1927, during the height if the theater-building boom. It had been built due to the growth of the United Artists film studio — founded by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith.
We had a short presentation by historian and general contractor for the renovation Ed Kelsey before the tours started. He told us about the quite unconventional history of how many of the initial films featured Mary Pickford, who was taking more adult roles. He told us about how the theatre was renamed several times throughout its history, how the Todd-AO format was implemented to little success, and how the theater acted as a Spanish-language movie house in 1962. He also told us about how the theater closed in 1989 and was then leased by Reverend Gene Scott so that it could be used as a private church. There were “two decades of isolation” as the religious leader did not allow photos or tours and only opened the theater to those who were truly faithful. After he died, his widow put the building on the market. The building eventually became the Ace Hotel and the theatre was restored.
After the presentation, it was announced that there were four separate tours which could be taken in any order: the house (originally backstage, but apparently it was inaccessible), public area, lower area, and upper area. I started off with the house, in which the tour guide started off by noting the elevated orchestra pit. It had an elevator system that could raise or lower that part of the stage as needed. He also pointed out the asbestos curtain (which has been sealed because, you know, cancer et al) that was used in case of fire. The curtain states “The Picture’s The Thing”, a play on the line from Hamlet. There was also the Todd-AO box that had replaced the mezzanine. It was a short tour, but a good introduction, and I set off for the lower area next.
One of the first things I found out on this second tour was that this theater had drinking fountains that ran all day. The particular one that the guide showed us featured a statue of a woman whose breasts appear to have been polished significantly over time. We started in the area designated for the women, which included a powder room that also had this particularly creepy sign (threat?) stating that “Mary and Doug may be watching you…” Great? We walked through to the men’s lounge and then to Mary Pickford’s private screening room, which is apparently where Gene Scott held an original Gutenberg bible and other books during his stay there. The tour guide pointed out that the only way to get to Mary’s private screening room was through the men’s lounge, so draw your own conclusions from that.
The upper area was next and that required quite a bit of stairs to climb. It did lead to a nice view of the public lobby areas and the guide for this tour told us that the ceiling was a fresco and that the United Artists Theatre is the only theater in the west coast with a fresco. Though some of the walls had been repainted with a new bluish color, the original walls were made of plaster and magnesite and had a tannish color that were left in parts of the lobby. We entered the balcony and got a closer view of the ceiling that I was so fascinated with before the presentation started earlier. The dome actually consists of individual pieces that are hanging on strings, letting them move when there is air blowing. There are aluminum sun beams that border the dome, so the pieces in the middle are supposed to look like they are sparkling when they move.
There are two big murals that you can see from the balcony, one on each side wall. The one on the left shows the spirit of creativity being chained by these hideous figures that are supposed to represent the studios and the United Artists are the ones freeing creativity. There are also images of some of the actors associated with UA, including Rudolph Valentino, Norma Talmadge, and Charlie Chaplin. The mural on the right side had some more notable people including Gloria Swanson and, of course, Mary Pickford herself.
The last tour I did was of the public area. We saw the spot where Gene Scott apparently hung a Rembrandt that was stolen and eventually recovered. After going up some stairs once again, we found our way into a hallway where the doors to the mezzanine used to be. The tour guide noted the carvings on the ceiling which actually inspired some of the carpets the designers used during renovation. There was another water fountain that ran all day and a quote left over from the Gene Scott days saying “Forever O Lord thy Word is Settled in Heaven”.
Oh yes, there was also the statue of “our lady of the feral cats”, as it was so described, an…interesting sculpture that was apparently commissioned by the Ace Hotel, though it seemed like the general consensus was that there probably could have been much better alternatives. I think that’s putting it nicely.
The exterior of the building was designed by Walker and Eisen while the interior was designed by C. Howard Crane, all notable architects. Even though the theatre is described as having a Spanish gothic look, as Ed Kelsey noted, it really is an amalgamation of styles, mixing traditional details with modern forms.
There are many other theaters scattered around Los Angeles and exploring this first one makes me want to look into the others as well. I never knew this theater existed prior to buying my ticket online and it’s amazing that something so beautiful can be so hidden from the public eye. I hope that once more public tours of this place open up in the future, people take advantage of them. You could really just walk past the building without realizing what kind of rich history lies inside.