by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As a couple of previous posts here have observed, the issuing of bonds for commercial real estate in 1920s Los Angeles was commonplace, with an early post concerning a 1925 issuance for the Edwards and Wildey Building and Annex at Grand Avenue and Sixth Street and a more recent one dealing with the 1928 financing of the Commercial Exchange Building at Oliver and Eighth streets. A third entry involved the 1923 bond issue for the Great Republic Life Building, on Eighth between Main and Spring, constructed by the Central Finance Building Company, of which Walter P. Temple was a key member.
This post looks at another example, but one involving one of the most important entertainment venues in the Angel City during the Roaring Twenties: Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre, and its six-story structure, including upper floor offices, at the northeast corner of Hill and Sixth, across from Pershing Square and within close proximity to the first two buildings mentioned above. Dated 2 November 1923, a trust indenture, from the Museum’s collection, for the authorized issue of $3.75 million dollars in first mortgage gold bonds, offering 6 1/2% interest is the featured artifact for this post.
Grauman was one of the most notable entertainment promoters in Los Angeles and a 2019 post on this blog covered some of his history, starting with his birth in Indianapolis in 1859 and his humble origins with running theaters with his father in San Francisco. In 1917, the Graumans came to Los Angeles, having sold their venues in the northern metropolis to Adolph Zukor, who later ran the powerful Paramount Pictures studio, and he partnered with them to build the aptly named Million Dollar Theater on Broadway and Third Street. Shortly afterward, the Graumans purchased the Rialto, built the year they arrived in the Angel City.
Then came the next project that encompassed all of Sid Grauman’s lofty aspirations in the highly competitive world of theater ownership and management. Declaring that he’d always felt there was great potential in the area around the recently renamed Pershing Square (formerly known as Central or Sixth Street Park), he teamed with Zukor and the Hill Street Fireproof Building Company, to acquire the lot.
This property last housed the First Methodist Episcopal Church, which started in 1868 on Broadway (then known as Fort Street) and which moved to the Hill and Sixth location in 1900. Though the church found a third spot at Hope and Eighth streets in 1913, it took eight years for a groundbreaking for a house of worship, which was completed in July 1923 after the church occupied temporary quarters for four years at Mason Opera House on Broadway.
The Los Angeles Times of 20 August 1919 reported that
America’s largest and most luxurious show-house, to cost more than $2,000,000, will be immediately constructed at the present site of the First Methodist Church, Sixth and Hill streets, on ground for which Sid Grauman, the motion picture exhibitor, and his father D[avid]. J. Grauman, have just paid $1,000,000 cash, in the largest cash realty transaction consummated in downtown Los Angeles within the last eleven years.
The purchase comprised three lots, including ones on the two thoroughfares flanking the church (the one on Sixth featured a commercial structure completed by the Hill Street Fireproof Building Company) and it was announced that the theater structure, fireproof and of reinforced concrete, would cost $1.5 million including the 4,200-seat auditorium, the biggest in the nation, and the office tower, which was to be a height-limit (maximum of 10 stories) building, the architect of which was to be chosen soon.
The edifice was expected to be of Greek, Roman and Italian styles and with a roof garden and special lighting system imported from France, while the auditorium was to have the main section and two galleries, these latter shaped like Roman chariots. The stage was to be 45 feet deep with a proscenium arch 90 feet tall and 74 feet wide and be able to accommodate any kind of production, musical, theatrical or otherwise, and a massive $100,000 organ, the largest to be built by the famed Wurlitzer company, was also to be synchronized with the interior lighting.
Demolition of the church building commenced, though there were legal disputes between a contractor and the Graumans and the building company, the first indication of issues that plagued the theater project. At the end of March 1920, the Hill Street Fireproof Building Company was granted state permission to sell $1 million of first mortgage bonds and $200,000 of serial notes, both with 6% interest. Yet, while much was made of the mammoth theater and structure and Sid Grauman was feted and celebrated for his showmanship, entrepreneurial spirit and publicity acumen during that year, little was actually accomplished.
At the end of 1920, an architectural rendering was published which showed which showed the theater portion surrounded by the three-part office tower and Edwin Bergstrom was hired as the architect. Bergstrom, once associated with the prominent John Parkinson, had his concept published in a 1922 book of architecture, the subject of a prior post here, but, after considerable time, the taller office portion was abandoned. Moreover, the Metropolitan was reassigned by William Lee Woolett, who’d worked on the Million Dollar and a 1923 remodeling of the Rialto for Grauman.
