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Alexander Pantages had previously opened two downtown Los Angeles theatres for his vaudeville / film house circuit, the buildings that later became known as the Arcade Theatre (1910) and the Warner Bros. Downtown (1920). He had been thinking about building a theatre in Hollywood at least since 1922:
This item appeared in the December 2, 1922 issue of Exhibitors Herald.
Although he had built a number of new theatres for his circuit in the 20s including new houses in Fresno and San Francisco, the Hollywood project wasn't pursued until early 1929. Thanks to Mike Hume for finding this announcement on Internet Archive that appeared in the January 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer:
The building's cost ended up being $1.25 million. The foundations were built for the 12 story office building originally envisioned but plans were changed due to the deepening depression.
Pantages sold most of his circuit (under duress) to RKO and Warner Bros. later in 1929 but the Hollywood project wasn't part of the sale.
This rendering shows one concept for the building. It appeared after the theatre opened in "A House Built For Wide Films," an article in the June 7, 1930 issue of Motion Picture News. Thanks to Mike Hume for finding the article on Internet Archive. It's also reproduced at the bottom of this page.
When the new Hollywood theatre opened it was as a Fox West Coast operation with Pantages' son Rodney as the manager. Another son, Lloyd, was also involved and later managed as well. A May 4, 1930 L.A. Times article had referred to the house as the Fox Pantages. Rodney died in 1986 with the L.A. Times covering his death. At the time of the opening, Alexander Pantages was in the county jail.
An ad in the trade magazine Signs of the Times for Metlox, the Manhattan Beach company that built the vertical sign and provided the changeable neon letters for the marquee. Thanks to J.H. Long for locating the ad for a post on the Save Pantages Neon... Facebook page. They guaranteed their sign letters "against fading or disintegration without time limit because they are truly the letters eternal, made by the same process used by Egyptian clay workers in ancient times." Hugo Ruiz notes that the sign on the right is not the vertical for the Warner Hollywood as noted in the text. It's actually the Warner Huntington Park.
The Pantages hides its opulence well. Looking at the storefronts here, you'd never guess that one of the most dazzling of all the Los Angeles theatres awaits you inside. Photo: Bill Counter - 2007
Architect: Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca conceived this opulently kaleidoscopic showplace as the most spectacular theatre in the Pantages circuit. S.E. Sonnichsen was associate architect, William Simpson Construction Co. was the contractor. Priteca had earlier done the 1920 Pantages downtown (later called the Warner Downtown and Warrens, now a jewelry mart) along with lots of work for the circuit in other cities. Of all the Los Angeles theatres in the art deco style, the Pantages is without question the grandest.
An auditorium drawing from Priteca. It appeared in the June 7, 1930 issue of Motion Picture News with the article "A House Built For Wide Films."
B. Marcus Priteca's section of the building. Thanks to Mike Hume for his great work cleaning up the original drawing. You can click on this to enlarge or for even more detail head to a PDF via Mike's Historic Theatre Photography site. His Pantages Theatre page also has PDFs of other early articles and drawings.
At the same time the Pantages was going up Priteca was also at work on three smaller houses of about 1,500 seats each, also in the deco style, for Warner Bros. -- the Warner Beverly Hills, Warner San Pedro and Warner Huntington Park. He was back in L.A. in for the design of the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills, opening in 1937.
Seating: 2,812 originally -- now 2,703.
The pipe organ: What pipe organ? The chambers are there. Theatre historian Kurt Wahlner says it's on the plans for a round revolving organ lift on the house right side of the pit. The instrument was to be a gigantic Robert Morton installation but the deal was cancelled during construction and no organ was installed. But it did get an organ, electronic that is, in 1992. The Nederlander organization's "non-profit arm" was planning on organ concerts and film screenings to fill their many dark days.
This article appeared in the November 1992 issue of the Tom B'hend / Preston Kaufmann publication Greater L.A. Metro Newsreel. The issue with the article is in the Ronald W. Mahan collection. Thanks to Ron for scanning it.
Stage Equipment: The Pantages was one of the few Los Angeles theatres to have the orchestra pit on a lift. (Others with lifts included the Metropolitan, the Warner Hollywood, the Carthay Circle, the United Artists and the Earl Carroll.) See the backstage section for more information.
