Million Dollar Theater (Los Angeles)

Historical Background

1918, Joseph Mora. 307 S. Broadway
The Million Dollar Theater stands at the southwest corner of Fourth and Broadway as a living monument to the economic and social changes that have occurred in downtown since 1918. A marquee, extending out from the building over the sidewalk, announces that the ground floor was designed as a movie theater. Rising above the theater are twelve stories of what originally were office suites. When viewing the building from the west, you can see "Metropolitan Water District" painted in a soft brown band just below the roof line. This sign proclaims not what is here, but memorializes what was here. Instead of offices of the Metropolitan Water District, the visitor will now find apartments, and instead of a movie theater, the visitor will find an auditorium that was previously used as a church.

Homer Laughlin formed the Stability Company to construct the complex, and invited Sid Grauman to develop and operate the theater. The theater was initially called the "Grauman's Theater"(1) but it opened as the Million Dollar Theater with the premiere of "The Silent Man" on February 1, 1918. The new name epitomized the glamour and romance of Hollywood and the extravagant ostentatious wealth that had already become associated with the movie industry. A year after opening the theater, Grauman introduced "prologues" to the bill, which were live stage presentations "designed to enhance the film that would follow."(2) These nationally acclaimed productions continued until sound movies came in during the late 1920s. Grauman later acquired other theaters on Broadway before opening his two best known theaters, the Egyptian and Chinese, in Hollywood. Grauman began a tradition at the landmark Chinese Theater and left a world-famous attraction by preserving for posterity the footprints and handprints of Hollywood's greatest stars in cement.

By the 1960s, the Million Dollar Theater reflected the changing ethnic composition of Broadway shoppers by including Spanish language movies and showcasing live Mexican performers in the program. This period of the theater's rich history is preserved in the sidewalk, where plaques identifying Mexican entertainers who performed during the 1960s through the 1980s are embedded. Large movie theaters have always been expensive to operate and the Million Dollar was no exception. After struggling to keep the theater open, the owner, Bruce Crown, finally closed it in the 1990s. The auditorium was used by the Universal Church until 1998.(3)

The office building's history is separate from the theater. Originally, it housed offices of the Edison Company and the municipal water department (the predecessor of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power) and its head, William Mulholland, whose office was located on the top floor. With the departure of banks and law firms from Broadway and Spring Street, the suites in the office tower were abandoned, except for an occasional use as a setting for a movie. In the 1990s, as part of the redevelopment of the entire building, the vacant offices were converted into apartments. Though movies came to Broadway in 1910 when Clune's Broadway (528 S. Broadway) opened as a nickelodeon, it was the opening of the Pantages and the Orpheum (later renamed the Palace) as the region's premiere vaudeville houses, that anchored the city's theater district on the street. Vaudeville matinees and family oriented programs appealed to women who arrived by trolley to shop in the large department stores and specialty clothing shops that lined Broadway from Fourth to Eighth.(4) The Million Dollar Theater, as the first movie palace in Los Angeles, symbolized the respectability movies had acquired in the middle class.(5) Beginning in New York with the Roxy in 1915, movie palaces were richly decorated theaters that quickly became an important part of the movie going experience as seeing the movie itself. When the nation-wide construction boom of movie palaces ended with the Great Depression and changing consumer tastes, Broadway had the largest concentration of movie palaces in the world. The two buildings making up the Million Dollar Theater--the 2345 seat theater designed by William L. Woollett and the twelve story tower designed by Albert C. Martin--are wrapped in a lush Churriqeuresque facade expressing faith, hope and fantasy. Integrated into this architecture is a band of eight statues framed by niches in the third story. These statues (six facing Broadway and two overlooking Third Street) capture the sensuality and exoticism associated with the film industry. Dancers, writers, actors, musicians, technicians and artists are portrayed in Egyptian, South Sea, Renaissance and medieval costumes as symbols of the talents, technology and specialization that had evolved by 1917 in the movie industry. A Wild West theme, perhaps expressing the interest in the region by the artist Joseph Mora is represented by additional architectural sculpture along Third Street. Skulls of long horn cattle, bison heads, six shooters, playing cards, and two ladies sensually draping their legs over a ledge, one stroking a guitar and the other strumming a lyre, can be seen on the ornate Churrigueresque border fabricated by Gladding, McBean around the Third Street entrance.(6)

Footnotes:

1 "Hollywood's Master Showman: The Legendary Sid Grauman," by Charles Beardsley, Cornwall Books, New York, c. 1983, pp. 35-36.

2 Beardsley, op. cit., pp. 42, 46-48, 56, "Working Class Hollywood," by Steven J. Ross, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, c. 1998, p. 187; "The Show Starts on the Sidewalk," by Maggie Valentine, Yale University Press, c. 1994, p. 36.

3 "State of Darkness," by Jon Regardie, Downtown News, Vol. 27:44, November 2, 1998, p. 1.

4 See "City Center to Regional Mall," by Richard Longstreth, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, c. 1997, pp. 24-44 for history of Broadway as a shopping mecca.

5 See "Working Class Hollywood," pp. 11-33 for social background of transition from nickelodeon theaters to movie palaces.

6 See plate on p. 45, "Architectural Terra Cotta of Gladding, McBean," by Gary F. Kurutz, Windgate Press, Sausalito, c. 1989, for depiction of section containing long-horn cattle at Gladding, McBean.



The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, March 1999.

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