by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It enjoyed a long run at the relatively new Mayan Theatre and Good News, from the team of Laurence Schwab and Buddy G. De Sylva, was more than just a title, as it appeared to be a deliberate move away from an extraordinarily controversial offering at the venue just a few months before.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s collection is a program for the fifth week of the show and, while it is a visually striking artifact with many interesting ads as well as the content for the musical, it is well worth taking a look back at the opening of the architecturally stunning theater and the drama that raised consternation among moral purists in the Angel City.
The Mayan opened in August 1927 with a play starring the very popular, though mostly forgotten, vaudeville and stage actor Elsie Janie, in “Oh, Kay!” The musical opened on Broadway the prior year and featured music by the legendary George Gershwin and lyrics from his brother Ira. Whatever the artistic merits of the piece, a good deal of attention, however, was directed (!) at the building.
Designed by the well-known architectural firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements, with Stiles O. Clements particularly involved, the theater, costing some $850,000 and still standing on Hill Street between 10th and 11th streets and next door to the Belasco Theatre, took its inspiration from staggering archaelogical discoveries in 1925 of the Mayan people.
One of the three lessees of the Belasco (along with Edward Belasco and Fred Butler) was Gerhold O. Davis, who leased the Mayan for twenty years from property owner Nathan W. Stowell (who came to Los Angeles in 1874 and was known for his water and irrigation work at Corona, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Rialto, East Whittier, and the Imperial Valley, among others, as well as owning an iron pipe company and extensive downtown real estate, such as the Hotel Stowell, now the El Dorado Lofts) selected the motif. The Belasco was to focus on drama, while the Mayan would emphasize musicals.
The seating capacity was 1,500, evenly divided between those on the floor and those in the balcony. While the Los Angeles Times reported in its 31 July 1927 edition that there was much that was modern in the design and equipment,
The exterior is in ornamental stone designed by a young Mexican artist, Francisco Cornejo, who in his interior design and color, has embodied in the findings of his extensive research into [the] earliest known American and Mexican art, with a predominance of blue, brown, red and gold tones. Doorways, proscenium arches and the ceilings are of ornamental stone in Mayan design.
The account added that there was an “indirect system” of lighting the auditorium, in that “the large figure of Mayan sun rays, from whose circumference the entire ceiling is lighted in white and amber tones, is in turn lighted by green and blue lights from a pendant fixture.”
It was also observed that, due to a recent City Council ordinance banning smoking in auditoriums, the lobby and mezzanine foyer were set aside for those wanting to partake. There were also lounges built off the foyer. Also setting the venue apart was its “use of a twelve-foot connecting stage, on each side of the main stage, which is thirty-eight feet deep and has a width of forty-two feet.
The orchestra pit was under 400 square feet and could accommodate fifty musicians and a pair of stairs led to a musician’s room of about equal size. Stage lighting was handled through an usual balcony fifteen feet above the stage and containing a switchboard panel. Just above the stage were three suites of dressing rooms for the stars of productions, with another at the level of the stage.
A green room of just over 1000 square feet was surrounded by other dressing rooms, including two for stars, three accommodating three actors, five chorus rooms (two handling nearly two dozen performers, two others with room for eight and the last containing space for six), as well as the wardrobe room and ventilation system space. Showers for performers were located in the structure’s basement.
In its separate article of 3 August, which the Times titled “Mayan Design is Odd,” it was noted that Cornejo and decorating contractor Richard Sobieraj, incorporated three thousands designs from Mayan sources. Among these were “various aboriginal designs in the downstairs foyer [lobby], notably the column of feathered serpents found in the ruins of Chichen Itza” and the main foyer walls “are elaborately carved in stone and wood with a blending of Mayan, Zapotec and Peruvian art.” The dramatic ceiling offered “more than 200 Aztec symbols . . . representative of the Aztec month with its twenty days, and the Aztec towns.” For a brochure, Cornejo intended to use and explain designs and “sketch the history of the Mayan race and its successors.”