The Pantages Theatre stagehouse. The theatre had the largest stage that was ever built for the Pantages chain. Photo: Bill Counter - 2007
The Pantages in the 1930s: The theatre closed for a few months in 1932. An October 11 L.A. Times story mentioned that the re-opening film on October 20 would be MGM's "Red Dust" with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable plus a Fanchon & Marco produced tab version of the Ziegfeld hit "Whoopee." The United Artists downtown had also been closed and would reopen with the same feature along with the Fanchon & Marco "Mystery" Idea.
An October 15 story revealed that both houses would be "under the personal direction of Sid Grauman," then also working for Fox at the Chinese. More details dribbled out in an October 17 story. The reopening ads, a combined spread for both the United Artists and the Pantages, said "Direction Sid Grauman" in large lettering at the top -- and made no mention of Fox West Coast being the actual operator.
RKO grabs it: At some point, Fox bowed out of their participation in the management and Rodney Pantages hooked up with RKO Theatres and the theatre then frequently ran day-and-date with the RKO Hillstreet. As a result, the Pantages ran lots of RKO product. In 1940 the L.A. Philharmonic moved out of the Philharmonic Auditorium and, with Leopold Stokowski conducting, did a season at the Pantages. In "Symphonies Expected To Fill Seats," a February 18 L.A. Times article, several of the ladies noted that they liked eating at the Brown Derby before the concerts.
It actually became an RKO theatre when Howard
Hughes acquired it for his RKO empire in 1949, at a time when most
studios were actually shedding their theatre circuits as a result of the
Consent Decree actions by the Feds.
A July 6, 1949 Variety article about the change of ownership. Thanks to Mike Hume for finding it on Internet Archive. The fancy neon filigree atop
the vertical sign was replaced by an "RKO."
The disastrous tenure of Hughes at RKO had begun when he bought enough stock to control the company in May 1948. A July 13, 1949 Variety article noted that the staff at the studio was breathing easier when Hughes became head of production, thinking that would put the near-dormant lot back into full swing. A July 27 Variety article noted that Malcolm Kingsberg, head of RKO Theatres, had finalized the theatre sale with Roger [sic] Pantages. It was noted that Pantages was bowing out of the theatre business but would continue to maintain an office in the building.
The only other RKO theatre in Los Angeles at the time was the RKO Hillstreet. Although the RKO board approved a plan to spin their theatres off as a separate company in March 1949, this didn't happen until 1953 when they were sold to Albert A. List. Hughes lasted until 1955 at RKO when he sold his stock to General Teleradio, a subsidiary of General Tire and Rubber. Early in Hughes' tenure the theatre division was the only part of the company making money. By the time he got out, that division had been gone for two years. After a 1967 merger of RKO Theatres, Inc. with the Stanley-Warner Corp. (the by-then-separate company operating the former Warner Bros. theatres) it became RKO Stanley-Warner Theatres.
Academy Awards at the Pantages: The theatre was the site of the Academy Awards from 1950 through 1960. The 1953 show was the first live telecast, a production originating in both Hollywood and New York City. See "Oscars History @ Pantages," a post about the 1953 show on the Broadway in Hollywood blog. The Los Angeles Almanac has a page with a year-by-year list of the Academy Award ceremony locations.
The 1959 renovation: The theatre closed in November for a renovation supervised by the Heinsbergen Co. Work included installation of 70mm equipment, lots of draping in the auditorium and a "modernization" of the ticket lobby. "Indoor Luxury From Sidewalk To Screen," a May 9, 1960 Boxoffice
article, discussed the first phases of the renovation program. Also see page two of the article on the Boxoffice site. The
later aspects of the project were detailed in a January 30, 1961 article titled "RKO Pantages in Los Angeles Faces New Era After $100,00 Remodeling." The theatre reopened Christmas Day with "Operation Petticoat."
70MM roadshows at the Pantages: The theatre hosted many reserved seat engagements including "Spartacus" in 1960, "Cleopatra" in 1963, "Finian's Rainbow" in 1968 and "Sweet Charity" in 1969. For "Spartacus" the capacity was reduced to about 1,500 by draping off the upper balcony section and rear side areas of the main floor.