In the 19 December 1920 edition of the Times, Grauman explained that he expected the theater to open in the fall of 1921 and the paper added “Mr. Grauman let it be known that there is no actual hitch in the construction project, as has been reported from time to time, and that very shortly he will have a day and night force at work on the building.” There was an interesting reference to the notion that “the interior is to be designed in a more democratic manner than originally anticipated,” though how and involving whom was not mentioned, while changes in the seating arrangement from a “diamond horseshoe box effect” was also alluded to, if vaguely.
As to Pershing Square, Grauman told the paper that he wanted to work with neighbors in improving Pershing Square and “making it the big show place of the city” through beautification efforts, as well as holding concerts and in the display of “plastic art works.” Returning to the theater, the impresario insisted,
There is no actual delay in construction . . . we have been going slowly, simply to take advantage of the drop in prices of material and labor . . . the money for the construction is on hand. There is no difficulty about financing. You can easily see, however, that it would have been unwise to hasten construction when there was a possibility of an early lessening of the cost. We are simply availing ourselves of that advantage.
Moreover, he added that a massive concrete foundation was solid enough to support thirty stories, provided city ordinances allowed for the eleven that were the upper limit. The following week, the Times published further details on the Metropolitan, but noted the height was to be thirteen stories and that preparation for the foundations and the wooden structure for the auditorium trusses were underway.
The first floor was not only to comprise the theater, but several stores, while there were to be 106 offices in this section and 355 in the surrounding wings. The stage was to be for both film showings and “legitimate performances,” meaning live theatrical offerings,” while seating was then pegged at 3,700, of which some 2,000 were to be in the balconies. Entrances to the auditorium were to be from both the Hill and Sixth sides, each with a marquee.
A “grand promenade was to be 3,750 square feet, with lounges for men and women and Grauman’s office located off this space, along with a film preview room. In the basement, a green room and library for musicians was mentioned, while an area under the orchestra would be available for patrons, an unusual touch. Returning to the offices, it was recorded that they could be leased as individual rooms, suites or entire floors and that most of them would have frontage on Hill facing Pershing Square.
While contracts were let by Bergstrom in April 1921, concrete pouring did not begin until June and this was almost certainly because the architect was replaced by Woolett by the time the Times ran a feature, with some of his renderings, about the interior design in its issue of 22 May. It was noted that Woolett’s work was “derived principally from the architecture of Egypt and the Orient, including the main lobby of nearly 2,800 square feet “patterned after the rock-cut tombs of Egypt and Arabia.” Yet, the hand-made tile in the floor of this space “will depict phases of the development of Western America,” though what the story of the indigenous people was to reflect as opposed to that of Anglos would have been very interesting to know.
Exposed concrete was to be rendered with color and gold ornamentation on its surfacing, including those partially exposed concrete-covered trusses. The canopy for the proscenium was to be “a composite of oriental and occidental designs” while a large ceiling dome of plaster was to be covered with embossed gold and bronze ornamentation along with medallions with space for murals. Above the screen was to be an enormous rendering of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in porcelain with colors baked on, while the curtain would be framed in bronze and opened and closed with bronze chains working on noiseless swivels.
Given the change in architects and other transformations, it was not stated that an opening date was expected to be by New Year’s Day 1922 and Brook Hawkins, the chief engineer of the Winter Construction Company, the structure’s contractor and which later sued Grauman over construction delays and costs, told the Times that 5 million pounds of steel, 100,000 sacks of cement, and north of 2 million feet of lumber were to be utilized while the cantilever supporting the balcony was to weigh 1,100 tons.
In the meantime, after a new planned opening of June 1922, there were rumors that Grauman was going to sell the theater and building, with the Times of 31 March stating that theater titan Oliver Morosco was going to acquire it. Grauman, however, informed the paper “everything is going ahead just as originally projected” and added “we have approached a very interesting point . . . where the grandeur of the interior is becoming apparent.” Given this, he went on, “I have no intention whatsoever of transferring the theater at this advanced time to anybody else. Nor have I ever had.”
