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El Portal Theatre

5269 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood (Los Angeles), CA 91601 | map |


Opened: West Coast Theatres opened the El Portal Theatre October 5, 1926. The opening film was Ralph Graves in "Blarney." The theatre is on the west side of the street a block south of Chandler Blvd. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018

Phone: 818 -508-0281 or 818-508-4200  Website: www.elportaltheatre.com

Architects: Lewis A. Smith designed the building. The decoration was by Heinsbergen Studios. Richard McCann was the architect for the renovation into a legit venue. The theatre reopened in January 2000.

Seating: 1,346 originally, all on one level. Currently the building houses 3 theatres: the 354 seat Mainstage Theatre, the 95 seat Forum Theatre and the 42 seat Studio Theatre.

Stage specifications: The main theatre has an orchestra pit that'll hold 19 and utilizes the 1926 proscenium and stagehouse. The 17 line counterweight system operates at stage level stage right. See the mainstage page on the theatre's website for some additional tech information.

History: The theatre ran vaudeville shows along with films until the talkies came along. The house got a makeover in the late 1940s. Drapes and neo-baroque "Skouras-style" swirls were installed obliterating the original decorative work on the interior. Fox West Coast and its successor companies, National General and Mann, operated the theatre for decades. Prior to closing in the 90s, it had a run as an independent venue screening Spanish language films.

Mann had sold the lease by 1991 and it was running as a concert venue along with film bookings and an aspiration to do legit shows. The name of the operator at the time isn't known.



This article appeared in the August 1991 issue of the Tom B'hend / Preston Kaufmann publication Greater L.A. Metro Newsreel. The issue is in the Ronald W. Mahan Collection. Thanks to Ron for Scanning this article. 

The 1994 Northridge earthquake resulted in extensive damage including the cave-in of the auditorium ceiling. The Actors Alley acquired the building in 1996 and did a seismic retrofit and interior remodeling. The City of Los Angeles has the building on its list of Cultural Historic Landmarks.

Status: Renovated and operating as a performing arts center since 2000. It's the anchor of the NoHo Arts District in North Hollywood. While the boxoffice, entry area and facade are of historical interest, little of the original decor remains in the auditorium space except the proscenium and faux-stone side walls.

The El Portal in the Movies: 


We get a view up Weddington St. toward the back of the El Portal in Raoul Walsh's "White Heat" (Warner Bros., 1949). The film stars James Cagney, Virginia Mayo and Edmond O'Brien. In this shot Margaret Wycherly, playing Cagney's Ma, is driving the car and trying to lose the cops who are on her tail. We also see the San Val Drive-In in the film. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for four shots.



The premiere of the film version of "The Happy Hooker" is at the El Portal in Alan Roberts' film "The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood" (Cannon/Golan-Globus, 1980). Well, part of it anyway. The marquee views were done at the La Reina. The comedy about the hooker getting a movie deal stars Martine Beswick, Chris Lemmon and Adam West. Thanks to Eitan Alexander for the screenshot. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two more views at the El Portal, several shots of the La Reina, and a look at the Chinese.


 
Scenes in the gay themed torture porn film "Hard" (MPH Productions/Jour de FĂȘte Films, 1998) were filmed inside the El Portal. Here we see the house with the ceiling removed following 1994 earthquake damage. John Huckert directed the sick tale about killings of young hustlers. Thanks to Terrence Butcher for the intel on this one. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for ten more shots in the theatre.  
 

The exterior and lobby were used in a November 2020 shoot for Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza" (MGM, 2021). The Skouras-style boxoffice was redecorated, the marquee redone, and a period-appropriate snack bar was installed. Here Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman do a take. The film also stars Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Joseph Cross and Fatimah Hassan. It's a 70s San Fernando Valley tale of a high school student who is also working as an actor. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for twenty additional photos of the prep and shoot.


The lobby: 


A c.1926 view from the house left end of the inner lobby that's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



A post-Skouras renovation look at the lobby from the Ken Kramer collection that appears in "Skouras-ized for Showmanship" by Preston Kaufmann. The booklet was the "annual" published by the Theatre Historical Society in 1987. It's also available on Amazon.



A peek into the lobby from the house right exit doors. The mats were down as the theatre was being used for filming. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018 



A detail of "Bringing in the Harvest," one of the Skouras-era panels in the lobby. The photo appeared with "These Two Block-Buster Shows...," a 2007 blog post from The Museum of the San Fernando Valley.


The auditorium:


An early look at the back of the house from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



A 1926 photo that was reproduced (poorly, sad to say) in the August 1991 issue of the Tom B'hend / Preston Kaufmann publication Greater L.A. Metro Newsreel. The issue is in the Ronald W. Mahan Collection. Thanks to Ron for scanning the photo.  
 
 

A rare 1926 proscenium view. Thanks to the Ronald W. Mahan Collection for sharing the photo. It's one by Dwyer Studio that once was in the collection of Tony Heinsbergen. 
 
 

A closer look at the detail on the proscenium. 
 