The paper’s theater critics, Edwin Schallert, heralded the venue the day prior to its opening by declaiming that “the transcendent fascination and beauty of an ancient civilization of the North American continent will come to life” when the Mayan debuted. He added that the venue “sets a new pulse for institutions dedicated to entertainment” as it “embodies ideas that are singularly artistic in its scheme of construction, and gives every promise of being warmly inviting.”
Schallert went on to note, after a brief exposition on the Mayan people, that
The Mayan Theater visualizes and idealizes their architecture and their art work as these have been discovered in excavations in Chiapas, Yucatan and elsewhere. There was elaborateness in these achievements in contrast to those of the Aztec. The building embodies the Aztec, however, for contrast. The Mayan inspiration dominates to the extent of being represented in about 75 per cent of the decorative effects.
Schallert added that Cornejo’s extensive research into the Mayans included an article published in an unnamed Los Angeles newspaper, which drew Davis’ attention. Drawing a very different kind of attention months after the opening, however, was the mounting, by the lessees Edward W. Rowland and A. Leslie Pierce, of a play that already caused great consternation in the east.
Edouard Bourdet’s La Prisionniére, or The Captive, debuted in Paris March 1926, with its Broadway opening six months later, starring Helen Menken in the featured role of Irene and Basil Rathbone, long before his film career including his famed roles as Sherlock Holmes, as one of the three of nine male characters, Jacques. Though the two were engaged, Irene was in love with another woman, who does not actually appear on stage.
The lesbian theme did not prevent Europeans from seeing it in droves, including record crowds in Vienna and Berlin, but, after 160 performances and criticism from many quarters in New York, it closed, with Menken, Rathbone and others arrested from the stage. They were released on a pledge from the producers that the production would be shut down. A state law against the presentation of what was deemed “sexual perversion” was soon passed.
Still, Rowland and Pearce brought the play to the Mayan, though Los Angeles authorities intervened much sooner, within a few days, as city prosecutor, Dr. E.J. Lickley, ordered raids on three occasions. While some news accounts stated that there unnamed persons who complained to Lickley, others specifically referred to religious leaders and club women who determined that the play was “immoral and filthy.”
The prosecutor, based on a statement from his deputy that The Captive was “rotten” and from others about the offensive nature of the theme, declared
this is a type of sordid drama that shall not be presented in Los Angeles. Its disgusting theme is revolving to intelligent people, and it does great harm to those who are unfamiliar with the side of life it propounds. It will not go on. I will issue a complaint immediately without warning, and will keep on arresting the cast at every performance.
Ads for the production actually stated that it was “A Play for Intelligent People” and there were those who spoke up for the work. For example, such major film stars as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Joan Crawford went to testify at the trial of Rowland and Pearce about whether they witnessed anything considered lewd or obscene, though the judge prohibited them from answering “as it called for a conclusion” not considered approprate.
Other witneses included Lew Head of the California Graphic, a drama school instructor, the editor of a college newspaper, and the Reverend Clinton J. Taft, known for his civil liberties advocacy through the regional chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and its publication, The Open Forum. The defense also offered, with the cast eager to do so, to present the play to the jury at the Mayan, though this was declined by the judge.
Schallert penned a measured and thoughtful review of The Captive, referring to it as “the dissection of a social cancer,” though he warned readers, “do not go to it expecting to be entertained” or for enjoyment. Rather, he wrote, “its presentation of an unhealthy problem cannot even be casually treated while one is looking on.” Calling it “a curiously clinical drama,” the critic noted that the audience has enthralled.
He went on to suggest that the work “may be rated the most daring play that has ever been essayed in the theater.” He was ambivalent, however, about whether “it is the sort of play that should be presented” in that format because it dealt with a theme “usually relegated to the medical textbook.” Otherwise, he averred, The Captive “spins only a strange lethal web of talk that ensnares as the plot moves on to the crushing, sickly end.” Yet, he judged, the play “achieves its effect. That is why it may be rated art,” even if it whether it would “find an audience response is a matter of grave doubt” and he highly praised the actors.
By contrast, the Los Angeles Express was unequivocal in its outrage about the piece, so that, when a judge temporarily restrained vice squad authorities from raiding the theater and arresting the actors, the paper exclaimed, “that stage portrayal of sex perversion, The Captive, will continue to spread its polluting influence for at least another week among young and impressionable girls.” It thundered that “just as the police last night were about to sink this transplanted Isle of Lesbia into the sea of public condemnation that has rolled up around it” the Superior Court jurist allowed it a reprieve.
