by Paul R. Spitzzeri
There was no shortage of enmity between moralists, religious or otherwise, and the motion picture industry during the Roaring Twenties and a previous post here noted the hiring of Will Hays in 1922 to run the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America organization, with one of his tasks to clean up the content of pictures, though it took some time before he was able to implement the Motion Picture Production (a.k.a., Hays) Code, which cracked down on salacious and otherwise objectionable content starting in 1930.
Sometimes, though, there were unusual alliances made between those tied to the film industry and religion, as will be discussed below. The featured artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post, however, is the fourth issue of the first volume of the Westlake Theatre Newsette, dated 12 February 1928, issued by the venue’s owner, West Coast Theatres, which was soon acquired by studio head William Fox, who’d taken a 40% share not quite three years before. By 1930, however, Fox lost his empire (and would up going to jail on a bribery conviction as he tried to grease the palm of the judge hearing his bankruptcy case) and a merger with 20th Century Pictures led to the formation of 20th Century Fox.
The Westlake Theatre was announced in September 1925 as a project by a building company of that name, with the cost slated to be around $290,000 for the venue on Alvarado Street between Wilshire Boulevard and 6th Street and overlooking Westlake, now MacArthur, Park. The theater was affiliated with West Coast from the get-go and was designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style by architect Richard M. Bates, Jr., who worked in Huntington, West Virginia (named for the railroad family that included Henry E. of the famous library, art museum and botanical gardens in San Marino) in the Angel City from 1925 to 1940 and who also designed the city hall for the San Gabriel Valley city of Azusa.
An early rendering released at that time was substantially different from the final product, as the venue grew both in size and, of course, cost. By April 1926, it was reported that the structure would cost a half-million dollars and have a five-story element with the auditorium to seat 2,000 persons—it was also anticipated that an grand opening would take on the first of June, though this was pushed back over three months.
By the time the theater debuted on 22 September 1926, the cost ballooned to more than $750,000, but it was reported that the venue “represents one of the outstanding examples of ultramodern theatrical constructions” as it was added that “experts declare it a typical example of the sharpest development of American theatrical construction.” The first film shown there was “Other Women’s Husbands” starring Marie Prevost and Monte Blue, while Charles Melson and His Playboys provided musical selections and the prominent stage producers Fanchon and Marco presented one of their well-known “ideas” shows. Among the film personalities to make appearances at the venue were the the stars of the feature, along with Master of Ceremonies Lew Cody, Phyllis Haver, Louise Fazenda and others.
For the week of 12 February 1928, the feature film was “Baby Mine,” starring the comedy team of George K. Arthur and Karl Dane, as well as the extraordinarily limber Charlotte Greenwood—this flicker was featured in a previous post here highlighting a late December 1927 edition of the Loew’s State Newsette. Also on the program was “an old timer,” being a Charles Chaplin short called “Revelry,” but which was originally released in 1914 as “The Rounders,” co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Phyllis Allen and Minta Durfee.
Another notable part of the period covered by the program was that West Coast denoted it as “Edison Week” in honor of the 81st birthday of the legendary inventor Thomas Edison. A short statement made the the company’s president, Harold Franklin, stated that
This Edison Week is but a small reminder to our patrons that you stand alone as the greatest benefactor America has given the world. You have made life more bearable; you have brought sunshine where darkness was before; you have worked and slaved that our industry and scores of other industries giving employment and enjoyment to millions, might live and grow.
While this was an initiative of the theater chain, it was asserted that “this movement has grown from a tribute to a mighty, sweeping thing—alive, vibrant and imperishable . . . a national movement.” Franklin concluded with the wish that “may your eighty-first birthday bring you the continued happiness that is so rightfully yours.”
The Los Angeles Record of the 11th contained a much lengthier statement by the West Coast chief executive to Edison with Franklin observing the large industrial concerns, merchants, clubs and civic organizations and others joined in the tribute. It was added that “one of the outstanding virtues” of the inventor “is his unfailing hopefulness and self-confidence,” while Franklin expressed the hope that 1929 would bring “an international movement” to honor Edison for his next birthday. Lastly, it was stated that “history, when it begins to analyze this century of ours . . . will quickly and deservingly give it a name. The Edison Age!”
A strange article in the program concerned a special world’s premiere screening of a “sensational film,” the title and theme of which, however, were under wraps as “the producers . . . forbid the disclosing of definite information concerning the production” and West Coast had “no choice but to comply with their will.” All that could be said was that it “is predestined to develop into one of the most universally discussed picturizations of all time,” that it took six years to make at tremendous cost and that “its technique and handling is exceedingly fine.” Moreover, “the subject treated has stirred the blood of ministers, doctors, authors, scientists ad intellectuals for two centuries.”
The production was also described as “The Drama of Life Itself,” and West Coast noted that “we are neither fanatic nor pagan” and, “while we do not publicly take issue with any theory, science or philosophy, we do stand firm in the belief that every living human owes to himself and to his ancestry the seeing, the studying, the discussing of this most timely picturization.” Notably, the subject matter was such that no one under the age of 16 was to be admitted to the screenings, to be held Monday the 13th at 8:15 and 10 p.m. If anyone reading this can identify the film, please leave a comment.
