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Carthay Circle Theatre: history + exterior views

6316 San Vicente Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90035  | map |

More Carthay Circle pages: interior views | projection and sound |

Opened: The Carthay Circle Theatre, "The Showplace of the Golden West," was opened May 18, 1926 with the premiere of C.B. DeMille's "The Volga Boatman." The initial format was showings twice a day. The original address of the theatre was on Eulalia Boulevard. It was renamed San Vicente in 1929. The theatre and the surrounding area was a project of developer J. Harvey McCarthy.

The photo is a construction view taken for Life appearing in the Google/Life Images collection. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Tourmaline for spotting the shot and including it with other Life images on Noirish post #35682.

Ready for the opening. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.

A 1926 California Historical Society photo in the USC Digital Library collection. On the marquee is the theatre's opening attraction "The Volga Boatman."

The fact that the theatre soon became widely known acted as free promotion for McCarthy's newly developed Carthay residential district. This ad extolling the virtues of the neighborhood appeared on Noirish Los Angeles post #719 from contributor Ethereal Reality. He also included a nice selection of photos of the theatre. Also see his Noirish post #5770. And for more photos see post #2584 by Sopas EJ.

Initially the theatre was an independent operation run by Fred Miller. Miller at various times had run downtown theatres including Miller's and the California. The Carthay Circle was profiled in a four page article in the November 1928 issue of Architect and Engineer that begins:

"In the day time, the white loveliness of the new Carthay Circle Theater, Los Angeles, beckons for miles away and later in the blue of the night when the thousands of city lights are sparkling, the bright and far reaching illumination of the lofty tower forms a welcoming beacon of light. Simple, massive, and dignified, the building stands out because of its intrinsic beauty..."

The article goes on to note that the theme of the theatre is the early history of California, expressed in murals commissioned for the building as well as its collection of paintings and artifacts.

By 1929 it was part of West Coast Theatres and was soon advertised as the Fox Carthay Circle after William Fox took control of the circuit. The theatre stayed with the company and its successor National General Corporation until its demise.

The Carthay Circle rivaled the Chinese in terms of the number and importance of the premieres it held. Like the Chinese (and the Egyptian), the large open courtyard entrance provided a space conducive to handling premiere crowds and making elegant entrances.

Architect: Dwight Gibbs

Seating: 1,518

A plan of the main floor of the Carthay Circle showing the arrangement on the site. It's from Volume 2 of "American Theatres of Today" by R.W. Sexton and B. F. Betts. The plan also appears as part of a November 1928 article in Architect and Engineer, available on Internet Archive.

A balcony plan from "American Theatres of Today."

A section of the Carthay Circle from "American Theatres of Today." The work was published in two volumes in 1927 and 1930 by the Architectural Book Publishing Co., New York. It was reprinted in one volume in 1977 and 1985 by the Vestal Press, New York. Theatre Historical Society also did a reprint in 2009. It can be found on Amazon. The book has many great photos and plans of other Los Angeles Theatres as well.

Status: Demolished in 1969 by National General Corporation for construction an office building complex. The last film to play was "Shoes of the Fisherman" in 1969.

Pipe Organ: It was a Wurlitzer 3/11. The music director for the theatre when it opened was Carli Elinor.

Lifts: Neighborhood historian Kent Adamson reports that "according to the notes at the Academy Library Fairbanks Special Collections, it had a double hydraulic elevator. The entire orchestra pit could rise from the basement, including the Wurlitzer organ, or the organ could rise separately after the orchestra pit, (and rise higher)." It's not known if this was actually a hydraulic system or the more typically used screw jack type of lift. Or even if there were lifts. The section drawing in American Theatres of today shows no pit lift. Another curiosity, if the organ console were on a lift: in some early photos it's centered, in others it's house left.

Thanks to Eric Lynxwiler on Flickr for this early program cover. It's in his superb Paper Ephemera collection.

A sign with triangular revolving panels advertising the theatre on Wilshire Blvd. in 1927. The copy, in addition to advertising "7th Heaven," also touted the music of Carli Elinor and the prologues by Laughlin. The sign is featured on the Noirish Los Angeles post #22028 by Gaylord Wilshire where he also has views of the other panels advertising Lockheed Brakes and a trip to Catalina.

Advertisements for F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," a November 1927 release with Janet Gaynor. Playing at the Criterion downtown: Warner's "The Jazz Singer." The photo is in the AMPAS Tom B'hend - Preston Kaufmann Collection.

Sound at the Carthay Circle:
Evidently sound came to the theatre in the spring of 1928. "Street Angel," an April 1928 release, played the theatre in Movietone. See the Projection and Sound page for some early booth views.

The outside of the program for "Street Angel" with Janet Gaynor, a William Fox production at the theatre. It was an April 1928 release.

The inside of the "Street Angel" program. "...with the Most Amazing Scientific Discovery of the Age -- MOVIETONE." Many thanks to Lane Wallace for the program.

