Opened: January 19, 1927 as a legit operation, Wilkes Vine St. Theatre. An adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s "An American Tragedy" was the initial production. While it has been used for live theatre for most of its long life, it has also been a radio production studio and film house. This 1927 view was taken as the theatre was getting ready to open. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. The McAvoy/Bruce Torrence Historic Hollywood Photographs collection has a slightly wider version of it, their #T-049-9
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Architects: Myron Hunt and H.C. Chambers
Seating: 1,200 originally -- now down to 970.
The theatre was initially a project of Cecil B. DeMille. In "City Competes With Broadway," a February 7, 1926 L.A. Times article about four new theatres underway, they call the venture "DeMille's playhouse," and noted that although "C.B. DeMille's theater has not yet reached the steam-shovel stage...[it] has already been leased by Wilkes brothers as a playhouse for the spoken drama." For reasons unknown, DeMille's project didn't happen. Perhaps he couldn't get the lot he wanted.
Frank B. Strong and John F. Wilson took over the project and used the plans that had been drawn up for DeMille. Mary Mallory's Only in Hollywood article "Montalban Theatre Continues History of Multi-Media Uses" details what came next:
The contractor for the project was Scofield Engineering - Construction Co. Earlier this land had been the Robert Northam estate. Northam's barn, originally at the southeast corner of Selma and Vine, is now the Hollywood Heritage Museum opposite the Hollywood Bowl. The new developers ended up leasing to the same tenants that DeMille had lined up: Alfred G. and Thomas Wilkes. On the construction fencing it's identified as the Wilkes Brothers Hollywood Theatre.
The brothers had also operated theatres in San Francisco and were briefly involved with what was later known as the Grand Theatre downtown. They originally planned to call the new house the Queen Theatre. This article appeared in the May 2, 1926 issue of the L.A. Times:
The attractions they were envisioning for the start of their season got changed, along with the name of the theatre and the time of the opening. And, despite what the article says, it wasn't the "property of" the Wilkes brothers. They were just tenants. Thanks to Mike Hume for finding the article for the page on his Historic Theatre Photography site about the Montalban.
This lobby drawing of the Vine Street by A.L. Ewing was part of "Hollywood Becoming Another White Way of Show World," a full page spread in the L.A. Times issue of January 16, 1927 that discussed the Vine Street and the Hollywood Playhouse along with other new Hollywood theatres. Thanks to Mike Hume for locating this. He has made the full page available as a PDF.
The Mirror ran double features with 3 changes a week.
They did a remodel and a flashily elaborate deco marquee was installed. The
circuit was run by Howard Hughes and Harold B. Franklin, a former president of
Fox West Coast Theatres. Among other theatres, they also operated the
Studio (later the Holly Theatre) on Hollywood. Blvd. The Pittsburgh Press ran a story about the formation of the circuit by the "young Texan" on December 29, 1930.
A 1933 ad for the Mirror. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating it for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook group. The theatre was listed as the Mirror in the 1933 city directory.
In February 1936 it became the Studio Theatre and as late as the
summer of 1936 was still running films. By this time the earlier Studio Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. had been rebranded as the Colony. It ended up as the Holly.
Later in 1936 CBS took over the Vine St. venue and started calling it the CBS Radio Playhouse in addition to continuing with the Studio name on the signage. From 1936 to 1939 the theatre was the home of the Al Jolson show. The fun marquee soon came off (and, with it, the Studio name) and was replaced by a small canopy with a moderne feel. Huntington Hartford bought the building from CBS in 1953. An excerpt from a July 10, 1953 story Ken McIntyre found in the L.A. Times:
"CBS Radio Theater Sold To Hartford - Columbia Broadcasting System announced sale of its CBS-Radio Theater at 1615 N. Vine Street to Huntington Hartford III, food chain heir, for a figure in excess of $200,000. It was understood that Hartford acquired the theater - scene of many radio shows since 1936 - as a legitimate stage theater and theater workshop. Formerly known as the Vine Street Theater, the house was acquired by the radio network in 1936 and was operated by the Vine Street Realty Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of CBS."
A November 1956 ad located by Bruce Kimmel. He comments: "I want to go the the Huntington Hartford to see 'The Sleeping Prince,' starring some newcomer kid named Shirley MacLaine and the great Hermione Gingold. 'The Sleeping Prince' would, of course, become a motion picture called 'The Prince and the Showgirl,' starring someone named Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe."
A May 1960 ad for Josephine Baker's revue. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding it for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles private Facebook group where he also has an article about the show.
