LA eyes theatrical revival on Broadway

LOS ANGELES – Along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, the Tower Theater helped usher in the era of ”talking pictures” in 1927, and the Los Angeles Theatre hosted the 1931 premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s classic film ”City Lights.” Albert Einstein accompanied the star to the gala, while Great Depression victims stood in line for bread across the street.

But unlike the Broadway of New York City, where – when stagehands aren’t on strike – throngs arrive in tour buses to see ”Mamma Mia” or ”A Chorus Line,” the 12 theaters in L.A.’s version of the Great White Way have long been neglected and sit mostly unused.

The baroque and gothic venues, built between 1910 and 1931 for vaudeville acts and movies, line a six-block stretch that today is a melange of retail marts, check-cashing outlets and bridal shops. Two theaters serve as churches, and another has become a flea market. This street teems with activity by day but largely empties at dusk.

For the first time in decades, though, there is hope that the city’s faded theater district can be revived – as a broader renaissance of downtown Los Angeles takes hold.

After previous failed attempts to restore Broadway’s nightlife, a new initiative by developers, preservationists and policy makers is gaining impetus because of two multibillion-dollar projects at both ends of the business district: the L.A. Live sports and entertainment complex in the south and the Grand Ave. residential, hotel and shopping plan in the north. Broadway is envisioned as a thriving theater corridor, with bistros, bars and new stores, linking the two megadevelopments.

”The timing is finally right for revitalizing Broadway,” says Michael Delijani, who owns the Tower, Los Angeles, State and Palace theaters. The nearly 2,000-seat Orpheum Theatre has been renovated, and the Million Dollar Theater – built in 1918 by impresario Sid Grauman, whose later Hollywood cinemas accelerated Broadway’s decline – is due to reopen in the coming months after a makeover.

Los Angeles city council member Jose Huizar has been shuttling between the theater owners and the city’s planning department to build consensus for a revival plan. In a small but concrete step, he secured city council support late last month to fund a study on how to make more parking available, a major bottleneck for the large theaters. This month, Mr. Huizar says he will present a comprehensive vision for the theater district to deal with everything from better street lighting to increased access for loading stage equipment at the theaters.

Like other downtown Los Angeles projects, Broadway faces a host of challenges, including its proximity to thousands of homeless people living in the Skid Row neighborhood a few blocks away and the question of how to balance future theater fare among live stage performances, films and Spanish-language entertainment. Skeptics say downtown already has a glut of event venues.

Even proponents say gentrification could create tension with the street’s business owners, most of whom are Hispanic, who eventually will be expected to upgrade their restaurants and shops, or move. Mr. Huizar, whose connection to the street dates from a childhood of watching Spanish-dubbed martial-arts movies in Broadway theaters, believes all interests can be accommodated. Community activists say efforts already are under way to help commercial tenants relocate to available properties within blocks of Broadway.

”Downtown is big enough for everybody,” says Brady Westwater, an entrepreneur and civic activist. New condominium, loft and apartment complexes downtown have begun luring professionals to move to pockets near Broadway and create demand for higher-end supermarkets and stores.

Advocates believe that revamping Broadway is important to creating a more cohesive downtown for the growing number of residents and tourists alike. It could also accelerate real-estate investment downtown, which hasn’t been as desirable a property play as Beverly Hills or Santa Monica.

Broadway’s success could hinge on investing millions of dollars in public transportation, including reviving the Red Car trolley that operated until 1961, to make downtown – an area of several square miles – easier to get around. In the short-term, though, the focus is on scrubbing off graffiti, adding parking and renovating and reopening the theaters.

Unlike New York, where the city and state governments invested directly in venues, ”in L.A., all the theaters are private, and the owners will have to lead the process,” says Tara Jones, a consultant and president of National Preservation Partners, a nonprofit group. Ms. Jones has prepared studies on the theaters’ market feasibility.

Entertainment conglomerates haven’t yet embraced Broadway west, but it’s still early in the process.

Only four of Broadway’s theaters are available for events, and only one, the Orpheum, has truly been renovated. The Broadway Bar, adjoining the Orpheum, offers a rare watering hole for before or after a performance.

Orpheum owner Steve Needleman invested $3.5 million to overhaul the 1,970-seat venue, which has hosted episodes of the television show ”American Idol” and was one of several Broadway theaters used to film the movie ”Dreamgirls.” In recent weeks, Mr. Needleman has rented out the Orpheum for Los Angeles Fashion Week events and to Siemens AG for the launch of a new magnetic-resonance imaging machine. ”I do a wide variety,” he says. ”I know how hard it is to fill 2,000 seats.”

Mr. Needleman’s parents bought the building in 1964, not for the theater itself, but for the 11 floors of garment-factory space above it. In 2001, Mr. Needleman began restoring the theater. He has since invested some $4 million separately to convert the upper floors into apartments.

The street’s biggest theater landlord, Michael Delijani, is aiming to position his four venues for a range of offerings. His newest acquisition, the 300-seat Tower theater, was earning its keep one recent afternoon as the set for a ”CSI” episode, replete with a New York City taxi and police car at its curb.

The jewel of Mr. Delijani’s theater portfolio, the Los Angeles Theatre, has been in the family since the 1970s, but only gradually have the owners sought to restore the ornate, French-inspired interior. Reminders of past glory abound, from the chandeliers and gilded lobby decor to the auditorium’s ceiling mural to the ladies restroom, where each of 16 stalls is decorated in a different color of marble.

Another Delijani property, the State Theater, once featured performances by Judy Garland. Now it is leased by an evangelical church. In addition to restoring the venue, there is ”some discussion” about developing the upper floors as a boutique hotel,” says Ms. Jones, the consultant.

Despite the comparisons to New York, Los Angeles’s Broadway is likely to lean toward film events and concerts. Mr. Huizar, the city councilman, says, ”The ultimate would be to book a (New York) Broadway show.”

Mr. Westwater, a civic activist who has helped lure art galleries downtown, agrees. He is busily trying to recruit theater professionals, musical productions and live drama to Los Angeles.

Extended runs here would give tourists a reason to visit downtown and would ”create a West Coast outlet to amortize the cost of putting on productions,” he says.

He is confident the plan to attract New York productions will succeed, adding, ”The only question is: Who is going to be the first to cut a deal and get the best terms?”

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