In this ad for Norelco AAII 35/70mm projectors we
see the proscenium draping for "Spartacus." It appeared adjacent to a March 14, 1962 Motion Picture Herald article about the modern makeover of the Warner up the street, where the proscenium looked very similar to the view above after its own drape treatment. Cinerama historian Roland Lataille found the article for the Warner page of his In Cinerama website. | article page 1 | article page 2 |
RKO-SW bows out: The Pantages was leased to Pacific Theatres in 1965, with a purchase consummated in 1967. In 1968 Pacific also acquired other RKO-SW operations including the Topanga Theatre, the Wiltern, the Warner Hollywood, Warner Beverly Hills, Warner Huntington Park and Warner San Pedro. The Warner Downtown that Stanley Warner had been operating ended up with Metropolitan Theatres and was rebranded as the Warrens.
The Pantages goes legit: The theatre closed in January 1977 with "The Enforcer" with Clint Eastwood as the last film. After a purchase by the Nederlander Organization, there was a renovation in preparation for operation as a legitimate theatre. The first attraction was "Bubbling Brown Sugar."
Status: The Pantages Theatre was refurbished again in 2000 (to the tune of $10.8 million) by the Nederlander Organization and is wonderfully dazzling. The theatre consultant for the restoration was Roger Morgan with much of the restoration of the decorative surfaces done by Evergreene Architectural Arts, both based in New York. Quinn Evans Architects supervised the project. The reopening attraction was "The Lion King." Ongoing work since that time has included recarpeting, rebuilding the grid, and other projects.
The theatre typically plays long-running Broadway musicals with occasional concerts on dark nights. In 2013 a pitch was going around town about the possibility of selling naming rights to the theatre but nothing transpired. Kevin Roderick on LA Observed had the story.
The Pantages in the Movies:
Chester Conklin is out on a beam atop the newly completed Guaranty Bldg. at Hollywood Blvd. and Ivar in "Cleaning Up" (Paramount, 1930). We see the vertical of the Pantages on the left and the Music Box Theatre further down the street. The image appears on page 35 of the Arcadia Publishing book "Location Filming in Los Angeles" by Karie Bible, Marc Wanamaker and Harry Medved. The page with the photo is included in the books preview on Google Books.
Margaret Sullavan gets a job as an usherette in a large movie palace in Budapest in "The Good Fairy (Universal, 1935). The lobby of the Pantages is what we see as the theatre's lobby. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two more shots at the Pantages and several not done at the theatre when we go in the auditorium.
We get a look at the boxoffice in Henry Hathaway's "Go West Young Man" (Paramount, 1936) with Mae West and Randolph Scott. This island boxoffice was later removed in favor of ticket windows off to the side. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for several more shots at the Pantages as well as some generic theatre shots done elsewhere.
We get this shot of the Pantages disguised as the Casino Theatre in Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady" (Universal, 1944). Alan Curtis is going to a show in New York with a lady he just met in a bar. It's a studio set when we go inside. Curtis' wife is murdered that evening and he doesn't know the identity of the lady that might provide his alibi. Elisha Cook, Jr., the drummer at the show, knows something. After Curtis is convicted Ella Raines, his former secretary, tries to clear him.
George Raft goes to the Pantages to check out an alibi for murder suspect Lynn Bari in Edwin L. Marin's "Nocturne" (RKO, 1946). They have times up for RKO's "Woman on the Beach" but we see different titles on the marquee in the shot just before this. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for spotting the theatre in the film. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two more Pantages shots as well as views of the vertical signs of the Egyptian and Hollywood theatres behind the opening credits.
We get some nice aerial shots in the Jerry Lewis film "The Errand Boy" (Paramount, 1961). Looking west along Hollywood Blvd. it's the Pantages in the center. To the left of the Capitol Records building we see the Hollywood Playhouse/Avalon. In the lower left of the image is part of the Music Box. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for a Sunset Blvd. aerial view and visits to the Fox Westwood Village and the Chinese.
Burt Reynolds is heading to the men's room for a little fight in Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" (20th Century Fox, 1975). Note the decor at the rear of the reduced-capacity main floor at the time: drapes, statuary, plants. Cybil Shepard and Madeline Kahn play the leading ladies. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for four more Pantages shots as well as several at the Orpheum from a scene earlier in the film. Thanks to Jonathan Raines for the screenshot.
The signage gets a quick cameo during a musical number in "The First Nudie Musical" (Paramount, 1976). We later come back for two exterior shots at the premiere of the film-within-the film. But that's as far as we get. Interiors were done at the Fox Venice. The book, music, and lyrics for the movie are by Bruce Kimmel. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for sixteen more shots from the film including more views of Hollywood marquees.