The theatre had another spell as a film house in
1962 for the west coast premiere engagement of Sidney Lumet's "Long
Day's Journey Into Night," with Jason Robards, Katherine Hepburn and
Ralph Richardson, opening December 18, 1962. Filmgoers even got a program. It's from the collection of Daphne Lowe/Pippa Anderson. There's a page about the film on the archive eoneill.com.
The reopening as the Doolittle was October 8, 1985 with a production of "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Martha Clarke. This ad from the UCLA/CTG joint venture appeared in the L.A. Times on September 22, 1985. Thanks to Mike Hume for locating it. In the early 1980s CTG had been producing shows at the Earl Carroll/Aquarius Theatre.
From 1989 until 1995 CTG presented many shows at the Doolittle as their big house, the Ahmanson, was booked with "Phantom of the Opera" from May 1989 to
August 1993, then under renovation until January
1995, and occupied with "Miss Saigon" from January to October 1995. CTG productions at the Doolittle included "Fences" with James Earl Jones, "Six
Degrees of Separation" with Marlo Thomas and Donald Sutherland, "Jake’s Women" starring Alan Alda, "Fool Moon" with Bill Irwin and "Falsettos." One of the last of the CTG shows at the theatre was Patrick Stewart’s adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" in December 1996. Thanks to Mike Hume and David Peake for the data.
The Ricardo Montalban Foundation bought the building in 1999 for use by the UCLA-affiliated Spanish language theatre group Nosotros.
Proscenium: 38' wide x 24' 10" high
Depth: 34' from smoke pocket to back wall
Centerline to SL wall: 33'
Centerline to SR pinrail: 32'
Flyfloor: SL, 22' 8" above stage level
Paint bridge: along the back wall
Grid height: 56' 6"
Linesets: 47 wire guide sets with 4 lift lines. Lockrail and pinrail are at stage level stage right.
Dimmers: 96 2.4 Kw -- patched downstage right
Road power: 2 400A single phase DSR, 1 100A single phase for sound DSL
Screen size: 22' x 42'
Projection: DCP capable with a NEC 2000-C unit, 18K lumens
Dressing rooms: 2 star rooms SL, 6 small rooms SL on 2nd and 3rd floors, 1 chorus room SL on the 4th floor.
A stage plan. It appears here courtesy of Ricardo Ortiz-Barreto, the Montaban's Producer/House Manager. Thanks to Mike Hume for obtaining the tech data. See his Montalban Theatre page for more details and a fine photo portfolio.
Status: The theatre reopened in 2004 as the Ricardo Montalban with a resident troupe featuring works for young people, frequently in Spanish. A variety of film festivals, rentals and other legit programming now round out the schedule. The facade has been restored to a simulation of its 1927 appearance. Rooftop film screenings in the spring and summer began in 2017.
The lobby bar in 1954. The Herald Examiner photo by Lapp is in the Los Angeles Public Library collection as well as in a 14 photo set in the USC Digital Library collection.
Looking down from the balcony level after the 1954 renovations. The Herald Examiner photo is in the Los Angeles Public Library collection as well as in a set in the USC Digital Library collection.
Another view from house right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2019
Looking out the doors toward Trader Joe's. Photo: Bill Counter - 2019
A view from the house right end. The windows look onto Vine St. Photo: Bill Counter - 2019
The west side of the space with an overlook to the main floor. Photo: Bill Counter - 2019
This is the only image to surface so far showing anything of the theatre's original interior decor. It's from an ad for Calacoustic sound absorbing plaster in the March 1927 issue of Architect and Engineer. The issue is available on Internet Archive.
A look across the house. It's James Doolittle in a perhaps 1960s Delmar Watson photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
A 1954 stage view from the balcony. On stage is the set for the first show as the Huntington Hartford: "What Every Woman Knows." It's a Herald Examiner photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection as well as in a set taken for the opening that's in the USC Digital Library collection.
The rear of the auditorium from house right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2019
The balcony vista in a 2015 photo from Yelp.
1926 - Construction beginning. In the title block on the photo it's referred to as the Strong Wilson Theatre. It's a May 21 photo taken from the Plaza Hotel that's in the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. That's the Lasky-DeMille Barn on the left across Selma St. By 1928 it would be moved to the Paramount lot. Also see a slightly earlier view in the collection.
1926 - Rebar and forms are rising during construction of the theatre. On the fencing it's identified as the Wilkes Brothers Hollywood Theatre with Strong and Wilson as owners. Thanks to the amazing McAvoy/Bruce Torrence Historic Hollywood Photographs collection for the photo, their #T-049-1
1926 - The view down onto the balcony during construction, another taken from the Plaza Hotel just north of the site. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. Thanks to GS Jansen for spotting this and others in the LAPL collection that he featured on his Noirish Los Angeles post #5151.
