by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the many reflections of the growing sophistication of motion pictures in the last twenty years or so, from about 1910 to 1930, of the Homestead’s interpretive period were the larger, more substantial theaters found in greater Los Angeles and the publicity utilized by them.
Walter P. Temple, who built movie theaters in Alhambra and El Monte, in the early 1920s, constructed what was probably very typical for the size of the cities. The Temple Theatre in Alhambra opened on Christmas Eve 1921 and seated about 860 people, while the Rialto had its premiere in spring 1923 and could accommodate 500 persons, the variance in capacity having to do with the significant difference in the population of the two communities and surrounding areas.
Naturally, in downtown Los Angeles, theaters built at the time were not only larger, but more ornate, which is why the term “movie palaces” is commonly used to describe some of the more opulent of the venues, such as the Orpheum or the United Artists, just to cite a couple from many that operated on Broadway during the Roaring Twenties. Less well-known are a couple of venues just to the east that reflected slightly earlier eras and the representative changes in theater sizes and amenities: Miller’s Theatre and its sister, the California Theatre, both situated on Main Street between 8th and 9th.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the eighteenth number of the first volume of Screen News and Programs of the California and Miller’s Theatres, a publication from 18 April 1926 and published by the California Theatre, managed by West Coast Theatres, Inc., a firm run by brothers Abraham and Michael Gore, Adolph Ramish and Sol Lesser. The newsletter/program was a way to promote current showings and future attractions and is one of a quartet from the museum’s holdings.
Miller’s Theatre was the first of the pair to when Fred A. Miller opened the venue at 842 S. Main, on the east side just below 8th, on 1 November 1913. Frederick Alvin Miller was born in Council Buffs, Iowa in 1877 to a laborer father and a dressmaker mother and he had an older sister. In late 1881, his father died and his mother raised her two children in town, though little is known about Miller until he was in Los Angeles building his namesake theater in 1913.
Compared to its younger sibling, relatively little was said about the opening of the theater, though the Los Angeles Express did call it “the newest, finest and largest downtown photo-play house,” with a seating capacity of 800. What particularly distinguished Miller’s was the 14 foot by 18 foot screen, which weighed 3,000 pounds because it was essentially a mirror made of plate glass.
The screen was said to be a vast improvement on those using plaster or curtains because “this mirror so distributes the light that there is a noticeable absence of flicker, which does away with eye-strain.” One wonders, however, what would have happened if a moderate or large earthquake would have struck and shattered the massive screen! Also of note was the “orchestra combination” which merged “piano, pipe-organ and full orchestra,” was built in Berkeley in Northern California and “which is entirely different from anything in this city,” being customized for Miller’s.
In late 1916, a major remodeling took place, including the addition of nearly 1700 square feet and over 200 seats, along with a fire sprinkler system and a redecoration of the interior. In summer 1918, a new proprietor, Carl Ray, was hired to operate the venue presumably because Miller (who operated the Alhambra on Hill Street for a time mid-decade) was moving to a much larger venture and facility, but the latter returned to active management by November 1919. In 1924, Miller sold out to the theater magnate Marcus Loew, who also owned Metro Pictures which then became part of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer super studio.
By contrast to its older sister, the California got much more attention only several years later when it was built in 1917 and 1918 and opened on Christmas Eve of the latter. The venue, designed by Alexander B. Rosenthal, known for his design of the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara, was much larger that Miller’s with seating for 2,500 and it was architecturally far more striking and ornate than its older sister. It was described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the handsomest and most pretentious of its type on the Coast” and cost somewhere on the order of a quarter million dollars.
Particular attention was paid to the amount of cement, some 1.8 million pounds, used in the massive balcony for purposes of meeting a city ordinance for safety. It was reported that the weight of the material used “had a carrying power equivalent to the weight of 12,000 persons,” though the actual capacity of the balcony, which had ramps rather than stairs for access, was not far over a tenth of that or about 1,650.
Miller and his managing partner Harry Leonhardt executed a lease from owner James B. Lankershim on the east side of Main. Lankershim, born in Missouri in 1850, was the son of German-born Isaac Lankershim and Annis Moore, who hailed from England.
In 1869, Isaac and Isaac Newton Van Nuys, who was married to the Lankershim’s daughter Susanna, purchased a half-share of some 60,000 acres of the southern part of Rancho Ex-Mission San Fernando from Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, who used the proceeds to build his Pico House hotel on the Plaza in Los Angeles (the northern half owned by the de Celis family was sold in 1874 to Charles Maclay and cousins George and Benjamin Porter with the former creating the town of San Fernando).
Lankershim and Van Nuys formed the San Fernando Farm Homestead Association to manage and develop their large holdings and, after Isaac died in 1882, James took over for his father and the firm changed its name to the Los Angeles Farm and Milling Company. The vast acreage in the San Fernando Valley was well-suited to dry farming, especially wheat and Van Nuys focused on managing this enterprise, including a downtown Los Angeles mill, while the younger Lankershim turned increasingly to real estate.
