Treading the Boards: An Orpheum Theatre Program, Los Angeles, Week of 10 May 1909

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Here is another in a series of Los Angeles theater programs that help to show the dramatic (!) changes in entertainment that took place in the Angel City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this one being from the Orpheum for the week of 10 May 1909.  The front cover shows a gypsy woman holding a lute with images of the dozen theaters in the circuit from St. Paul, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Memphis and Kansas City west through Denver, Salt Lake City, Oakland and San Francisco.

The Los Angeles branch was in a building constructed during the Boom of the 1880s, in which many elements of a modern city came to fruition, including the Los Angeles Theatre.  The building housing the venue was the Neal Building, owned by the one of the few women of the day who was a real estate investor.

Los Angeles Herald, 25 March 1888.

Juana Achey Neal (1840-1914) was the daughter of Mary Reife and John H. Achey, who was a prominent merchant and banker in Dayton, Ohio.  Juana married Dr. Thomas L. Neal, who worked in the city infirmary and then went into private practice.  The couple had six children, but Thomas died in 1885 and his widow soon decided to make the journey west to Los Angeles just in time for the famed Boom of the 1880s, launched when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad’s direct transcontinental line was opened at the end of the year in which Thomas Neal passed away.

Juana Neal immediately purchased property on the east side of Spring Street, between 2nd and 3rd, then the heart of the expanding business district, and built her namesake office building, including the leased-out theater, which had the address of 227 S. Spring.  She worked with her sons to open an insurance business based in what was also commonly known as the Los Angeles Theatre Building and built a large wood-frame house on Adams Street and Palm Avenue in a subdivision of what was the ornate estate of former New York clothier Charles Longstreet (some sources claim that Civil War General James Longstreet, a distant cousin, owned the estate or that Charles was a general, which he was not) and which was then owned by his widow, Lucy.  Finally, she also owned a Montana cattle ranch.

Herald, 20 August 1892.

Both the house and the Neal Building were to have been designed by architect Robert B. Young, who, also in the 1887 boom year, designed such well-known business structures as the Van Nuys Building, the Lankershim Block, the Hollenbeck Block (built by another wealthy widow, Elizabeth Hatsfeldt, whose husband John E. Hollenbeck of Boyle Heights and who owned 5,000 acres of the Rowland portion of Rancho La Puente, also died in 1885), and the Walter Lindley Building.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Young and his client soured and he sued her in fall 1888 for fees owned on the two projects.  Though the disposition of the court action was not located, a new architect, Frank J. Capitain, was hired to finish the structure, which opened at the end of the year, but he, too, brought suit with his partner against his patron for unpaid fees.  Neal was involved in other legal matters, one against Constable Martin Aguirre, later county sheriff, for attaching her property at a cage and another filed by Frank Gassaway, the original lessee of the theater, for breach of contract.

Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1909.

The Los Angeles Theatre was part of continuing legal and financial entanglements involving Neal, whose son-in-law tried to deny that she was involved in a dozen suits and was disposing of property.  In July 1890, however, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the Neal building was being sold and the price of $140,000 seemed very low, though the boom had also, by then, gone bust, but she retained ownership for a time.

In spring 1891, it was reported that Neal was hired to be the head of the woman’s department for the Pacific Coast division, based in San Francisco, of the Mutual Life Insurance Company, with a handsome salary of $10,000.  Shortly afterward, she was part of a real estate deal involving a San Gabriel man, A.B. Anderson, and a Los Angeles gentleman, Poindexter Dunn, who bought her home on the Longstreet estate and transferred it to Anderson.

Herald, 11 May 1909.

Shortly afterward, Neal purchased the Longstreet mansion and lived in it for several years.  A member of the city’s elite society circle and a founder, for example, of the influential Friday Morning Club of prominent women, Neal often threw soirees and parties at the estate.  One, in 1896, included guests from families with such well-known names as Slauson, Hellman, Wolfskill, Kerckhoff and Van Nuys.  In October 1899, Neal sold the property for $29,000 to John Singleton, one of the owners of the famous Yellow Aster gold mine in the Randsburg district of Kern County, and moved to a new home northwest of U.S.C.

In August 1892, Neal finally did sell her namesake building and the Los Angeles Theatre to William H. Perry, a long-time Los Angeles lumber dealer and capitalist, whose mansion, formerly in Boyle Heights, is now a centerpiece of the Heritage Square Museum.  Perry’s daughter, Mamie, was a classically trained singer who studied extensively in Europe and married a musician named Charles Modini-Wood.  The purchase price was $140,000, the same for the purported sale two years earlier, and Perry, who renamed the building for himself, announced he immediately would undertake major renovations, including more seating, larger dressing rooms and the use of incandescent lights.


