by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s been a while since a new series of posts was introduced here, so here is one relating to the change in “serious” and “artistic” entertainment relating to drama and the theater in Los Angeles, of which the Homestead’s collection has a number of interesting artifacts.
There is also a connection to the Workman and Temple families in that Jonathan Temple, when he built his Market House commercial building in 1859 between Main and Spring and Temple and 1st streets dedicated the second floor of the structure, architecturally modeled after Boston’s famed Faneuil Hall, to the first theater space built specifically for that purpose.
Because the building was completed during an economic downturn that only worsened in the first half of the 1860s, the structure’s commercial stores on the first level and its short-lived theater upstairs were converted, by lease, into government uses.
That is, city hall, county administrative offices and other offices went downstairs and the theater space was turned into the county courthouse. The building remained so utilized until after it was purchased by the city and county and up to the Boom of the 1880s, when a new city hall and courthouse were erected.
Meantime, other theaters were built in the rapidly-growing city, including the Merced Theatre, built in 1870 next to the newly completed Pico House on Main Street, just below the Plaza, and which operated for several years, though it was unable to sustain itself and closed.
Another early building used for theatrical performances was Hazard’s Pavilion, a barn-like structure at Fifth and Olive completed during the great boom in 1887, that was later torn and replaced with the Philharmonic Auditorium, which, as its name states, housed another new serious form of entertainment, the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In 1903, Mason’s Opera House opened on Broadway between 1st and 2nd streets and presented serious music as well as legitimate theater and a decade later the Morosco Theatre opened down Broadway between 7th and 8th. These are just a few examples of Los Angeles theaters that produced legitimate theater in the pre-1920s period.
Abraham Lincoln Erlanger, a native of Buffalo, began his career as a booking agent with a partner and the two moved into theatre ownership and the creation of the Theatrical Syndicate in 1896, an entity that all but controlled legitimate theatre in terms of where companies could perform their work. By 1910, however, the syndicate collapsed, due to competition from the Shubert brothers and the formation of the National Theatre Owners Association.
Erlanger, however, continued to own theaters and produce dramatic productions and, in Los Angeles, he acquired Mason’s Opera House and renamed it Erlanger’s Mason Theatre. Then, in an adjacent building linked by an arcade to the Biltmore Hotel just a stone’s throw away from the Philharmonic Auditorium, Erlanger’s Biltmore Theatre opened in 1924.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a broadside from the Biltmore Theatre promoting a production of Old English, by British writer John Galsworthy, best known for his novels in The Forsyte Saga, but also a fine playwright. The star of the play was George Arliss, one of the best-known actors who trod the boards of American theaters after his arrival from England in 1916.
Arliss, born in England in 1868, was a formidable presence on the stage and also began a successful film career by the early 1920s. The publication stated that he was “acknowledged as the foremost artist on the American stage today.” His performance as Sylvanus Heythorp, who used unethical methods in business dealings to provide for the financial future of his grandchildren, was touted as “a portrait that can never be forgotten” and more distinctive than his famed role of 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.
Meanwhile, the company that performed the play in Los Angeles was well-seasoned, having carried out more than 200 performances of Old English in New York, under the guidance of well-known producer Winthrop Ames, before taking the play on the road.
In fact, it was stated in the publication that, presumably because there was high demand for choice seats, “the management has arranged to accept orders for tickets by mail four weeks in advance of the engagement.” Because the play opened at the Biltmore on this day, 27 December 1926, the broadside was produced at least a month prior.
On the back cover are short quotes praising the play, Arliss and the entire company from seventeen newspapers in the Midwest and East as well in Toronto and Montreal. Judging from some of the articles in the Los Angeles Times during the engagement, which lasted through most of January 1927, the play was well-regarded and Arliss and the other actors in the production were lauded for their efforts.
Arliss, who won an early Academy Award for his work in the 1929 film version of Disraeli, went on to film Old English the following year and had major roles in films throughout much of the 1930s. He died in 1946 at the age of 77, with his last performance taking place a few years prior. While largely unknown today, he was a titan of the legitimate theater and the film world during the 1920s and 1930s and some of his films can be seen today.
As for the Biltmore Theatre, it was torn down in 1964 to make way for a parking lot, though an addition to the Biltmore Hotel was constructed on the site about two decades later.