The Paper Ephemera collection of Eric Lynxwiler on Flickr includes this Carthay Circle program cover. On the back page is copy telling the patrons about the various paintings hung around the theatre. The paintings are "Depicting the Great Historical Events on California's Romantic and Colorful Road to Statehood." The program also tells us that the Carthay Circle maintains 50 branch ticket offices throughout Southern California.

Inside the program it turns out that our show is the sound feature "The Barker," a December 1928 release from First National with Milton Sills, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Dorothy Mackaill and Betty Compson. It's on Flickr. Thanks, Eric!

70mm Fox Grandeur in 1930: The Carthay Circle was one of the few Los Angeles theatres (or theatres anywhere) to be equipped for the 70mm Fox Grandeur process. "Happy Days" had a run in 70mm at the theatre. See the Projection and Sound page for more about the process.

"Snow White" at the Carthay Circle:

Disney favored the house and held many premieres there including "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for the ad on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles.

Another L.A. Times "Snow White" ad. Again thanks to Ken McIntyre for the post on Photos of Los Angeles.

"Gone With The Wind" at the Carthay Circle: David O. Selznick selected the Carthay Circle for the west coast premiere of "Gone With the Wind" on December 28, 1939. The Atlanta premiere had been held December 15.

Fantasound stereo at the Carthay Circle in 1941: This theatre was one of the few in the country to exhibit Disney's "Fantasia" with the elaborate sound system that was intended by the studio. See the Carthay Circle Projection and Sound page for more about the process.

Legit at the Carthay Circle: The fully equipped stage at the theatre was occasionally used for legit shows. There was a full season in 1932 that included shows such as "Murdered Alive" (with Bela Lugosi) and "Sons 'O Guns."

In the mid-50's, the Carthay Circle again had a run as a legit house with plays produced by Henry Duffy, who had run a major west coast string of legit theatres in the 1920's and 30's. The stage event of 1955 was the death onstage of 47 year old Isabel Bonner during a hospital bed scene in "The Shrike." Carthay area historian Kenny Adamson reports that Ethel Waters appeared for a week in 1955 in her revue "An Evening With Ether Waters." Such legit use wasn't possible after the TODD-AO conversion of 1956.

70mm TODD-AO at the Carthay Circle: This was the third Los Angeles theatre equipped for TODD-AO, with "Around the World in 80 Days" opening December 22, 1956. It ran for 127 weeks. See the Interior Views page for photos of the proscenium demolition work and the finished screen installation.

Many other 70mm roadshow runs followed including "Porgy and Bess" (1959), "Can-Can" (1960), "The Alamo" (1960), "El Cid" (1961), "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965) and "Shoes of the Fisherman" (1968-69). The theatre also got the 70mm moveover run of "The Sound of Music" (from the Fox Wilshire) in 1966 and a run of the 70mm version of "Gone With the Wind" in 1967.

Matches, anyone? Thanks to Mark London on the Carthay Circle History Facebook page for posting this view of a matchbook advertising the two "World's Most Famous Show Places."

The Carthay Circle in the Movies:

The Carthay Circle's fame as a Hollywood movie palace for premieres is shown in Busby Berkeley's "Hollywood Hotel" (Warner Bros., 1937) with Dick Powell.

In "Hollywood Hotel" we're supposedly going to a premiere of the fictional film "Glamour Girl" but in this shot it's revealed on the marquee that the footage they're using is from the premiere of "The Life of Emile Zola" (also 1937).

The Carthay Circle appears in the 1940 Our Gang comedy "The Big Premiere."

Doris Day outside the theatre in "Caprice" (Fox, 1967) getting ready to do a bit of industrial espionage. Note that the theatre is also running a movie called "Caprice" starring Doris Day, an oddity that is left unexplained.

Doris taking a seat in the balcony in "Caprice." Note the re-done side wall paneling and the beige drapes. Much of the theatre's ornate Spanish style decor was "modernized" in the 50s.

In "Caprice" Doris gets into a fight with Irene Tsu and Michael J. Pollard in the balcony. Ms. Day falls over the edge and lands on a main floor patron below. In the extreme lower right corner of the image you get a bit of the curve of the beige curtain that enveloped the whole front of the auditorium -- all the way around to the front of the balcony. It was installed as part of the renovations for the 1956 TODD-AO run of "Around the World in 80 Days." Also note the new "modernized" treatment of the balcony soffit. See the Theatres In Movies post for several more shots.

The Carthay Circle also appears in the Carl Reiner film "The Comic" (Columbia, 1969) with Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Michelle Lee.

More exterior views:  

A 1926 view showing the canopy leading to the entrance. It's from the Dick Whittington Studio and taken when the theatre was running "What Price Glory." The photo is in the USC Digital Library collection where they also have another version.

Floodlit at night. Note the orb at the top of the tower.  It was said to appear as if it were a scintillating star due to the observer's "retinal aberration." It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. 