Also included in the publication were previews of upcoming pictures, including “The Gay Defender” starring Richard Dix as the semi-mythical bandido Joaquín Murrieta imagined as a Robin Hood in early American-era California and Thelma Todd, who died in a strange incident involving carbon monoxide poisoning in 1935, as Murrieta’s love interest, and James Cruze’s “We’re All Gamblers,” starring Thomas Meighan as a boxer who falls in love with a society girl as he rises to the upper echelons of New York’s nightclub scene. Also featured is the famous humorist Will Rogers and his comedy “A Texas Steer,” co-starring Louise Fazenda, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Ann Rork, whose father was the producer and who later was briefly married to oil producer J. Paul Getty.
How the Westlake Theatre also came to be used on Sunday morning as a church is not known, but West Coast allowed All Souls’ Church to hold its services there from its opening until summer 1929. The pastor of the church was Charles F. Aked (1864-1941), a charismatic figure who hailed from Nottingham, England (the purported home of the original Robin Hood) and was the son of a tavern owner. Aked became a Baptist minister and for seventeen years had a pastorate at Liverpool, but his fascination with Abraham Lincoln and well-received tours of the United States in which his sermons, including on our 16th president, brought him a reputation and renown.
In 1907, Aked accepted the position of pastor at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, where the most famous congregate was oil tycoon John D. Rockfeller of the Standard Oil empire. After four years, he took a new pastorate in San Francisco, but with a new denomination, as he headed the First Congregational Church from 1911-1915. He then heeded a call from auto mogul Henry Ford to join him in a trip to Europe to seek an end to the First World War, though the scheme was a debacle and Aked called it the “greatest blunder” of his life. He was also lionized by Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm for criticizing American sales of arms to those in the fight, though Aked asserted that he was not taking sides and was an advocate for peace.
Following the conclusion of the conflict, he moved to Kansas City to lead the First Congregational Church and remained in that position for five years, resigning to work with Frank Dyer, who was also from England, at the Wilshire Boulevard Congregational Church, which opened in 1921 in the theater at the newly launched Ambassador Hotel. The church moved into an elaborate facility at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Plymouth Avenue in May 1925, but the controversial Dyer and the outspoken Aked butted heads and the latter left to form All Souls.
The new church met at the Criterion Theatre, a West Coast venue, until the Westlake Theatre was opened and Aked’s sermons in early 1928 included his favorite subject, Lincoln, as well as boy criminals; “the criminal doctrine of moral imbecility associated with the name of Clarence Darrow,” the famous attorney who defended a Tennessee high school teacher instructing on evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (Darrow was also involved as a defense lawyer in the Los Angeles Times bombing trial of 1911); and “the fascinating life story of Will Durant,” whose 1927 book Transition was a “mental autobiography” discussing, among other aspects, his association with anarchists, his socialistic leanings, but also his struggle to understand history and his personal development. Durant, with his wife as co-writer on several volumes, also produced the 11-volume The Story of Civilization from the 1920s to the 1970s.
When Dyer was removed from his pastorate in June 1928 after more controversy swirled around his attempts to raise money to save the Wilshire Boulevard church and with other matters, an effort was launched to merge with All Souls. After protracted negotiations and Aked securing funding from the Bank of Italy (now Bank of America) and Guarantee Title and Trust Company, the transfer of the church to All Souls was made official in June 1929 and services were moved from the Westlake Theatre the following month.
Aked and his church, however, assumed a $331,000 debt and with the onset of the Great Depression just a few months later, the financial strain was too much to overcome and, early in 1931, a deal was struck for the church to be sold to the Wilshire Methodist Episcopal Church (which still operates there now), with it involving cash and property entailing $529,000. For a brief time, All Souls returned to the familiar confines of the Westlake Theatre, but it soon moved to the same theater at the Ambassador Hotel where Dyer launched his church a decade earlier. Aked and All Souls remained there until his death, just days before his 77th birthday.
In an editorial marking Aked’s death, the Los Angeles Times observed that he was “a staunch advocate of whatever he thought was right, but one ever ready to acknowledge an error in judgment,” including the 1915 “peace ship” mistake. Aked was also known as a passionate and unyielding opponent of fundamentalism, which rose in great popularity in the Angel City during the early 20th century. He was lionized, however, for his ability to build large congregations and these, the paper asserted, “remain as California monuments to his spiritual endeavors.”
As for the Westlake Theatre, it continued to show films under the Fox West Coast banner until the end of 1959, after which it was an independent venue, including the screening of Spanish-language films as the demographics of the area dramatically transformed. After its closure in 1991 and the interior was gutted for a swap meet, the City of Los Angeles declared the building a Historic-Cultural Monument and, while it is looking rather the worse for wear these days, it is still standing.
The excellent Los Angeles Theatres blog has great photos and content about the Westlake and friend of the Homestead, Hadley Meares, has also written a fine piece about the venue. Also of interest are pages from the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Cinema Treasures blog.