by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When it opened at the end of 1927, the United Artists Theatre on Broadway south of 9th Street was the last word in opulence and a paramount example of the phrase “movie palace.” Designed by the prominent architects Walker and Eisen, who designed many of Walter P. Temple’s buildings, including the Temple Theatre in Alhambra and the early stages of his house, La Casa Nueva, at the Homestead, and C. Howard Crane of Detroit, who designed many theaters, the building cost a princely $3.5 million.
The venue opened eight years after a quartet of the biggest names in the film industry—D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford (the latter pair soon to be married)—launched the United Artists venture to have more control over their movies and their careers. Griffith later opted out of the company and Joseph Schenck, husband and producer of star Norma Talmadge, became its second president, while also purchasing and building theaters in partnership with Pickford and Chaplin.
When the theater opened, with Pickford’s My Best Girl as the inaugural feature, it was reported by the Los Angeles Record that Schenck and business partner I.C. Freud and their Ninth and Broadway Building Company were the builders, with management by West Coast Theaters, Inc. and its president Harold B. Franklin. Walker and Eisen’s design was said to be “Spanish-Gothic of the renaissance period” and to be somewhat uncommon, with the Spanish element reflective, evidently, of California’s early history and the Gothic component “to add a refined note.”
Seating was provided for over 2,200 guests, more than 40% of which could fit in the expansive balcony, 165 in the mezzanine loges and just under half at the main floor level. Seats were wider as were aisles for more comfort and leg room, while the foyer, with 30-foot high mirrors, candelabras, massive bronze chandelier and flood lights, was intended to have a cathedral-like effect as patrons entered the theater. Alcoves, balconies, the painting and other decorative effects were also highlighted as important decorative features in the lobby.
In the auditorium, a highlight was the construction of a mirrored dome, comprised of 3,000 discs with 1,000 glass pendants interspersed with them and, with a sunburst effect was “really a magnificent spectacle.” Travertine and marble were used for walls along with “three large perforated fans on each side of the auditorium running up to the ceiling and forming the apparent support thereto.”
Also on the walls were “two immense murals which have been visited by most of the architects, artists and art lovers of Los Angeles” and which “represent various phases of motion-picture life,” including the “Motion Picture Dispelling Ignorance,” images of United Artists stars, and a visage of the late Rudolph Valentino.
The women’s lounge and smoking room was highlighted for its cosmetic room “where perfumes, powders, manicuring accessories, special mirrors and all the adjuncts of a beauty shop will be available to women patrons.” The full-size stage was 50 feet across at the proscenium opening and 30 feet deep and, over the arch, was “a gorgeously lighted and decorated Gothic screen.”
The well-known firm of Barker Brothers provided the decorative furnishings, including a rug of 1,250 square feet, custom-made in Europe for the theater, while tapestries, drapes, curtains, paintings and carpets were color coordinated. The paper ended by observing,
Excelling in beauty and appointments even “Roxy’s” and the Paramount theaters in New York, the new $3,500,000 United Artists theater takes second rank to no theater in the world for luxury and artistry of interior decorations. It has many features for the comfort and luxury of patrons not found in any other American theater.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is a press photo, taken by Harry Wenger, who took many images for movies and live performance in the Angel City, and which was archived in the reference department of the Newspaper Enterprise Association on 24 April 1928.
It is not known whether the image was reproduced in newspaper articles, but it depicts the venue’s projectionist showing the latest advancement in film projectors to a woman usher. A caption in pencil on the reverse reads, “Chief operator in the United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles explains to one of the pretty usherettes how a projection machine is loaded with film.” It was added that the reel of film was placed in a container at the top and then the film moved between the lens and light and was wound up on a lower reel.
During that month of April, there were two features shown at the venue, with the Harold Carewe-directed version, the first UA release with synchronized sound, of Helen Hunt Jackson’s enormously popular romantic novel, Ramona, starring Dolores del Rio running for about a month. The star, a native of Durango, the capital city of the Mexican state of that name, and whose cousin was star Ramon Novarro, was featured in the 1 April edition of the Los Angeles Times, which insisted that “in ‘Ramona,’ Dolores Del Rio lives the story of her own people, her Spanish ancestors among the Indians of early California.”
In this role, the piece continued, the actor found “a sweep and a play for her emotions as the lovely Indian maiden borne down by tragedy that no other vehicle [for her career] has yet afforded.” Del Rio was quoted as saying, “I like Ramona very much. Not only could I put before people the true story of my people and the Indians, but I could be sad and tragic” and she went on to note that “I have a feeling of tremendous exultation, of being swept onto heights and down into depths.”
It was added that, filming a European gypsy picture in Mazatlán, near her hometown, after three years of being in Hollywood, included her being inundated by Mexicans enamored with the star. The article added that, as part of her six-picture deal with United Artists and with Carewe, del Rio was to play a Burmese maid, while another would “probably deal with Mexico, its historic background and people of Spanish descent. Notably, a separate article stated that four generations of an Indian family played roles in Ramona and that the late husband of the elder was purportedly the first Indian to appear in a film.
For this latter, the actor commented, “my people have never until now been brought truly to the screen. They are always shown as people think they are, but not truly. ‘Ramona’ is true, is faithful to my customs and traditions.” She added “I helped them make it so” by, for example, pointing out the right kind of drinking vessel for water, even as it means reshooting on a rebuilt set. Moreover, del Rio told the paper, “another time I baked tortillas in an oven just as my ancestors did . . . I was doing the same thing my grandmother did, in the same way.”