1926 - A look at the facade as the building nears completion. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.
1930 - The evening of the opening of the play "Philadelphia." The Wilkes name is off the signage and the theatre here is just called the Vine St. Theatre. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.
1930 - A view south during the run of "Philadelphia." It's another photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1932 - This photo from "The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History" by Gregory Paul Williams is perhaps the only surviving view of the theatre with its fancy marquee as the Mirror Theatre. We're down to one vertical sign, soon redone when the theatre became the Studio several years later. Mr. Williams terrific book is available on Amazon. There's a preview to browse on Google Books.
1932 - A lovely look toward the back of the Mirror Theatre, "The Symbol of Quality." We're at the corner of Ivar and Selma. Thanks to the McAvoy/Bruce Torrence Historic Hollywood Photographs collection for the image, their #Misc-1927-3.
On the billboards the Iris (much later renamed the Fox) was advertising
Josef von Sternberg's "Blonde Venus," a September 1932 release with
Marlene Deietrich and Cary Grant. The Hollywood had "The Big Broadcast,"
an October release with Stu Erwin and Bing Crosby. At the Marcal (much
later renamed the World Theatre) it was "The All-American," another
October release with Richard Arlen, Andy Devine and Gloria Stuart.
1936 - A lovely shot looking north on Vine St. toward what had become the Studio Theatre. The front of the marquee is unreadable but the end panel says "March Of Time." That newsreel series had its debut in February 1935. Signage on the side of the building says "Studio Theatre Opens Thur. Feb. 13th." The photo, from the California Historical Society, is in the USC Digital Library collection. It also appears in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1936 - A photo in the McAvoy/Bruce Torrence Historic Hollywood Photographs collection with the Studio Theatre in use as the CBS Radio Playhouse. It's the collection's photo #RTV-004-1.
The collection has many more views of the Montalban. Head to their Theatres album of over 200 photos of various Hollywood theatres. They also have separate albums for some locations like the Chinese, El Capitan and Pantages.
c.1936 - A closer look at the marquee when the theatre was called the Studio. Here the Al Jolson Show is on the marquee. Brought to you by Rinso. The show used the theatre beginning in 1936. On the end panel: "CBS Radio Playhouse." That lovely marquee was soon to be history. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.
c.1937 - A postcard of the theatre, here with new signage as the CBS Radio Playhouse. The fancy marquee installed when it was a film house had been removed -- all we got was a sedate little canopy. The building next door, Al Levy's Tavern, would later get a remodel and be renamed Mike Lyman's. The card is in the California State Library collection, their item #001533779.
c.1937 - The very nice Noirish Los Angeles post # 5180 by a Mr. Ere featured this photo of the Montalban, here in its CBS days. It comes from page 91 of the 1970 book "Cavalcade of Broadcasting" by Curtis Mitchell, Follet Publishing Co., Chicago. That's the Plaza Hotel off to the right. The show the banner is for is "Hollywood Hotel" with Campbell Soup as the sponsor. The view appears, with an anecdote by contributor The Sea Hawk, on Flickr. It's also been on the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles with many comments.
1937 - A shot from across the street. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. Phil Thomas offers a chapter of the history of the theatre's neighbor, formerly Al Levy's Tavern:
"On the right of the picture is Mike Lyman’s Grill, a longtime restaurant in Hollywood frequented by movie stars and writers, and famous for its cocktails. F. Scott Fitzgerald ate his last evening meal here in December 1940 with his girlfriend Sheila Grahame, the gossip columnist. They then went to a movie premiere at the Pantages Theatre round the corner on Hollywood Boulevard. Fitzgerald had a fatal heart attack at Grahame's apartment in West Hollywood the following day. Sadly, Lyman’s is now a parking garage."
c.1946 - A lovely look north on Vine with the theatre down there in the distance with a "CBS" sign hanging off the corner of the building. Thanks to Hector Acuna for locating this one for a post on the private Facebook group Mid Century Modern. It popped up again in a 2023 post on the Vintage Los Angeles Facebook page where Glen Norman commented: "The 'tall' street lights with the scroll arms and pendant teardrops first appeared on Vine Street in 1946. By late 1949, ABC had moved into the Breneman's facility. So, we've got a fairly narrow window as to when this photo was taken."
1953 - A lovely image from a Kodachrome slide in the collection of Alison Martino of Vintage Los Angeles fame. This view and others from Alison's collection
are now available in high-quality prints from Ahmet Zappa's Haloes and Arrows gallery.
