Downtown theaters open for a day to bring Broadway relics back to life

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Hundreds of people strolled Broadway in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, peeking into the lobbies and wandering the usually hidden interiors of the area's many elaborate and largely dormant movie theaters. It was part of "This Day on Broadway," an initiative to fling open the double doors of the theaters and garner excitement from the public — and maybe pique the interest of retailers and restaurateurs. 

The daylong event was organized by area civic and business groups, and by city councilman Jose Huizar, who represents much of downtown and has been pushing for the area's resurgence since launching his "Bringing Back Broadway" campaign six years ago.

Theaters were open to the public for the full day, with tours from the L.A. Conservancy and Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and talks on the theaters' histories provided by Ed Kelsey, who's helped restore a number of Broadway's theaters, including the Orpheum Palace.

"You never know who's going to be in the audience," said Kelsey, whose company is currently working to renovate the United Artists Theater at Broadway and Olympic. The old building is already housing guests at the new Ace Hotel, the hip Seattle-based hotel chain.

"There's always the chance that there's somebody who's going to become inspired either to do an event at the theaters, to figure out a new use for one of the theaters or one of the other buildings around Broadway," said Kelsey, who gave several back-to-back lectures in three separate theaters on Saturday.

Broadway's theater district has the largest collection of historic theaters on one street in the U.S., according to the "Bringing Back Broadway" website, which has histories for most of them.

The district has recently been experiencing a resurgence. Along with the U.A. Theater, which will reopen as a concert venue in the next few weeks, there are a number of other plans in the works for the once crumbling behemoths. Urban Outfitters recently moved into the Rialto at Broadway and 8th, restoring its bright marquee and revamping its interior. Further down at 9th, the Orpheum has been operating as a concert venue for over a decade. And Kelsey says the darkened Globe Theater at Broadway and 4th was recently rented and will likely be renovated in the next year. 

Meanwhile, a few blocks away on Main and 5th, the Regent Theater is being rebuilt to be a concert venue and restaurant by Mitchell Frank, owner of the Echo and Echoplex. 

But few of those repurposed theaters can hold a candle to the interiors of the Million Dollar Theater, the Orpheum Palace, or the Los Angeles Theatre, which at one time had its own restaurant, kids playroom, and overflow theater on the ground floor.

They and several others on display Saturday have been bought and restored by wealthy L.A. families, including the Delijanis (owners of Broadway's Palace, State, Los Angeles and Tower Theaters) and Adele Yellin (owner of the Million Dollar), and are open intermittently for private events and one-night shows. And their owners are looking for new ideas for the spaces.

But it's not cheap to restore and run a massive old complex. Kelsey estimates those theaters rent for between $10,000 and $20,000 a night. 

Huizar has made downtown's revitalization a focus of his time in office. Before a lecture on the vaudeville history of the Orpheum Palace Theater on Saturday, the Boyle Heights-bred councilman explained why:

"As a boy, I used to come down to Broadway and do my back-to-school shopping," he said, "and I actually came to a few of these theaters — I don't remember which ones, I was too young — with $5. I'd ride the 22 RTD [Rapid Transit District] bus from Boyle Heights — that cost like 20 cents I think — go into a theater for 99 cents, watch three kung fu movies — mostly Bruce Lee movies. Popcorn and a soda was another dollar. So for 5 bucks I was entertained all day Sunday. And my mom loved it. She would send her 6 boys and girls off to Broadway every Sunday." 

Huizar's initiative to revive the once-threatened theaters is one part of his effort to reawaken downtown, including efforts to widen Broadway's sidewalks and slim its streets, and an attempt to construct a streetcar that would loop around downtown. That effort hit a jam after initial estimates for its construction proved too low.

But despite the costs, Huizar says downtown L.A.'s theaters are worth preserving.

"Relatively speaking, to the rest of the country and the rest of the world, some would say the history of L.A. is not so long," he said. "But what we do have we have to preserve for the future, especially when we have beautiful architecture like this."

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