Del Rio ended that piece by proclaiming that her film career was important beyond anything else in her life, but the 14 April edition of the Record warned readers in the headline of a feature on the actor: “Don’t Envy a Movie Star; Consider [The] Life She Leads.” While a movie fan might see del Rio on the screen “and wish they were in her shoes,” it was pointed out that she was working on three films at one time, including Ramona, The Trail of ’98, about the Yukon gold rush, and The Red Dancer of Moscow. Hours were spent standing for costume fitting and answering fan mail, while “an alarming time-taker” was “the ever-present thought of sufficient rest” for her looks and energy. Given her busy schedule, “the poor star has little if any time she can truthfully call her own.”
The second feature of the month was The Garden of Eden, unusual in that the film was made before the American stage version, adapted from a European predecessor, was mounted. Starring Corinne Griffith in her first United Artists production, the picture was centered on the Eden Hotel in Monte Carlo and Griffith played a singer who had operatic ambitions, but appeared in a Budapest cabaret, though she is fired when she rejects the advances of a wealthy guest. She tags along with a poor baroness on a trip to Monte Carlo and falls in love with a rich young man.
Times reviewer Marquis Busby considered the storyline “fragile” and the pacing too “deliberate” but noted that Griffith fans would be pleased by the extravagant costumes and her “pleasing characterization,” while the cinematography showed her to excellent effect, including a few scenes shot in color. Also praised was the symphonic performances of “Rain” by conductor Hugo Riesenfeld, recently hired by the UA, along with “a lovely atmospheric prologue” comprising a recreation of the hotel garden from the movie. Finally, there was a notable short film about aviation history from the Wright Brothers through the trans-Atlantic flight almost a year before of Charles Lindbergh.
In his column “Grouchy Remarks,” Times columnist Harry Carr, in his inimitable style, commented that, after making The Garden of Eden, Griffith “jumped the reservation at United Artists; and went back to First National,” with which she joined in 1923. He opined that “so far as my feeble judgment goes, it is the best picture she has ever made,” a general opinion among critics being that it was a good film, even as box office receipts were lackluster.
Carr went on to suggest that Griffith built her stardom on “making punk pictures” in which “she is so exquisite and so fascinating in a slightly bored way that you don’t care much what the pictures are about.” He added that the star should have been thankful for the film’s producer, John W. Considine, Jr. because “he gave her the best acting support I have ever seen in any picture,” including Charles Ray as her love interest and accounted to be “the best actor who has ever played leads on the screen,” Louise Dresser, who “stands alone” with “more penetration and more dynamic power of suggestion” than any peer, and Lowell Sherman and his “supercilious, sneering contempt.”
Riesenfeld was also profiled for his work for the UA chain in “building its programs, strengthening its entertainment units, [and] arranging its musical settings.” He was determined, moreover, to keep vaudeville and motion pictures separate, but also referred to developing a “vaudeville on the screen” including “a variety of short subjects and musical interpolations—little clear-cut novelties” that were secondary to the feature film. The paper added,
He visualizes the photoplay as something fine, as a possibility often realized, often dissolved by the cruel chemistry of commercialism, and the photoplay palace as an institution, a counting-house which must give more than it receives, a meeting place for artist and artisan.
Known for his scores of films like The Ten Commandments, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Beau Geste, Riesenfeld, who migrated to America in the early Teens with Oscar Hammerstein, and soon became a conductor for theater orchestras in New York before joining UA for its venues in Chicago and Detroit.
He labeled most conductors in movie theaters as “the clown turned conductor,” but discussed his method for scoring with smooth flow of the music, themes for each major character, and he avoidance of being too literal so that “when a book falls to the floor there is no need to beat the drum.” The idea was to counter the tendency to make film music that “makes a noise instead of inspiring emotion.” At a press introduction on 17 April at the Biltmore Hotel, Riesenfeld, as summarized by the Los Angeles Express, reiterated that “elaborate stage acts have no place in picture theaters” and the focus was “on the quality of the celluloid entertainment.
Of course, talking pictures were just starting to become ascendant in filmdom and it is interesting to peruse a Pomona Progress-Bulletin article from 13 April about the operation of the Vitaphone (Warner Brothers) and Movietone (Fox) sound-on-disc systems. A 10 March article in the Times, meanwhile, reported on the development by Freeman Lang of Los Angeles of a “laugh recorder” which “records the laughter of the theater crowd at the picture” in such a way that the action from the film that generated the response could be accurately pinpointed. A radio studio microphone with an amplifier recorded the responses onto a phonograph record and correlating the recording to the projection of the film “permits the reproduction of the laughter at the correct time when the motion picture is projected later” for studio officials.
The advancement of the art of theater building correlates with the development of technologies for projection, sound recording and playing, and such devices as the “laugh recorder” and this is reflective of the leaps and bounds made by the film industry as the Roaring Twenties approached its close. The “That’s a Wrap” series of posts on the movie business will continue to highlight notable artifacts from the Homestead’s collection, so be sure to look out for future entries.
For a great deal of information on the United Artists Theatre, check out its page on the Los Angeles Theatres blog.