1954 - The remodeled theatre showing off its night look sometime before the opening. It's a photo by an unknown photographer that's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1954 - Early in the evening of the opening night as the Huntington Hartford. The play, with Helen Hayes, was "What Every Woman Knows." The September 27 photo was posted by Robert Switzer on the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles.
mid 1950s - A great noirish look north on Vine St. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for posting it on the Photos of Los Angeles private Facebook group.
1958 - At the Hartford it's "Mask and Gown," a "hilarious musical" starring female impersonator Thomas Craig Jones. Bruce Kimmel notes that the show opened September 1 for a two week run. Before touring, it had played 39 performances at New York's John Golden Theatre in September and October 1957.
Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Riichkay for locating the shot for his Noirish post #59153. In the foreground is British actress June Wilkinson, not connected with the show. Martin Pal, in his Noirish post #59155, offers an another take of Ms. Wilkinson from this shoot. It's one of 32 photos of her he found on the site Bygonely.
1973 - The theatre in July with Carol Burnett and rock Hudson appearing in "I Do, I Do." Thanks to Richard Wojcik for the photo on Vintage Los Angeles.
1983 - Buying tickets for the improv group The Second City. It's a Roy Hankey photo in the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library.
1984 - A view north on Vine discovered by Ken McIntyre for the private Facebook group Photos of Los Angeles. Angelyne is on the billboard south of the theatre, which was then still called the Huntington Hartford.
2007 - The facade of the Montalban Theatre -- uncovered and somewhat back to its 1927 appearance after decades hiding behind the 1950s Huntington Hartford modernization. Photo: Bill Counter
2019 - The theatre at dusk. It's now a bit hemmed-in with new construction on both sides. Photo: Bill Counter
On the roof:
2016 - The stylish film theatre on the roof -- with wireless headsets for the patrons. It's from the Rooftop Cinema website. The photo, with a credit to the Montalban, also appeared with a March Hollywood Reporter story "Rooftop Film Club to Return to Hollywood's Montalban Theatre."
2016 - The Montalban from above, a photo from the Rooftop Cinema website.
2019 - A view toward the stagehouse. Photo: Bill Counter
2019 - Looking north toward Hollywood Blvd. Photo: Bill Counter
In "Lady Killer" with James Cagney and Mae Clark (Warner Bros., 1933) we get a shot up Vine St. toward the theatre with Hollywood Blvd. just beyond. Thanks to John Bengtson for spotting the theatre in the film. His terrific Silent Locations article "How James Cagney Filmed Lady Killer" does a fine analysis of some of the film's locations. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a shot of the marquee of the Warner Bros. Downtown Theatre.
We get a fine view north on Vine St. toward the theatre in "My Dream Is Yours" (Warner Bros., 1949). Here it's a radio studio with the vertical signs saying "CBS" and "KNX." Michael Curtiz directed Jack Carson and Doris Day in the story of an agent who will try anything to turn an unknown singer into a star. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for another Montalban shot as well as one with the Chinese in the background.
"I saw three shows at the Hartford that year - 'Stop the World - I Want to Get Off,' 'Beyond the Fringe,' and a pre-Broadway show called 'Time of the Barracudas' with Laurence Harvey and Elaine Stritch that never made it to New York. That was just three weeks before they shot this movie. Right after they shot it, the play 'Seidman and Son' would open starring Sam Levine."
Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney are on Vine with the Huntington Hartford in the background in Carl Reiner's "The Comic" (Columbia, 1969). They're old silent film performers trying to guess whose star they're standing on. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for shots of the Carthay Circle and Silent Movie Theatre from the film.
Kimmel notes that the show at the theatre at the time of the filming
was the great national tour production of "Plaza Suite" with Dan Dailey
and Lee Grant.
Small town waitress Christina Aguilera hits Hollywood looking for work in "Burlesque" (Sony / Screen Gems, 2010) and stumbles upon a Hollywood club run by Cher and falls in love with the place. The Montalban is used for the exterior, the interiors were done on a set. Steve Antin directed the film which also stars Stanley Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Peter Gallagher, Kristen Bell, Julianne Hough, Eric Dane and Alan Cumming. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for three more shots at the Montalban and a look at the Chinese.
Don't miss "Montalban Theatre Continues History of Multi-Media Uses," Mary Mallory's 2019 article on the site Only in Hollywood.
See the page on Cinema Treasures for a nice history of the building, fine research by Ken Roe and links to additional photos. GS Jansen did a great post on Noirish Los Angeles featuring many photos.
The Yelp page on the Montalban has some other interesting photos. There's a 1929 program for "The Youngest" with Franklin Pangborn on Vintage Los Angeles.
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