by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the many “movie palaces” lining several blocks of Broadway in downtown Los Angeles during the 1920s was Loew’s State Theatre, which opened in fall 1921 to present films by Marcus Loew’s Metro Pictures studio, later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (M-G-M). The venue was part of a height-limit twelve-story office building on the northeast corner of the intersection with 7th Street and it offered vaudeville for about the first decade along with motion pictures with seating for some 2,400 persons.
The theater was managed by Loew’s agents Irving Ackerman and Sam Harris, who ran several theaters owned by him, until 1925 when operations were taken over by West Coast Theatres, which was a consolidation of earlier theater chains including those operated by the Gore brothers, Abraham and Michael, who served as vice-president and chair of the board of directors, respectively, while Harold B. Franklin, who previously ran the Publix Theatres chain for Famous Players-Lasky. The production manager was Marco Wolff of the famed Fanchon and Marco firm (Fanchon Wolff Simon was Marco’s sister) who put on unmatched live stage shows for many years.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an issue of the Loew’s State Newsette, featuring the program for the week starting 30 December 9172 and including articles on upcoming features, live and filmic, coming to the venue. The program features four “units” with the first being the “West Coast News Events” newsreel, including thge “M-G-M News.” This was followed by the live performance of “Circus Days,” including Lillian St. Leon, dubbed “America’s Greatest Equestrienne;” a pride of African lions; Umberto Ettore, deemed “Italy’s Funniest Clown;” Bernie Griggs, a clown from the Ringling Brothers circus; Jerry, “the only Riding Alaskan Husky Dog;” and the Maggini Brothers troupe of acrobats, among others.
The third “unit” was the feature film, a First National release called The Shepherd of the Hills, based on a novel from Harold Bell Wright, a very popular, though now forgotten, writer whose The Winning of Barbara Worth was made into a popular 1926 film starring a young Gary Cooper and whose works were made into quite a few movies. This movie, about a stranger who shows up at an Ozark Mountains town where his son had a child out of wedlock and ends a drought through a miracle, thereby atoning for his son’s guilt, was a remake of an original from several years before and was made a third time in 1941, with John Wayne as the star. after the movie, an “exit march” consisted of a new tune “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella” with music by the soon-to-be famous Sammy Fain and lyrics from Irving Kahal, a frequent writing partner of Fain, and Francis Wheeler, and which became a hit in 1928.
As for upcoming features, the front page had a headline of “Next Week is Laugh Week! And How! Karl Dane and George K. Arthur” and promoted the film Baby Mine, an M-G-M production. The article began with “Let’s make it a REAL Happy New Year!” by having “a big hearty laugh” as the theater “has made a New Year resolution to make everybody happy” with the showing of the vehicle for the comedy team of Dane and Arthur, who were paired by the studio and made several film over four years for the studio. Dane, who made a name in films since the late Teens, was a tall, imposing figure from Denmark (get it?) while Arthur was a slight fellow from England, who also had some success in movies after a vaudeville career of note, and M-G-M hoped for great success. There was some initial popularity, but when talkies came along, Dane’s heavy accent proved to be problematic and the act broke up. While Arthur continued acting for years, Dane could not find work and committed suicide in 1934.
A co-star of note in Baby Mine, described as having “one of the funniest screen plots ever conceived,” so that anyone who did not laugh had to be “some relation to the ‘Great Stone Face’ [Buster Keaton]!” was Charlotte Greenwood, who was famed on Broadway and vaudeville for her comedic skills and for her double-jointedness that allowed her to raise her right leg to a 90-degree angle. Greenwood was relatively new to films and this was her first credit role, though she went on to make many movies in the talking era and was best-known for playing Aunt Eller, written for her though she couldn’t appear in the stage version, in the 1955 musical Oklahoma!
The program promised readers that “you’ve chuckled, giggled, laughed and roared at funny comedies before, but when ‘Baby Mine’ flashes on the screen, they’ll have to coin a new word to describe what will follow! It’s simply a riot.” The short playing before the feature was Dog Heaven, one of the many Hal Roach comedies featuring Our Gang, later known in television syndication as The Little Rascals. Moreover, the back page noted that patrons to the theater would partake in “the big election week for the new member of ‘Our Gang’ to play in Hal Roach’s comedies.” This involved what was called “the Southern California finals” of a contest in which “as you enter the theatre you will be handed a ballot on which to mark your choice” as “a number of screen tests of the winners in the various elimination contests will be projected on the screen.” As guests left, they were to hand the ballot to an usher “and results are announced faily in the columns of the Evening Herald.”
Also appearing for that next week was “that famous vaudeville headliner, Benny Rubin, [who] will come forth with his hilarious stock of fun, wise cracks and tom-foolery.” Rubin, a native of Boston, was particularly well-known for his mastery of dialects and Jack Benny later wanted to hire him as a railroad porter using black dialect, but, when a producer said Rubin looked “too Jewish,” Benny hired Eddie Anderson, a black actor whose character evolved into Rochester Van Jones, Benny’s valet for nearly three decades on radio and television. The program referred to Rubin as “that fast-stepping, wise-cracking, nut comedian, the man with 1,000,001 laughs” and he went on to launch a movie career in 1929 and worked in film and television into the early 1980s.
Another upcoming featured performer was Eddie Peabody, a Navy veteran who astounding skills on the banjo led him to recording fame and, from 1927, the making of short films. Appearing on Froday the 13th of January “a lucky day for Eddie and for us all!,” Peabody was hailed a “the toast of the coast, the banjo wizard, everybody’s buddy, the banjoy boy.” It was added that “when the trailer announcing Eddie’s return was flashed on the screen at Loew’s State Theatre last week, a spontaneous outburst of applause greeted the announcement,” indicating that many were looking forward to his folksy greeting of “Hello Folks!” and “that mad, marvelous banjo which performs miracles of syncopation under his touch.” Even as tastes changed, Peabody continued to perform regularly on film and in concert and he died in 1970 following a stroke suffered while he was playing a show.
The week that Peabody was playing at the theater, “sharing honors will be Will Rogers in The Texas Steer . . . It’s a wow!” The movie, Rogers’ last silent feature, also starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., son of one of the greatest stars of the era, Louise Fazenda, and Ann Rork, daughter of the film’s producer and future wife of oil tycoon and art collector J. Paul Getty. For the week of 20 January, the feature was The Lovelorn, a M-G-M production whose star Molly O’Day was also the femake lead in The Shepherd of the Hills.
This program is an interesting artifact from the late Twenties when Broadway was bustling with patrons seeing the latest movies in one of a large number of movie palaces lining the thoroughfare. As for the theater, which remained a Loew property, William Fox took a controlling interest in what, in 1929, became the Fox West Coast chain. Fox, however, soon lost his film empire, though the chain continued to operate the theater, which went to a film-only policy in 1932, until the late 1940s, when the venue, known as Loew’s State for several years after that, became part of the United Artists chain after a United States Supreme Court consent decree required film studios to divest associated theater chains.
From the early Sixties until 1997, the theater was operated by Metropolitan Theaters, though first-run showings ended as conditions changed downtown and the venue, called the State, showed low-budget action movies and Spanish-language films. After it was closed, the theater was leased to a church and was known as Catedral de la Fé until early 2018. It is owned by the Broadway Theatre Group, owners of the Los Angeles, Palace and Tower theaters, but its future is uncertain though there have been extensive plans for renovation for use as a nightclub.
Tons of great information about Loew’s State Theatre can be found at the Los Angeles Theatres blog, as well as at Cinema Treasures, the Los Angeles Conservancy as the building is a city historic-cultural landmark, and the Broadway Theatre Group webpage for the State.