Lankershim married Caroline Adelaide Jones, whose Polish father and Scottish mother moved to Los Angeles when she was three years old, just before his father died. James formed a state national guard cavalry unit and was commissioned a colonel, using that title the rest of his life. During the great Boom of the 1880s, he and a syndicate developed 12,000 acres of the San Fernando Valley property for the town of Toluca, later renamed Lankershim and which includes areas in modern North Hollywood and Van Nuys.
Notably, Caroline decamped to Paris by the turn of the century, taking a daughter with her and, though she and James remained married, they were apart, except for a period during the First World War, until her death in the City of Lights in 1928. In the meantime, Lankershim invested heavily in downtown Los Angeles property, including a namesake hotel at Broadway and 7th Street, the San Fernando Building at Main and 4th, and where Miller’s Theatre was built in 1913.
In 1926, Lankershim, in his mid-Seventies, had an open relationship with a young married nurse and, the following year, his alarmed family had her dismissed. After his death in 1931, with his estate at around $7 million, the nurse appeared with a promissory note for a half million and sued to have it enforced. She won a lower court verdict, but the family appeared to the state supreme court, which ordered a new trial in 1937. Offered $100,000 to drop the matter, the nurse took it, but most of the money went to her lawyers and she committed suicide two years later.
As with Miller’s, there were soon changes in management at the California, as well. In November 1919, as Miller returned to operating his namesake venue, Samuel Goldwyn leased the larger facility and hired Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothapfel to run the theater with great fanfare. A major renovation was immediately undertaken, including even more luxurious appointments and accommodations and a new Wurlitzer organ was installed.
Rothapfel’s tenure was short and he returned to New York, where he built his reputation at such venues as the Capitol, Regent, Rialto, Rivoli and Strand theatres, and he launched his namesake Roxy in 1927, followed several years later by the famed Radio City Music Hall. The impresario, whose great-granddaughter is the actor Amanda Peet, died of a heart attack in 1936.
Miller returned to manage the California after Rothapfel’s departure until the California, like Miller’s, was sold to Loew and operated by West Coast. He quickly found a new venue, however, as the Figueroa, a Fox house, opened in 1925 at Figueroa and Santa Barbara Avenue (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) near the University of Southern California and Exposition Park. The following year, he took on operation of the opulent and striking Carthay Circle Theatre at the intersection of Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards. Both these venues became part of the West Coast chain, as well.
In 1931, Miller returned to operating the California and then went back to Carthay Circle. In 1934, he opened the Elmiro, a striking Art Deco theater with a capacity of 900 on 3rd Street in Santa Monica between Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway and owned by a newspaper association. His peripatetic career in theater management, lasting over two decades, came to an end not long after and devoted most of his time to a ranch he owned in Blythe, the border town along the Colorado River. He died there in 1939 of a heart attack at age 62.
As for the program, it contains the listing of performances at both venues, including a topical review and magazine (likely a type of newsreel); an entertaining novelty called “Crossword Puzzle;” short comedies; and, at the California, two musical sections with Owen Sweeten and His California Music Masters playing a Jules Massenet piece and the overture from “No, No, Nanette”, while the California Chanters vocal ensemble performed “A Songologue from Plantation Days” including a few tunes such as a “Negro character song” (read: blackface) called “T’aint New to Me.”
At Miller’s, the feature film was “The Denial,” starring Claire Windsor and William Haines and issued by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Highlighted in the program was the fact that a revival of an 1897 burlesque show and which was “considered shameless” and “which made the last generation blush” was now “not only sanctioned but considered quite the thing today.”
Over at the California, the main event was “The Cloud Rider,” which was part of a fad in Hollywood to showcase aviation. It was produced by and starred well-known stung pilot Al Wilson, who appeared in some fifteen film from 1923 until his death while doing stunts at the Cleveland Air Races show in 1932. Wilson played a secret agent after a gang of drug smugglers and, of course, performed a hair-raising stunt sequence to save a beautiful woman pilot in mid-air.
The front page promoted an upcoming feature, “Three Keys,” coming to the California and had a small piece about a dog who heroically delivered medicine to Nome, Alaska during a diptheria outbreak there in 1925. Another short article discussed a new film, while the back page talked about a new picture starring Marion Davies, paramour of powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst. Other contents concern the stars of “Three Keys” as part of the marketing of that picture for the next week at the California.
This object is a very interesting and instructive one concerning the worlds of motion pictures and theaters as these industries grew to enormous prominence in Los Angeles, the film capital of the planet, and generally. Look for posts on the other “Screen News” issues from the Homestead’s collection in future installments of “That’s a Wrap.”
For in-depth history on the two theaters, check out these blog posts for the Miller’s and California theatres. The former closed about 1950 and the structure, which included a hotel, was torn down with the site now a parking lot. The latter was later a Spanish-language movie house and then a Pussycat Theater showing pornography. In 1990, it had a last showing of silent films, including a performance by Gaylord Carter, who played for silents during that era, on the organ. The theater was razed shortly afterward and there is a retail structure there now.