by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In 1859, when Jonathan Temple built his Market House in Los Angeles, one of the structure’s important features was the second floor theater, the first such venue built for the purpose in the Angel City. The theater was a short-lived venture as the building wound up being leased by the county and used for the courthouse and public offices as the faltering local economy would not support the commercial intentions for which the edifice was built.
Some sixty years later, Temple’s nephew, Walter, realizing a small fortune thanks to the providential discovery of oil by his young son, Thomas, on the family’s Montebello-area ranch, invested much of the rising royalties from a number of producing wells, including a few gushers. The initial area of investment was Alhambra, where, at the end of November 1917, Walter and his wife Laura González purchased a large Craftsman-style house on a generous lot near the east end of the city (the same week, the couple acquired the 75-acre Workman Homestead which became a weekend retreat and “gentleman’s farm.”)
Alhambra, founded in the 1870s when Walter’s father (and Jonathan’s half-brother) F.P.F. was treasurer of the Lake Vineyard Land and Water Company, headed by Benjamin D. Wilson (who came to Los Angeles with the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841) and his son-in-law, James deBarth Shorb. The initial development faltered in the economic downturn that included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, but was revived when the great Boom of the Eighties followed just about a decade later.
Alhambra grew dramatically in the early years of the 20th century, as did the region generally, and its proximity to Los Angeles was a major factor for those who wanted to live in the suburbs and, in many cases, work in the city. Walter and his business manager, Milton Kauffman, readily saw the opportunities for investment in the burgeoning city, which incorporated in 1903 and had a population increase of nearly double between 1910 and 1920, from about 5,000 to 9,000 persons.
Yet, this growth paled in comparison to what transpired during the Roaring Twenties, when Alhambra’s population leapt more than three-fold to nearly 30,000. So, it was a perfect time for Temple to buy downtown commercial property and develop it to take advantage of the boom, which, on a regional basis, peaked in 1923 (the year, incidentally, that he and partners Kauffman, attorney George H. Woodruff and Alhambra rancher Sylvester Dupuy, owner of a spacious hilltop mansion on the west side of town, established the Town of Temple, renamed Temple City in 1928.)
The first move into Alhambra real estate came in July 1919, when, as noted by the Alhambra Advocate of the 18th,Temple acquired empty lots, occupied by the Alhambra Nursery, on Main Street between 3rd and 4th streets and, when pressed by the Alhambra News to state what he intended to do with the choice property, allowed in a statement provided to that paper in its edition of the 16th that he would build structures to benefit the community.
It took nearly two years for a decision to be made, but the Advocate of 3 June 1921 had, as its front-page headline article that announcement that Temple and Otto H. Schleusener, operator of the Superba Theater in town, for the former to build, at an estimated cost of $100,000 a new theater with a capacity of some 1,000 seats, with a tentative completion date of the 1st of October. The architects were Albert R. Walker and Percy Eisen, designers of many prominent commercial buildings in Los Angeles and who became Temple’s architects for most of his projects, including the finished drawings for the family’s mansion La Casa Nueva, which was started in 1922.
The strcture was slated to cost $55,000 with interior decoration to entail another $35,000, while a Wurlitzer pipe organ apparently took up most of the rest of the construction outlay. The venue was to have a stage, dressing rooms and other aspects for vaudeville performances, while seating was said to be the most up-to-date, including comfortable leather lounge chairs for the loge area. The design was said to be heavily influenced by Egyptian motifs, which was then very popular (witness, for example, the famous Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, which opened in October 1922.)
Schleusener told the Advocate that he and Temple worked for months on the project to meet “the need of a big, modern theatre, to accommodate the entertainment wants of the many playgoers here.” He also addressed the owner and builder, saying:
In Mr. Temple, we found a man with unlimited resources at his command and a commendable feeling of civic pride. Mr. Temple will build a structure that will be a credit to the town and to him and there we will be able to offer entertainment on a par with the finest cinema palaces in the country.
Not only that, the operator added that the venue would be one of “refined elegance, far removed from the harshness of the ‘band-box movie’ show.” When it was soon announced in the 1 July issue of the Advocate that the venue was to be called the Temple Theater, it was observed that this wasn’t just in honor of the builder, but also because “it will be virtually a temple of entertainment.”
Later that month, the Darrell Condley Company, a major construction firm in Los Angeles, was awarded the contract to build the theater and, within two months, the walls were completed and the roof was nearly done, just lacking the exterior and interior finishing. The entrance pillars were being built and the sloping auditorium floor was being graded, though the exact date for grand opening was yet to be announced.
There were some problems in the course of construction, most notably in early October when a scaffold holding several workers high up along the proscenium arch collapsed sending the men tumbling some thirty feet to the wooden stage floor. The injuries were severe, with one man in critical condition with spine injuries and some fears he may not survive, though he did eventually recover.
There were the usual delays, though by early December, the light at the end of the tunnel was showing. A notable feature of the interior decoration were Egyptian-themed murals by Julian E. Garnsey, whose work was featured to great effect at the Los Angeles Central Public Library’s Children’s Room when that remarkable edifice was completed some five years later.
The Alhambra section of the Pasadena Post of the 8th observed that “The Temple management is to be congratulated upon having had the services of” the artist for the work, which purportedly drew exclusively from ancient Egyptian sources, which meant that “The Temple will, when finished, be one of the few theaters in the west where this decorative scheme is carried out in every detail.”