In the Neil Diamond version of "The Jazz Singer" (EMI, Associated Film Distribution, 1980) we get two concert sequences at the Pantages. The film, directed by Richard Fleischer, also stars Lawrence Olivier, Catlin Adams and Lucie Arnaz. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for four more shots at the Pantages.
We don't see much of the theatre, but Jonathan Demme's "Stop Making Sense" (Cinecom/Palm Pictures, 1984) with David Byrne and the Talking Heads was filmed over a period of three days at the Pantages.
We get a couple views of the Pantages in “The Hidden” (New Line Cinema, 1987). A formerly mild-mannered person has gone on a rampage and is evading the police. His body has, of course, been taken over by an alien creature who will soon migrate to yet another body. Jack Sholder directed the film starring Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Nouri. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for shots of other theatres seen in the film including the Westlake, Las Palmas, Palace and United Artists.
In Mick Jackson's "The Bodyguard" (Warner Bros., 1992) Kevin Costner is backstage looking for troublemakers at the Academy Awards. There's a clip on YouTube. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for a Pantages auditorium view as well as some views at the Mayan.
We see a lot of Hollywood Blvd. in Robert Vincent O'Neill's "Angel" (New World, 1984) including several views like this looking east toward the Pantages. Fifteen year old Molly is a high school student by day, a hooker by night. The film stars Donna Wilkes, Cliff Gorman, Dick Shawn and Rory Calhoun. John Diehl is the killer preying on teenage hookers. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a dozen shots from the film.
In Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" with Johnny Depp and Martin Landau (Touchstone, 1994) our stars are going to a premiere of "Plan 9 From Outer Space" at the Pantages. The Skouras-style boxoffice we see was a prop for the movie. This shot gives us quite a nice view of the entrance in its "modernized" period with the ceiling decor and original display cases covered. The interior used for the film is the Orpheum. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two more Pantages shots as well as views of the Orpheum, Warner Hollywood and the Stadium Theatre in Torrance.
Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever" (Warner Bros., 1995) used the theatre's lobby for that of the Ritz Gotham Hotel. Thanks to Mike Hume for the screenshot. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for three more shots from the lobby party scene as well as views of two scenes shot in the Los Angeles Theatre.
We get this great view of the circular concession stand that was once in the lobby in "Black Sheep" (Paramount, 1996). Chris Farley, the out-of-control brother, is with Tim Matheson, playing a candidate for Washington State governor. David Spade is also featured in the comedy directed by Penelope Spheeris. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for another lobby shot and two backstage views where Farley pretends to be a security guard.
The lobby is set up as a high-end auto auction house in Bret Rattner's "Money Talks" with Chris Tucker and Charlie Sheen (New Line Cinema, 1997). See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for three more shots from the scenes at the Pantages.
We get a view of the Pantages when evil music mogul Isaiah Washington pops up out of the Metro in Ron Shelton's "Hollywood Homicide" (Sony, 2003). See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies
post for several Chinese views as well as a shot of Harrison Ford on a
bike in front of the Hollywood Theatre, a look at the towers of the Warner and an
aerial shot of the Music Box/Fonda. Josh Hartnett and Lena Olin
In Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" (Miramax/Warner Bros., 2004) we get shots at the Pantages with Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) coming to the premiere of "Little Women" in 1933. There's lots of compulsive hand washing in the men's room. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for several more Pantages shots as well as views of Grauman's Chinese for the gloriously re-created premiere of "Hell's Angels."
The Pantages is used for a premiere at the end of "Paparazzi" (20th Century Fox, 2004). A young star tries to get even over an incident with four overly zealous photographers. Paul Abascal directed the film featuring Cole Hauser, Robin Tunney and Dennis Farina. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for several lobby shots as well as a view of the Million Dollar from earlier in the film.
We get a fine view of the Pantages in Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia" (Universal, 2006). Josh Hartnett pays a visit to the Frolic Room next door. In the film it's a lesbian bar and he's looking for anyone who has seen Elizabeth Short. The film also stars Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank and Mia Kershner. On the Pantages marquee De Palma has "Black Angel," a 1946 film about the murder of a singer starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent and Peter Lorre.