 

A detail of the house teaser from the 1926 photo. Thanks, Ron! 



A screen view after the Skouras re-do. The photo, credited to Ken Kramer and Jim Lytell, appears in Preston Kaufmann's Theatre Historical Society annual "Skouras-ized for Showmanship."
 


Looking onto the stage from the front row house right. The counterweight system T-wall is off there in the gloom. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The stage from the top of the seating area house left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



Looking across to house left. The booth is the lit window off to the right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A peek into the electrical service room off a landing on the house left stairs. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


Up in the booth:


A 1950 Valley Times photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The operator, Guy Wood, is there with his Simplex E-7 projector, Simplex SH-1000 soundhead and a Peerless Magnarc lamp. 


More exterior views:


1926 - A look north on Lankershim at the almost finished theatre. It's a C.C. Pierce photo from the California Historical Society collection appearing on the USC Digital Library website. The Los Angeles Public Library also has a copy of the photo.



1927 - A nice look south on Lankershim with the new theatre down there beyond the Security Pacific National Bank Building. The photo is from their collection at the Los Angeles Public Library. A view in the same direction before the El Portal was built is on the USC Digital Library website from the California Historical Society. In this 5300 block on the right there was a Lankershim Theatre running in the 1920s, just this side of the drug store that's in the middle of the block.



1937 - A view south on Lankershim from the Automobile Club of Southern California's collection. It's on the USC Digital Library website. The main feature the week of the photo was "Mountain Music" with Bob Burns and Martha Raye.



1942 - The theatre running "Take a Letter Darling." It's a photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.


 
1948 - The El Portal playing Mark Hellinger's "Naked City" with Barry Fitzgerald along with "To the Victor." And don't miss "Rathbun's Miss America Frolic" on Saturday the 15th at 10:30 am. They were a department store in the neighborhood. It's a Valley Times photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
 
 

c.1960 - A Christmas season view looking north with the theatre's vertical visible in the center of the image. Thanks to Bill Gabel for locating the photo for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.


1962 - A view north on Lankershim toward the theatre with "State Fair" on the marquee. It's a Herald Examiner photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The photo made an appearance as a post by John Haimowitz on the Valley Relics Museum Facebook page where it generated many comments. 



1976 - Three Big Hits at the El Portal: "Eat My Dust" "Grand Theft Auto" and "Crash." Thanks to Jon Haimowitz for the photo, one added it as a comment on a thread about the Studio Theatre on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles.



1970s? - An afternoon boxoffice view from Ken McIntyre on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles.



c.1982 - Thanks to American Classic Images for this view of the theatre as a Spanish Language house.



c.1984 - The theatre at night. Note the much less elaborate marquee than the version after the theatre's renovation. Thanks to American Classic Images for the photo.



2000 - A nice noirish view of the theatre after their reopening. It's a photo by Gerard Burkhart in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



2002 - A Betty Sword photo from the collection of Brooklyn-based theatre historian Cezar Del Valle. Check out Cezar's latest explorations on his Theatre Talks website or the Brooklyn Theatre Index page on Facebook.



2009 - Thanks to Mark Peacock for this photo from his Vintage Theatres and Drive-Ins album on Flickr.



2010 - Looking in toward the entrance doors. Photo: Bill Counter



2010 - Checking out the ticket lobby ceiling. Photo: Bill Counter



2010 - The north side of the marquee. Photo: Bill Counter



2010 - A facade detail. Photo: Bill Counter



2012 - A photo by Luis Sinco appearing on the L.A. Times website.



2017 - Thanks to Mike Hume for this photo. Visit his Historic Theatre Photography site for hundreds of terrific photos of the theatres he's explored in Los Angeles and elsewhere.



2017 - Thanks to Shawn Dudley for this facade view, a post on the LAHTF Facebook page.



2017 - A marquee view from the south. Photo: Mike Hume



2017 - Checking out the soffit. Photo: Mike Hume



2017 - Thanks to Sal Gomez for this one from the north, added as a comment to a post on the LAHTF Facebook page.


 
2018 - Looking in toward the entrance doors. The protection on the carpet was due to filming going on. Photo: Bill Counter
 


2018 - The view along the north side of the building. Photo: Bill Counter



2018 - A facade detail. Photo: Bill Counter


 
2019 - Thanks to Jonathan Raines for this lovely shot.  
 

2020 - A detail of the top of the facade, enhanced by uplights on the marquee for filming scenes for a new Paul Thomas Anderson feature at the theatre on November 2.

More Information: See the Cinema treasures page on the El Portal for an extensive history and links to lots more additional photos. The site also has a list of other houses designed by L.A. Smith.

Laist has a nice photo gallery and article about the area in their article "Neighborhood Project: NoHo Arts District." Mary Mallory did a fine history of the theatre on the Daily Mirror blog: "El Portal Theatre Entertains San Fernando Valley."

Richard F. McCann, the architect for the 2000 renovations, has an El Portal photo gallery on his website. Also see the project list linked on the firm profile page for links to photos of other theatre projects he's done.

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