“A Crown Jewel Ablaze on the Urban Bosom”: The Orpheum Theater of Los Angeles in “The American Architect,” 4 February 1914

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It certainly was a huge leap in the roughly half century from the Temple Theatre, the first purpose-built if short-lived venue on the second floor of Jonathan Temple’s Market House (1859), to the veritable palace of entertainment that was the third Orpheum Theatre in the Angel City and which opened to the public in late June 1911.

Then again, the transformation of Los Angeles was enormous, with the town’s populace officially at just shy of 4,500 in the 1860 census and about 50 times that 50 years later. A much larger middle class with more disposable income and more leisure time, as well as heightened expectations of the forms of entertainment and of the venue, were also notable.

Los Angeles Herald, 2 January 1910.

As for the Orpheum circuit of theaters, it dated to the mid-1880s with the opening of an opera house by Gustav Walter of that name in San Francisco. Soon afterward, he was joined by Morris Meyerfeld and the first of the enterprise to open in Los Angeles was through a lease of the Grand Opera House (later the Grand Theatre) on Main at 1st Street in 1894. With the linkage of the two largest cities in the Golden State, Walter and Meyerfeld expanded to Kansas City, though the former died shortly afterward.

Meyerfeld induced Los Angeles Theatre owner Martin Lehman to join him and theaters were added in Denver and Omaha. The first years of the 20th century included a partnership with a Chicago theater syndicate and it rivaled the Keith-Albee organization in influence and reach. After the second Orpheum in Lehman’s theater on Spring near 2nd, was deemed insufficient (it became the Lyceum), it was decided to build the much more grandiose new venue on Broadway south of 6th Street on what became the Los Angeles Theatre District.

Los Angeles Express, 14 May 1910.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is a set of plates of photographs and plans from the venue, published in the 4 February 1914 issue of The American Architect and they show just how luxurious and lavish the theater was, especially for its time. Designed by G. Albert Lansburgh of San Francisco, the venue also featured some remarkable sculptural work by Spanish artist Domingo Mora, who died shortly after completion, while his son Joseph (Jo), who became very well known in California art circles assisted.

The first plate is a view of almost all of the facade of the five-story steel-frame building, purportedly the first in the Angel City to make extensive use of terra cotta. The theater entrance behind a curved marquee of bronze is at the center while two stores each flank it and entrances at the ends.

Herald, 15 May 1910.

Two photos on another page show the intricate decorative details on the interior, including above and around the stacked side balconies, while a third page shows a view of the stage from the rear balcony. The floor plans include the main floor, gallery and a view from both. While there is no associated text, newspaper articles provide plenty of detail about the palatial theater.

At the start of 1910, the Los Angeles Herald reported “negotiations have been completed for the immediate erection of a five-story ornate Orpheum building” with the theater company represented by Meyerfeld, Lansburgh and local manager Clarence Drown, among others, arranging a fifty-year lease with the property’s owners, who included physician and reformer John Randolph Haynes and Los Angeles Times vice-president Harry Chandler.

Los Angeles Times, 11 June 1911.

The cost of the structure was pegged at a quarter million dollars and it “will be put up under the supervision of R.B. Young and Son, architects.” The firm of Robert Brown Young and his son Frank designed such well-known local buildings as the Hollenbeck Block and Hotel, the Barkers Brothers furniture store, the Lankershim Block, the Rosslyn Hotel, and State Reform School (later the Fred C. Nelles facility) in Whittier.

It was initially announced that the steel-frame, fireproof edifice would have the ground-floor stores at the center with the theater’s entrances on the side, though this was changed. The auditorium was to have just shy of 2,000 seats “and the architect promises an unusual number of safe and comfortable exits, aggregating in width 110 feet.” With extra space between seats, it was added that the venue was to be “one of the handsomest and most comfortable theaters in the west.”

Times, 25 June 1911.

The Los Angeles Times of the same day, 2 January, added that “this fine structure will embody all the results of late research in theater building,” the style of which was denoted to be French Renaissance. The facade was to be “faced with plain and ornamental terra cotta in two colors,” while the floors were to be of tile and wainscoting comprised of marble. The structure was to have hot and cold air in its ventilation system.

The rent was set for a quarter century at a rate of 5% based on a valuation of $5,000 per frontal foot and, after that, the rate was to be maintained at that percentage while the value would be determined by arbitration. The piece ended with the note that “it is the intention of the company to give Los Angeles on of the finest vaudeville houses in the United States.”

Times, 25 June 1911.

By the end of the month, the paper reported that Landsburgh, who designed many theaters in his career, came to the Angel City from San Francisco to look over the plans and he was soon referred to as the project’s architect, though acting through Young and Son as “local agents.” In mid-May, Landsburgh told the Los Angeles Express that he expected the theater to be open by Christmas and also brought the “first photographs of the perspective drawing and complete description of the proposed building.”

The architect continued that the foundation work was underway and the contract called for completion within 200 days “or the contractors must pay a daily forfeit of $200.” He added that the cost estimate climbed substantially to in excess of $375,000, but also noted that the seating capacity was to be 2,000 with 900 on the first floor, 600 in the balcony and 500 in the gallery, as well as 13 loges and 26 boxes, but no seat on the first floor was to be further than 60 feet from the stage, thanks to the width of the auditorium.

Times, 27 June 1911.

The stage was to be more than 110 feet wide, almost 40 feet deep and with the proscenium arch 40 feet wide and nearly as high. As to the facade, Landsburgh described it as to be faced in “polychrome terra cotta,” while the theater entrance was moved to the middle and flanked by stores and balcony and gallery entrances at the ends. In addition to the use of colored marble in the lobbies, the color scheme was to be “gendarme-blue, old rose and burnished gold.”