After describing the electrical work, the stage and associated elements, the seats and other copnents, the article concluded that “throughout the theater every part of the equipment and furnishings is new. When the doors are thrown open to the public, Alhambrans will have every reason to be proud of the Temple, as it is a theater which would be a credit to any big city in the country.”
The following day’s Advocate went into detail about the organ, which took up an entire freight car on delivery to Los Angeles and then by a spur track to West Alhambra, from where a truck and twelve men hauled cases to the theater. It was expected that it would take ten days for the installation of the massive instrument with the most time-consuming work being the connection of electrical contacts from the console keyboard to the pipes, the placement of the blower pipe in the control room, and the tuning of the organ to the acoustics of the auditorium being major parts. It was added that the model sent by Wurlitzer was the first of its kind to be installed anywhere in the world, with improvements and additions in sound and appearance that would not fail to impress patrons.
By 20 December, the theater was finally finished and the News reported thathe opening three days later “will be one of the best and most enjoyable things that Alhambra has ever had” including seven features. These involved an organ solo, a live feature of three young sisters called the Crocker Trio, short films, a comedy starring Baby Peggy Montgomery (who returned on Saturday, Christmas Eve for an impromptu live appearance at the Temple), and Thomas Meighan’s latest feature, A Prince There Was.
Praise was heaped on Walter Temple, called “one of our most public-spirited citizens” and who was “determined to have it absolutely complete in every detail and to carry out some very high ideas, from an artistic standpoint, in its construction and decoration, so that all the time was taken that was needed to carry out the elaborate scheme that was planned.” The piece ended with the admonition that, “every theatergoer in the city should be proud of this beautiful theater and the opportunities it will furnish for enjoyment and entertainment.”
The Post‘s Alhambra section chimed in on the 23rd to laud the “magnificent playhouse, whose interior will be a revelation in colorful beauty and artistic effect. The prior day, the paper reported, “a long line of people stood in the rain, patiently waiting for tickets, all of which have been reserved for the first night.” In addition to the program, speeches were to be given by Municipal Court Judge William Northrup as well as Schleusener and Temple.
In its report on the next day, the Post proclaimed that, at the opening,
as the people entered the foyer and passed into the auditorium, their first glimpse of the beautiful decorations and furnishings evoked enthusiastic approval . . . everything moved smoothly and the attendants handled the crowds with little or no confusion . . . the mighty organ pealed out the ontes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the audience rose to its feet.
When the curtain rose, Judge Northrup sat at a table and applause burst out as he rose and walked to the footlights to tell the crowd, after a review of the history of motion pictures in the city, “that this theater was the accomplishment of an ideal,” though how exactly was not covered by the paper. In its short summary, the Los Angeles Times of Christmas Day added that, with possession of “one of Alhambra’s most valuable downtown sites,” Temple “is now planning the extensive improvement of other sites in the business section” of the city.
On the 28th, the venue hosted its first live vaudeville performances from five acts, including the Meiklejohn and Dunn duo who “are meeting with enthusiastic receptions throughout Southern California, for two sets of entertainment. The feature film was Her Lord and Master, starring Alice Joyce. An accompanying ad featured the theater’s logo, which proclaimed the Temple to be “Alhambra’s Finest Theatre,” while prices were 40 cents for general admission and an extra 20 cents fr the “Divan Loges.”
In the next several years, Temple added to his substantial holdings in that section of downtown Alhambra, with the Utter and Sons mortuary built immediately to the theater’s west, followed later by the Temple Estate Building on the east. A pair of store buldings across 4th and the city’s post office and Temple Hotel on the west side of that street were also built or purchased by Temple and, in spring 1927, he completed his last construction project anywhere, when the three-story Edison Building opened.
By then, however, with other developments in downtown Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and El Monte, along with the major investment at Temple City, and soaring costs in the long-delayed construction of La Casa Nueva, coupled with declining oil revenue at his Montebello lease and insufficient success with other petroleum prospecting in greater Los Angeles, Ventura, Texas, Mèxico and Alaska, Temple got into deep financial distress.
He tried taking out bonds to pay for both Temple City and Temple Estate projects and a mortgage to finish La Casa Nueva—the latter was due 29 October 1929, just five days after the crash of the stock market that ushered in the Great Depression. Trying desperately to pare down his debts, Temple arranged in early July for the sale of the Edison Building, for $300,000, and the mortuary and Temple Theatre property, for $125,000.
Matters, however, worsened for him and Temple moved to Ensenada in Baja California, México in spring 1930 and leased out the Homestead to a boys’ military school to try and save his last remaining and personally most important landholding. The deepening depression, however, brought the inevitable and, in July 1932, the Homestead was lost to foreclosure.
The Temple Theatre kept its name until that year, when it became the El Rey, by which moniker it was known for more than a half-century. It appears that the Whittier Narrows earthquake caused significant damage to the building, long operated by the Edwards Theatre chain, and it was razed in the early 1990s.
A century ago, the Temple Theatre’s opening was naturally a proud moment for a budding developer who undoubtedly hoped that the edifice would stand, along with subsequent buildings, for longer than it did. Reading the description of the elaborate interior in particular, it is a shame that the structure did not survive longer than 70 years.