Three days later, however, the court’s presiding judge denied a continuance of the restraining order, allowing the city to once again raid the theater and, when the producers had an announcement read to a full house that the play was being closed before a line could be uttered, the Express rejoiced, proclaiming,
The Captive has given up the ghost today and will longer spread its moral putrefaction in Los Angeles. Convinced at last their defiance of the combined force of law and public opinion useless, the producers of this drama of perverted sex withdrew the play.
Yet, on 4 April, Rowland and Pearce put on a private production of the play at the Mayan, specifically inviting Dr. Lickley to attend, though he and his deputy, as well as vice squad personnel, refused. Instead, “playwrights, actors and leaders in civic life” were there. Two weeks later, a jury of seven women and four men in the municipal court acquitted the producers of violating a city indecency ordinance.
Instead, Lickley called on the city council to rewrite the prohibition, though a first attempt was blocked by council president William G. Bonelli on the grounds that it went too far towards regulating morals, a position that led to some calling for his recall. A second effort, however, won his approval and passed unanimously. The Express boasted that “Los Angeles is breathing easier” after the adoption of “simple but effective legislation forever banning unclean sex plays” through the squelching of “sex perversion and sex degeneracy themes.” A mere seven minues after passage, Mayor George E. Cryer signed the ordinance.
Not surprisingly, Davis was out as lessee in favor of Sam Salvin and it was also hardly shocking that a “clean” piece like Good News was produced. DeSylva, a very popular lyricist with Lew Brown and composer partner Ray Henderson, had a Los Angeles connection, in that his mother was the daughter of George E. Gard, who just happened to be one of two men who have been both Los Angeles Police Chief and Los Angeles County Sheriff.
The colleagiate-themed musical certainly met the approval of the Express, which opined on 23 May that “probably by this time Good News is no news. It must be all over town now. The well-diversified audience that greeted the musical show at the Mayan Theater last night seemed perfectly willing to spread the good word, from the enthusiastic young lady in D24 to the husky gent at the bosom of the balcony.”
The play, the piece went on, “is a speedy, melodious comedy whose pep isn’t confined to any one set of performers.” The actors, chorus members and speciality performers were “all on their toes, except when they’re on their heels, which is one-half the time they’re doing” the signature musical piece, the very popular “Varsity Drag.” The theme built around a football game and a romance couldn’t possibly have been as removed from that of The Captive.
Marquis Busby of the Times also favorably reviewed Good News and wrote that “it’s the show of youth, college days, the big game, broken-down flivvers and all the rest of the things that go with campus life.” He added that “this sprightly musical comedy” was one of those rare examples of “a show [that] has a name that is absolutely appropriate.” It was an appreciative capacity crowd that cheered lustily for a “faultlessly presented” production with “big-time atmosphere.
Notably, Busby quoted a bit in which someone asked about the quality of car and received the snappy reply that “well, I didn’t look at the engine, but I glanced under the back seat. I found a powder puff, two garters and an empty bottle. I knew it hadn’t been run much.” That, and the stylized nude woman with the fantastic headdress on the program cover, obviously showed that heterosexual sex in the guise of musical comedy and nudity in an acceptable art context were deemed just fine by the community’s cultural censors.
That cover is pretty spectacular and it is also very interesting to peruse the ads, such as the Art Deco back cover one for the “Pom Pom” on Santa Monica Boulevard between Hollywood and Beverly Hills and said to be “the Night Club of the Smart Set;” the “Savage Health Motor,” which promised “streamline perfection” with just a few minutes a day of mechanical “exercise;” and Forest Lawn Memorial Park’s art works like “The Mystery of Life.”
Not only this, but there were not one, not two, but three fur storage companies promoting their services to the well-heeled patrons of the Mayan. Finally, it bears noting that an advertisement for the neighboring Belasco Theatre promoted the new comedy, The Command to Love, with its intact Broadway cast, including Rathbone, two years removed from his arrest in the original production of The Captive.