The 26 October edition of the paper printed a new rumor that West Coast Theatres, Inc., later to be absorbed by William Fox, “was conducting negotiations with Mr. Grauman for the acquiring of an interest in either the Metropolitan or the Third-street theater [the Million Dollar.]” This was strenuously denied by Grauman who added “I have nothing for sale” and that “I intend to maintain them independently” except for his existing associates. Noting that the Million Dollar was to be remodeled once the Metropolitan was completed in about ten weeks, Grauman concluded that both were to exclusively run Paramount productions (which Walter P. Temple’s Temple Theatre in Alhambra did, as well).
Shortly afterward, leasing of offices finally took place and business began to move in. A 26 January 1923 date was finally established for a grand opening and about 1,000 laborers, including decorators, electricians and mechanics, were employed to rush the work to completion. It was added that the construction cost ballooned dramatically to about $4 million. Articles and photos in the days preceding the debut emphasized “exotic touches” and proclaimed that “lovers of art will find inspiration” in what was deemed to be a “mecca for students.” This included a mural called “The Flowery Kingdom,” a phrase formerly used as a mocking reference to the Chinese in Los Angeles.
After three years, the change in architects and the footprint, as well as greatly accelerating costs, the Metropolitan finally opened, with the Times, Los Angeles Express and Los Angeles Record devoting multi-page special sections to the completion and debut. Advertisements for “The Show Place of the World” emphasized the program, including the dedication and introductions by film folk and others; an ensemble of 100 musicians and 500 singers performing a selection from Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhauser; “100 California beauties in a colossal surprise;” 40 violinists and 8 harpists providing a rendition of “Ave Maria;” a 25-dancer ballet; a performance by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians; and Henry B. Murtagh at the organ. As for the feature film, it was My American Wife starring Gloria Swanson and, as her Argentinian rancher spouse, Antonio Moreno.
Grauman professed that the Metropolitan represented the culmination of his theater-building efforts and that “anything that I might undertake on so elaborate a scale in the future would probably only appear as an imitation.” He added that such an attempt would be fruitless because “this theater is not only the result of construction, but also of natural growth and progress, and besides it embodies an ideal.” Of course, he went on to construct the Egyptian and Chinese theaters in Hollywood, though not on anywhere near the same scale, though his peculiar penchant for exotica continued unabated.
As for the issuance of the $3.75 million in bonds, the trust indenture by Security Trust and Savings Bank recorded that it was “for the purpose of effecting the retirement, refunding, cancellation and payment of the present existing bonded indebtedness” of the Hill Street Fireproof Building Company, totaling $1.3 million “and for the other uses and purposes of the Company authorized by the articles of incorporation.” The bonds, in denominations of $1,000 each were to mature from 1926 to 1944, with the mortgage to be secured to the trust and savings bank through the building property, as well as two commercial blocks in Hollywood and 26 lots near Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, with the value of these more than double the issue amount.
Two weeks after the issuance, the Times of 14 November reported that Grauman relinquished “full control of all downtown Grauman Theaters” to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, headed by Zukor, also chief of Paramount, as more than 11,000 shares of Famous Players-Lasky stock was issued to him. With the Million Dollar, Rialto and Metropolitan handed over to his partners, who already had half-ownership, Grauman was left to concentrate on his Hollywood venues.
Deemed “one of the largest real estate bond issues ever underwritten in Los Angeles,” the issue was subject to a call for redemption of just north of $950,000 in November 1926, by which time Paramount, as a major investor in the project from the beginning, took over the theater, which no longer carried Grauman’s name before “Metropolitan.” In October 1927, Paramount undertook its own $3.5 million bond issue, due from 1930 to 1942 and held in trust by Security and the Anglo & London-Paris National Bank, with the bonds partially secured by the Metropolitan building. Monies were to be used to complete Paramount Studio purchases, capital expenditures, and to call the remaining $1.6 million in the Hill Street Fireproof Building Company bonds.
Renamed the Paramount Theatre in 1929, the venue was purchased for above $2 million nearly three decades later by a Beverly Hills developer and, after closing in 1960, was demolished. While plans were announced for a 35-story skyscraper (the height limit having been recently dispensed with), that project failed to materialize and, in 1981, the International Jewelry Center was completed on the site. As usual, there is a wealth of great information and images on the Los Angeles Theatres blog.