The Herald of 15 May went into even greater detail, calling the concept “gorgeous almost beyond expression. With respect to the side entrances, it stated that the south one was a ten-foot wide lobby for the offices, while the north was to go to the gallery and stage, but it also said that the office building entrance was to be off 7th Street.

Times, 27 June 1911.

A side alley had two entrances for loading equipment and materials for productions. In addition, fourteen dressing rooms, showers, a tub for washing animals and a room for the creatures, property rooms, a scene dock, and the orchestra room, with twenty-five musicians accommodated in the pit, were noted.

On the ventilation system, the paper described how there would be an air chamber under the orchestra floor and forced air through the chair standards with ceiling fans to serve as the exhaust mechanism. “Coke filters” were to “wash” and filter the air with water continuously passed over them so that the result was “absolutely sanitary.” A woman’s parlor at the mezzanine level, a basement smoking room for the gents, and a sprinkler system for the stag and front portion of the structure were also featured.

With an eye to providing comfort “most luxuriously” as well as having the best entertainment experience, sight lines were carefully studied so that views were complete and unobstructed and, for safety, it was averred that the house could be completely evacuated in two minutes. In addition to the latest in electric lighting, the theater had “a motion picture machine, which will be in a fireproof box, absolutely isolated” to minimize the risk of danger from fire. A modern telephone system, a vacuum cleaning plant, a press room and the box office were also said to be other valuable elements.

The steel frame was well underway toward the end of July, leading Landsburgh to tell the Herald that “from now on, progress will be rapid and uninterrupted.” Yet, there were the oft-expected delays and the holiday premiere date was pushed back another half-year, though whether the contractor had to pony up the $200 a day penalty was not reported. On 11 June 1911, the Times explained that the extension was because “there would be no doubt that every detail of the fine building shall have been completed” and that “no smell of wet paint or varnish, no unfastened seat or incomplete stage” was to be permitted.

As to the opening night, scheduled for the 26th, seats for the first floor, boxes and loges “will be on sale at auction” at the old theater, while the balcony and gallery seats were to be available at the new venue a week in advance. The seats were to be installed and draperies hung on the next day, while most of the scenery work was finished and “the immense drop curtain,” valance and the asbestos were going in imminently. The piece concluded that “little is left to be done, and if occasion required, the house could be opened next week.”

Julian Johnson of the Times provided a very detailed and breezy analysis of opening night, noting that:

Trot out that portion of the vocabulary classified as gorgeous, glittering and gargantuan; furbish up the rusty old “auspicious” and marry it just once more to that equal antique, “occasion;” blow the dust of the book of adjectival superlatives; oil up the typewriter, put in a new ribbon and lay by three pounds of copy paper—for verily, you’ll require all these fulsome aids of [if] you’re going to set down any just account of the new Orpheum opening.

He called the venue a temple or shrine in the “Place du Turmoil” where there were previously apartments and bookstores, but now “the six-cylinder traffic of a great city goes hurtling and whirling, not only by day, but by night” making the Orpheum “a crown jewel ablaze on the urban bosom.” Johnson went on to vividly describe the attendees, including “one patient line which, like a many-legged, serpentine philosopher, stood aloof and smiled” and he was complimentary of the much-improved gallery compared to the previous Orpheum.

The reviewer contrasted “the brightness and theatricism of the splendid exterior” with an “interior [that] was a touch of genuine quiet” with a harmony of color that “was soft and restful.” In a snappy style, Johnson described visiting the smoking room and the ladies’ parlor, while Manager Drown seemed ecstatic with how the opening was progressing.

As for the program, British comedian Hal Forde opened at 8:40 and “proved a delightful entertainer” and he was called back several times for more. Joseph Hart and Paul Dulzell offered a sketch about two race track gents called “Little Stranger” that was accounted a success, while magician Henry Clive was well-received. The female quartet, the Musikalgirls, were “sometimes noisy, sometimes tuneful, [and] always with ‘something doing,'” while Isabelle d’Armond and George Moore combined dancing with humor.

A comedy-drama with five characters, “A Legitimate Hold-Up” was followed by P. O’Malley Jennings and partner Ed Wynn, who went to great fame as a comedian in film, radio and television. The last act was a trio performing “rural comedy” and which was a holdover from the previous week at the old venue. Johnson opined, however, that the bill was not anywhere near the best seen at the theater that year and he finished his piece with an exhaustive list of prominent Angelenos in attendance.

In its coverage, the Express asserted that the opening night “will long be remembered as one of the brilliant and notable events in local theatrical history” even though there were no formal ceremonies, speechifying or other typical elements of such events. Still, the Orpheum was proclaimed as “possibly the most elegant vaudeville house of amusement in the country and one of the best-appointed theaters, without qualification, in America.”

There was praise of the decor, of the shallow auditorium maximizing visibility, and of the modern accoutrements of the stage and amenities, while Drown was credited for his ambition in seeking “the finest vaudeville theater possible” The program was viewed more favorably by the unattributed writer than by Johnson and the obligatory long list of the who’s who of Angel City society followed, while the paper reported, as the Times did, on the meal that was held after the performance for invited guests on the theater stage.

After fifteen years, there was further need, as Los Angeles continued its exponential growth and theaters continued to become more ornate, for a fourth version of the Orpheum, which opened on Broadway, south of 8th Street, in 1926 and which is still with us, while the 1911 venue, which became the Palace Theatre has also survived. These plates are excellent documents for this venerable performing house, now over 110 years old.

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