Emma Stone runs back to catch the rest of a John Mayer concert after breaking up with Justin Timberlake at the beginning of Will Gluck's film "Friends With Benefits" (Sony/Screen Gems, 2011). Thanks to Lindsay Blake for noting the appearance of the theatre in the film. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two more Pantages views as well as aerial shots showing the El Capitan, Chinese and Dolby theatres.
We get a shot of the Easter Bunny and the Pantages in Tim Hill's "Hop" (Universal, 2011). He's come to Hollywood because he wants a career as a drummer. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for shots of the La Reina and the Orpheum from the film.
The Pantages is one of a half dozen theatres to get a marquee shot included in the title sequence of "Entourage" (Warner Bros., 2015). The film, directed by Doug Ellin, stars Kevin Dillon, Jeremy Piven, Adrian Grenier and Kevin Connolly plus many others doing cameos. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more screenshots.
In "Keanu" (Warner/Fine Line, 2016) we take a drive to the Hollywood Hills for a drug delivery after our two stars, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, get involved with a gang to try to get back a stolen cat. On the far left is the dark marquee of the Vine Theatre with the Pantages in the distance. We also see the Palace Theatre, the Los Angeles Theatre, and the Cinerama Dome. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for more shots from the film.
The Pantages is dressed up as if it were running the film "3 in the Attic," in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (Sony, 2019). The film stars Leo DiCaprio and his friend Brad Pitt as an actor and stuntman trying to find work in the business in 1969. The Manson murder case also figures into the plot as the guys live next door to Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies pages for more shots of the shoot at the Pantages as well as lots of action at the Cinerama Dome, Earl Carroll, Vogue, Pussycat/Ritz, Fox Westwood, Bruin, and Vine theatres.
We get a shot of the theatre in Danny Boyle's "Yesterday" (Universal, 2019). A musician played by Himesh Patel leaves England and comes to the U.S. to become a big star re-doing Beatles hits in a world where everyone else has forgotten the Fab Four. The film also stars Lily James, Sophia Di Martino and Kate McKinnon.
The Pantages on Video: See Don Solosan's wonderful 3 minute 2010 tour of the Pantages: "Insider's Peek #7: Pantages" on the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation's YouTube channel. There's also the 12 minute 2010 "Pantages Interview" video with Hillsman Wright and Pantages general manager Martin Wiviott. They discuss the adventures in managing and restoring the building.
And don't miss the 4 minute video the theatre has on YouTube from 2010: "A Look Behind the Mask: The Load in Process For "Phantom" at the Pantages Theatre." Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone" (1995) has him singing to an empty house on the bare stage of the Pantages. It's on YouTube.
A looking east past the Frolic Room. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010
The Pantages office building lobby ceiling. Photo: Bill Counter - 2007
More information: See the Pantages Theatre page on Cinema Treasures. The Cinema Tour page devoted to the Pantages has a few exterior photos. Wikipedia has an article on the Pantages as well as one on architect B. Marcus Priteca. See the From Script To DVD Pantages Theatre page for photos of the building. The site also has a nice Photo Gallery of Los Angeles Theatres that were equipped for 70mm.
An August 30, 1930 article in Exhibitors Herald-World discussed the wonders of the new theatre. Four additional photos of the theatre appeared in an October 25, 1930 "Recent Creations in Theatre Design" article. Also in the October 25 issue is an article by F. H. Richardson: "Projection at the Pantages." These are all on Internet Archive.
Sandi Hemmerlein's 2017 Avoiding regret photo essay "The Last of Pantages' Vaudeville Palaces" has many nice interior photos. Mike Hume's Historic Theatre Photography site has a fine page on the Pantages that features many of his photos. Albert Domasin has a nice 53 item photo set on Flickr from 2010. Also see the wonderful 57 item Pantages Theatre 2010 photo set on Flickr by Steve Shriver.
Floyd Bariscale's Big Orange Landmarks is a blog investigating all the City of Los Angeles cultural landmarks. See the Pantages Theatre entry for a nicely done story of the theatre along with photos both old and new. Also see his Pantages Theatre set on Flickr for a number of exterior views.
The building was originally supposed to be a 12 story office building and various plans have been hatched over the years to "complete" the structure. Curbed L.A. had a 2007 story about one proposal.
From the June 7, 1930 issue of Motion Picture News:
Thanks to Mike Hume for locating the article. It's also available on Internet Archive where you can expand it for easier reading.
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