As for Neal, she died in Los Angeles, although spent much time in Chicago and New York during her later years.  Her daughter, Juana Neal Levy (1868-1956), was a longtime society editor for the Los Angeles Herald and Los Angeles Times, as well as a social correspondent for the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego and the private Arrowhead Lake Company.

The Los Angeles Theatre joined the Orpheum circuit in 1903 and remained part of it for eight years, including when tonight’s featured program was issued, but, in 1911, a new Orpheum at Broadway and 6th and which became the Palace and which is still standing.  The old Orpheum became the Lyceum and retained that name for forty years until it was razed in 1941.  Today, a large parking structure is on the site.


Although the program’s front cover has images of the twelve circuit theaters, there were sixteen other venues that were “operated in conjunction” with the furthest east being in Cincinnati and including four in Chicago, two in St. Louis and single houses in such cities as Indianapolis, Louisville, Milwaukee, Butte, Seattle and Portland.

There were matinee performances each day at 2:15 and evening shows were at 8:15, with the doors opening forty-five minutes in advance of each.  Ticket prices were 10, 25 and 50 cents for matinees, while evenings offered those prices and additional ones at 75 cents.  Reservations were allowed by phone, while the box office was open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.


In its disclaimers, in addition to noting that no gratuities would be allowed, that “inattention or incivility” was requested for reporting, and that doctors and others who expected to be called by phone or messenger were to leave their names and seat numbers with the box office, there was also a statement that the “advanced Vaudeville” offered at the venue meant that “a single word, expression or situation that might offend the intelligent, refined and cultured” was to be avoided.  Ladies were also “politely requested to remove their hats” during shows as these accessories tended to be quite large at the time.

There was also an interesting essay about the costs incurred to put on the quality shows provided by the Orpheum.  For example, it was proclaimed that:

the regular bill presented at the ORPHEUM week in and week out, costs more, in actual salary list—to say nothing of transportation and other charges—than is paid out by any other theatre in Los Angeles, bar none.  The artists in vaudeville draw more money for their acts than do players in any other line of work.  And this is right, because they represent the very essence and perfection of the profession.  Before a player can get an engagement on the ORPHEUM circuit, he must he at the top of the list, able to give in a concentrated 15 or 20 minutes the acme of his art, whether he be a dramatic exponent, an acrobat, an animal trainer, a singer, a dancer, or whatever form his talent takes.

BUT—you pay no more for this collection of the highest talent in the world that you do at any other theater in this city . . .

THINK THAT OVER.  then, when you want “the most for the least money,” remember where you get it—at the ORPHEUM.

The roster for the week included the house orchestra, directed by A.F. Frankenstein and offering the “Red Fez” march by Walter J. Hearn and excerpts from Georges Bizet’s famous opera, “Carmen;” a satire called “You Can’t Get None” by the duo of Gordon and Marx; a comedy titled “Marriage in a Motor Car” by S. Miller Kent and his company of two women; the company of Margaret Moffat and players, again a trio, performing “Awake at the Switch;”  a troupe performing French, Russian and Brazilian dances; a drama by Adeline Dunlap and Frank McCormack, supported by Viola Flugrath; Lew Sully, billed as “That Minstrel Man;” the debut American appearance of The Sandwinas, described as “European Athletes Introducing an Extraordinary Exhibition of Strength” with “Madame Sandwinas” purportedly “the most wonderful woman physically that has ever appeared in foreign music halls: and “Orpheum Motion Picutres,” said to be the “latest novelties.”


Incidentally, if the name “Marx” caught your attention, that happened to be Leonard Marx, who teamed Arthur Gordon on the highly competitive vaudeville circuit from 1908-1912 and was getting much attention for his characters speaking in various dialects.  After he split with his partner, Leonard was performing with another comedian and dropped in on a performance from his siblings Adolph, Julius, Milton and Herbert, who were touring in their own act.  He ran on stage unannounced and started playing the piano in one of his characters and his brothers began throwing fruit at each other.  With Leonard (who became known as “Chico”) and Adolph (“Harpo”) performing musical interludes on piano and harp and the crazed comedy routines by the ensemble causing a sensation, the famous Marx Brothers, including Julius as “Groucho”, Milton as “Gummo”, and Herbert as “Zeppo,” act was born.

The program also offers the common seating diagram for the ground floor and balcony areas of the 800-seat venue and there are, also typical, plenty of interesting advertisements from local businesses, including the restaurant owned by former heavyweight boxing champion, James J. Jeffries.  Finally, the attractions for the following week were provided, including an Irish minstrel, a singer and violinist billed as “Arcadia,” a troupe performing a Roman comedy, a duo of comedians, and a circus of Great Danes masquerading as horses.


With its colorful covers, interesting program (including that early Marx Brothers connection) and the advertisements, the publication is an excellent example of how Los Angeles, with its part in a major theater circuit, was developing more varied entertainment offerings during the early 20th century—a situation that would explode with the onset of the local film industry, which just happened to have begun that same year, 1909.

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