by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Marcus Loew was one of the titans of the theatre industry with a remarkable immigrant story at the root of it. Born in 1870 to a poor Jewish family that came to America from Austria shortly before, Loew did not have much formal schooling, but was an extraordinarily hard-working entrepreneur who tried his hand at a print shop after working in a printing plant, a furniture store, a newspaper, and a factory making furs.
He experienced almost no success, however, but, while making a renewed effort in furs, he met Adolph Zukor, later the head of the powerful Paramount Pictures, and the two partnered in the latter’s penny arcade business in the early years of the 20th century. When motion pictures began to eclipse the arcades by the end of that first decade, Loew joined forces with the brothers Nicholas and Joseph Schenck, the latter becoming another major figure in movies through United Artists and Twentieth Century Pictures (which later merged with Fox).
By the time the Teens came to an end, Loew, working with Nicholas Schenck when Joseph went into film production, operated Loew’s Theatrical Enterprises with well over 100 theaters that largely showcased top vaudeville acts in the early days and much of the growth came with the acquisition of the prominent theater syndicate, Sullivan and Considine. When Zukor became a top producer with his Famous Players-Lasky enterprise, Loew arranged to screen its films in his venues, but conditions changed by the dawn of the Roaring Twenties.
He purchased the small chain of Ackerman-Harris theatres (fewer than 20) that gave him more of a presence on the west coast and then also reorganized as Loews, Inc., which raised enough capital to acquire the struggling Metro Pictures Corporation, which produced and distributed films. Metro was retooled with bigger budgets and a more active production schedule, while it scored a major success by signing Rudolph Valentino, whose The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, released in March 1921, not only made the Italian actor a star and heart-throb of the highest order, but brought a large revenue stream to the studio.
Still, Loew’s core focus was on his theaters and there were over 130, either built or acquired (with a value of some $19 million), by the time he completed his famous New York theater, the Loew’s State, a 3,200-seat palace and 16-story office tower on Broadway and 45th Street. At this time, he also embarked on a project only slightly smaller, the Loew’s State at the southwest corner of Broadway and 7th Street, proudly proclaimed as the busiest intersection in the Angel City and in western America.
Planning began early in 1920, just after the purchase of Metro, with the Seventh and Broadway Building Company formed to build the 12-story fireproof structure for the theater, stores and offices on a 98-year lease. An early ad from that summer for first mortgage bonds noted that the location “is considered the most valuable corner in the City, being in the very center of the financial, shopping and theater districts,” these generally being situated on Spring Street, 7th Street, and Broadway, respectively.
Agents Wright-Callender-Andrews also advertised the Loew’s State project as part of its growing role in what would be yet another expansive boom in the region during the first part of the Twenties, as it discussed “How WCA Helps Build Los Angeles.” The firm boasted about its sale of the land held by the Wolfskill family that became Westwood under the guiding hand of the Janss Investment Company and its role in making the deal for the site of Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater.
In late 1920, the WCA’s crown jewel was that it “gave another boost of the same kind to Los Angeles when it worked out the deal for the site for Loew’s state Theatre at Seventh and Broadway—the greatest corner in the greatest city west of the Mississippi—the highest priced ground lease in Los Angeles—involving $12,000,000 in rent and the erection of a $2,000,000 building.”
Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is an 18 February 1921 is photograph #9 of a series showing the construction site with the excavated basement, reinforced walls and columns there, plenty of steel beams in piles, and some of the framing in place. The caption lists the architects Weeks & Day and the Reid Brothers along with the contractor MacDonald and Kahn, while in the background are portions of nearby commercial structures and advertising signs for such businesses as Bullock’s department store, the Sun Drug Company and California Furniture Company.
A late April article in the Los Angeles Express promoted the fact that the structure included “a girder so huge that it could not be taken through the streets of Los Angeles except at night” and, made by the local Llewellyn Iron Works, was purportedly the largest and heaviest ever used west of Chicago at 85 feet long and 57 tons. Sam Harris, an Ackerman-Harris executive who was in town to see the girder set in place, told the paper that the building was expected to be opened on the 1st of November with the Metropolitan Opera Company as featured artists.
In mid-July, the structure was featured in advertisements taken out by the Los Angeles Forward Movement as the illustration for why a reader should “LOOK at the building activity in down-town Los Angeles” and why “this bustling activity, this pell-mell rush to build, build, build—it all means something, Mr. Man.” What it signified was “that Los Angeles, right at this moment is enjoying the greatest building era in her career.” With all of this frenzied development, “Mr. Potential Home-owner” was urged to get off the fence and “Build Now.”
A month or so later, the Los Angeles Times noted that veteran manager Nat Holt was hired to run the State, which had entrances on both the Broadway and Seventh sides, and that “a large stage, a specially constructed organ, heavy carpets, atrractive theater chairs, rest rooms, smoking rooms [,] lounging rooms, etc. will all provide the most pleasing appointments,” while the decor was to be in the “Spanish renaissance style.”
A 35-piece orchestra led by Don Philippini of New Orleans was also contracted to work at the venue, while among the major store tenants were the Owl Drug Company and the Busy Bee Candy Company, with the formr renting at $220 per square foot, a figure said to be the same as realized at Broadway and 42nd Street in New York. A cafeteria also operated in the basement. The expected gross annual income from office (400 units) and store rent was expected to approach $600,000, while the builng’s cost estimate rose to $2.4 million.