A 1926 aerial view from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

A closer view that's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

A fine photo of the exterior taken by Mott Studios in 1927 during the run of Frank Borzage's "7th Heaven." The film, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, premiered at the Carthay Circle in May 1927. The photo, along with five other exterior views, is in the California State Library collection as their set #001384379. Ten interior photos in the collection are cataloged as set #001384380.

Looking toward the theatre's entrance. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1927

Through the arcade of a nearby building. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1927

A tower detail. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1927

Another tower detail. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1927

An early postcard from Elizabeth Fuller on Flickr. Her delightful Old Los Angeles Postcards collection has (at last count) 686 cards for you to browse. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Another early postcard from the Elizabeth Fuller Old Los Angeles Postcards collection on Flickr. 

A c.1929 view from Ken McIntyre on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles. The signage doesn't yet say "Fox." The photo also appears in BifRayRock's Noirish Los Angeles post #26417.

An undated view from the California Historical Society in the USC Digital Library collection showing the relationship of the theatre to the street and the smaller retail businesses in front.

A c.1930 photo taken from the roof looking northwest toward Hollywood. Wilshire Blvd. is two blocks away from us. The photo from the California Historical Society is in the USC Digital Library collection.

A 1930 view looking south from McCarthy Vista toward the Pioneer statue, a piece by Henry Lion honoring the 1849 California pioneers. The theatre is beyond, across San Vicente Blvd. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.

Thanks to the wonderful Bruce Torrence Hollywood Photograph Collection for this 1931 photo. Browse their site for 37 more Carthay Circle photos. Or, if you have an afternoon to spare, take a peek at the 251 theatre photos in the collection.

A small piece of a 1933 Pettits Studio panorama taken at the corner of La Cienega and Pico. In this detail we're looking northeast across La Cienega to the Pico Fairway driving range and the theatre beyond.

The full photo can be seen on the Huntington Digital Library website -- it's in their Verner collection of Panoramic Negatives. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor BifRayRock who found the image in the HDL collection and included it in his Noirish post #26417.

The 1937 premiere of "The Life of Emile Zola."  It's a Los Angeles Times photo on Calisphere from from the UCLA Library's Times Photographic Archives.

A 1937 postcard using a Bob Plunkett photo from the Elizabeth Fuller Old Los Angeles Postcards collection on Flickr. The theatre is running "The Life of Emile Zola." There's also a slightly different version of the card in the California State Library collection.

A 1940 exterior shot by Dick Whittington Studio in the USC Digital Library collection. Also in the USC collection: 1937 premiere - "Wee Willie Winkie" | another "Winkie" view - they have lots | aerial view - c.1926 |

A November 11, 1940 Corbis photo of the lights for the premiere of Chaplin's "The Great Dictator." It's also been seen, uncredited, on the blog of Martin Turnbull.

A premiere night postcard from the site Card Cow.

A premiere postcard from Elizabeth Fuller's Old Los Angeles Postcards collection on Flickr. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Another busy premiere night. It's a card from the Elizabeth Fuller collection on Flickr.

A 1940 Dick Whittington shot looking across the new May Co. building at Wilshire and Fairfax with the Carthay Circle Theatre appearing in the upper center. Thanks to Nile Hight for the post of the photo on the SoCal Historic Architecture Facebook page.

The 1943 premiere of "The Song of Bernadette." It's a photo from the Los Angeles Public Library.

The entrance neon and red carpet. Thank to Nile Hight for the photo on the Carthay Circle History Facebook page.

Floodlit for a premiere. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. 

The 1949 premiere for "The Heiress." The photo is from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

A 1955 entrance view from a period when the theatre was getting used as a legit house by promoter Henry Duffy. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. In 1956 the stage would be made unusable after the TODD-AO renovations for "Around the World in 80 Days."

More exterior views in the LAPL collection: searchlights - grand opening? | 1929 reflection in pool - Padilla Co. photo | outside the entrance - Herman Schultheis | another floodlit view | night view - reflecting pool and statue | pond and statue by day | canopy to entrance - Herman Schultheis | 1937 exterior | 1938 tower floodlit | 1940 premiere | fans in 1944 - "Wilson" | "Wilson" premiere night | view from parking lot | entrance 1949 - with Marine band  ....and many more if you look through the Library's photo collection.

A lovely 50s photo from the Richard Wojcik collection appearing on the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles. Thanks, Richard!

An ominous 1964 view added to the Carthay Circle History Facebook page by Kenny Adamson. Some of the shops near the theatre had already been demolished and work was underway on one of the new buildings. The theatre is running "Mary Poppins."  It would continue to operate until 1969, the year of its demolition.

More information: Check out the Cinema Treasures page for many fond recollections.

There's a Carthay Circle History group on Facebook. Check out their photo album. Of interest on their page: 1925 - dedication? | 30s lantern slide | color video clip - theatre exterior |

The site From Script to DVD has a page on the Carthay Circle. L.A. Weekly did a fine 2017 article about the theatre and the surrounding neighborhood.

The Carthay Circle pages:  back to top - history + exterior views | interior views | projection and sound |

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