At the end of October, Loew arrived from New York for a several weeks’ sojourn and took up quarters at the Ambassador, which opened the prior year, as he observed the finishing touches being put on his movie palace. It was announced that the opening night’s act would not be the Met Opera, but, instead, well-known comedian Bert Lytell in the Metro release, “A Trip to Paradise.” Moreover, Metro star Viola Dana was to christen the structure with “a bottle of bubbling champagne—the kind that is hard to get now,” because of Prohibition and that she would do this from “a flower-decked ship with spotlights from adjoining buildings playing upon her.”
Just prior to the opening, on 6 November, the Times provided some detail about the building, including the use of Moorish accents “to break the severity” of the Spanish Renaissance style, such that
On entering the theatre, therefore, one progresses naturally through shade after shade, each lower in tone than the last, till the climax is reached in the carved stone screen that surrounds the stage . . . [while the Spanish Renaisance theme’s] simple dignity of line and concentration of ornament having been thought most fitting to express the idea back of the undertaking and to emphasize the spaciousness of the auditorium.
An electrical apparatus was to help ushers know where seats were vacant, while lights would help patrons find their seats in the darkened auditorium. All the lights in the auditorium were controlled by a single panel in the wings and the stage could be adjusted from 30 to 50 feet in just seconds. For performers, there were two dozen dressing rooms reached by elevator, showers, trunk storage, and a washing machine and iron. As for the screen, it was, at 24′ x 44′, “twice as large as any other in the city,” the asbestos curtain was copper lined and weighed three tons, and the scene-shifting apparatus was innovative.
On opening day, 12 November 1921, major Angel City newspapers like the Express, Record, and Times devoted several pages to the event with ads by contractors, well-wishers and Loew’s celebrating the accomplishment. Articles included discussion of Loew’s rise from a newsboy to a “Theater King,” while it was noted that both Mayor George E. Cryer, who was invariably at most every important opening or function in the city during his term through most of the decade, and Governor William D. Stephens, were in attendance. As to stars, they included Alice Terry, Rex Ingram, Lewis Stone, Buster Keaton, Constance Talmadge, Betty Compson, Antonio Moreno, Hoot Gibson, Colleen Moore, Mary Miles Minter, Bebe Daniels, Harold Lloyd, Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix, Jackie Coogan and many more.
Following Lytell’s picture, acts included the song-and-dance duo of Evol (get it?) and Clare, the “Aces of Harmony” Taylor, Macey and Hawks, the water sensation of Swan’s Novelty, comedians Twyan and Vincent with something involving pancakes and flapjacks, and a staging of “The Lincoln Highwayman.” The orchestra led by Don Philippini was also mentioned and i was noted that, starting the 13th, there would be continuous shows from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. with matinee prices at 30 cents, evenings and Saturday afternoons at 40 cents, and Saturday nights, Sundays and holidays at 50 cents.
In the end, as explained by the Record, the building cost $2.5 million with the theatre involving $1.5 million and its reporter observed that
Standing in the balcony of the new theater and gazing down across the sweep of seats twards the stage, one catches his breath at what he sees. It is like being in a cathedral.
It was added that “one of the best locations in the theater is given over to the women’s lounging room” overlooking Broadway with dressing tables stocked for a quick powder, cigarettes provided, beautiful furniture and other sumptuous details. The mechanical systems were declared to be like what would be found in the boiler room of a warship, while more gushing was readily at hand in comparing the decorative luxutries to that found in the famous cathedrals of Europe.
The Times’ critic Edwin Schallert reported that “thronging sidewalk and street, impeding and even blocking traffic, circling and eddying hither and thither beneath the glare of night’s gay illumination, a veritable maelstrom of people descended” on the scene for the opening, with others watching from nearby hotel or office buildings. Schallert estimated the crowd to be up to 12,000 and police officers were needed to control the crowds in what he reckoned was an unprecedented theater opening.
Inside, the critic continued, the assemblage “perhaps outranked any other that has assembled here” and “made for a pageant of surpassing brilliance,” this including the parade of film stars and other notables captured by still and film cameras and enough use of the latter for a feature production. Loew presided over an informal reception in the foyer, while the mayor and governor were showered with applause as guests of honor. Schallert praised the architecture and decor, writing that “the whole character of the theater is quiet and dignified, probably arising from the breadth and spaciousness of the main auditroium, over which hangs single balcony,” while there were only two “royal” boxes for VIPs.
In 1924, Loew organized Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or M.G.M., but only lived a few years longer, dying in 1927 at age 57. West Coast Theatres took over management of the venue in 1925 and became known as Fox West Coast when William Fox took over. When a federal Supreme Court decision ruled that studios had to relinquish their theater chains, United Artists Theatre Circuit took over operation, though the Loew’s name remained on the signs of the structure until the mid-Fifties, so that the venue was simply known as the State. Metropolitan Theatres operated the theater from the early 1960s to the late 1990s and it has been mostly used as a church since, while a tour by the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and a Los Angeles Conservancy film showing have been held in recent years. As always, the Los Angeles Theatres blog has incredible info on this and so many other venues.