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Tower Theatre: history

802 S. Broadway Los Angeles, CA 90014 | map |

More Tower Theatre pages: vintage exterior views | recent exterior views | lobby areas | lounges + basement support areas | vintage auditorium views | recent auditorium views | organ chambers | booth level | attic | roof | tower |

The 2018 News: Apple is going ahead with their plans for a store at the Tower Theatre. Plans have been approved for a renovation including a seismic retrofit and other work for a change of occupancy from theatre to retail. The main permit was issued June 5, 2019. After years of rumors the story finally hit the L.A. Times on August 2, 2018 with Roger Vincent's story "Apple premieres plans for store and event space..."  Photo: Bill Counter - 2007

The project was first discussed publicly at the August 2, 2018 meeting of the Cultural Heritage Commission. There had earlier been private meetings with the architects and the Commission as well as with the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation and the L.A. Conservancy to gain approval. The preliminary presentation by James McGrath of the San Francisco office of Foster + Partners, the project architect, stressed that the focus would be on restoration of some historic elements while adapting for the new use.

Gruen Associates is the local associate architect. Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger are the structural engineers. Other firms on the team include EverGreene Architectural Arts, Historic Resources Group, TheatreDNA and Matt Construction. The work paused in late 2018. Matt Construction was replaced in 2019 by Shawmut Woodworking and Supply, Inc.

An exterior rendering from Apple that appeared with the August 2, 2018 L.A. Times article. In this preliminary version note the marquee restored to its 1927 configuration but with electronic readerboards. They've added a logo atop the vertical sign but kept its mid-60s lettering style. Other exterior work envisioned includes terracotta restoration, restoring the clock, replacing the missing top of the tower and opening up the storefronts along 8th St. for direct entrance to the auditorium.

A rendering from Apple appearing with the August 2 L.A. Times article. The proposed interior work includes restoration of auditorium murals and other decorative elements as well as repainting in a lighter color scheme of off-white with gold and bronze accents. The entire balcony will be removed during seismic retrofit work and then replaced with one having a different terracing configuration. As we see here, some seating will be reinstalled. The upper part of the balcony is planned to be a "Genius" area.

"Apple Opening a store in Downtown's old Tower Theatre, city permits confirm," Bianca Barragan's July 18 story for Curbed L.A., discussed the plans that had been filed. Brigham Yen's June 2018 story "Apple Begins Takeover of Tower Theater...," noted that the retail tenants in the building had been given notice to vacate.

Brigham Yen reported in a September 2017 post "OMG: Apple Store 'Done Deal'..." that a lease had been signed. The post was shared on the Facebook page DTLA Development with many, many comments resulting. One idea later floated on the DTLA Development page was that it was all a hoax to help jack up rents in the area. A byproduct of the uncertainty was that leasing activity in the immediate area had plummeted as landlords knew they would be able to jack up rates if Apple came downtown.

LA Business Journal's May 2016 article "Apple Nabs Retail Space in Downtown Los Angeles" noted that the firm was "in the process of securing a lease." Thanks to Torr Leonard for spotting the story. Curbed L.A.'s Bianca Barragan followed with "Apple Store Opening in Downtown L.A.'s Historic Tower Theatre."  Rumors that Apple was interested in the building had been swirling around since 2015. 

Opened: October 12, 1927 with "The Gingham Girl" (a silent) as the initial attraction. Vitaphone shorts were also on the bill. The feature was accompanied by Stephen Boisclair on the Tower's two manual 10 rank Wurlitzer organ. In 1931 the Tower's organ was removed and reinstalled at the Los Angeles Theatre.

Phone: 213-629-2939   Website:

The Tower Theatre is owned and operated by the Delijani family's Broadway Theatre Group with Ed Baney as General Manager. The firm also has the Los Angeles, Palace and State theatres.

Seating: 906. Or it was. The main floor seats were removed decades ago for a film shoot.

Architect: S. Charles Lee designed the Tower Theatre for H.L. Gumbiner, who would four years later hire him to do the much more opulent Los Angeles Theatre. The Tower was featured in the March 3, 1928 issue of Motion Picture News with a photo spread plus an article: "A Theatre Built on a Lot 50 x 150 Feet."

A photo of the young architect from a December 28, 1929 Motion Picture News article by S. Charles Lee that includes photos and a discussion of the Tower's design. The article on the Internet Archive: "Stretching The Building Fund and the Plot Area."

A drawing from the S. Charles Lee office of his vision of the palatial lobby. It's on Calisphere from the UCLA S. Charles Lee Papers Collection. Additional sketches and plans from the UCLA collection include: color exterior rendering | interior section drawing | another interior section | floor plans |

The previous building on the site, the Garrick Theatre, had been acquired by Gumbiner in 1921. He had plans to put a 12 story office building on the site but that didn't happen. He operated the Garrick until 1926 when plans were hatched for the Tower. Gumbiner was also involved in the operation of the Cameo. We see that house advertised on the Tower's construction fence.

Construction began March 6, 1927. Lee was 27 and this was his first theatre design. The lot is only 50 feet wide so he made it eye catching with a terracotta clock tower as well as elaborate detailing on both the Broadway and 8th Street sides of the building.

His compact floor plan got almost 1,000 seats plus retail store space onto a lot that had previously held the 650 seat Garrick Theatre. The Tower was designed for movies -- the "stage" is only 7 feet deep.

The balcony and main floor plans for the Tower from the March 3, 1928 Motion Picture News issue.

The stained glass above the entrance is dedicated to the art of movie making with, among other items, a roll of film unspooling. The theatre is a blend of French baroque, Moorish and Spanish design elements. Construction cost was reported as $500,000.

Lee's design sported many up-to-date features. The theatre opened with a Carrier air conditioning system, an electric seat indicator panel, neon cove lighting, a balcony cry room and the organ console on a hydraulic lift. Up behind the booth was a private screening room for the management to preview films.

Sound at the Tower: The Tower was the first theatre downtown wired for sound and regularly ran Vitaphone short subjects. And it also gets the prize as the first L.A. area theatre that opened running sound film on its initial bill. A Vitaphone short of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians was included on the opening program. The first Vitaphone installation in town had been at the Egyptian, for the tail end of the run of "Don Juan" in 1926. It evidently wasn't used there after that.

The original Vitaphone horn at the Tower was too deep for the space available behind the screen so a hole was poked into the back wall and the rear of the horn allowed to protrude into an enclosure out into the alley. With later shallower equipment, the hole was patched but the outline can still be seen today. That's the story anyway.

The Tower's initial Western Electric equipment package included both sound-on-disc for Vitaphone as well as sound-on-film capability for Movietone. A page 26 article located by Jack Tillmany that was in the October 24, 1927 issue of the L.A. Times had the headlines "Movietone Installed By Tower - Theater Arranges with Fox Officials for Early Presentations." The text:

"The Fox-Case Movietone will shortly be seen at the Tower Theater. This creation will be presented at the Tower by William Fox November 2. The premiere of the Movietone for the first time west of New York has been made possible through a deal between H.L. Gumbiner, owner of the Tower Theater, and Charles Michelstetter, general manager of the showhouse, with Winfield Sheehan and Jack Sullivan of the William Fox Corporation.

"With the installation of the apparatus, it will be possible for theatregoers to hear and see such notables as President Coolidge, Col. Charles Lindbergh, Mussolini, and many others. The Movietone will be installed at the Roxy Theater in New York about the same time that it will be heard at the Tower Theater in Los Angeles. The premiere will take place with 'What Price Glory?' at the Tower."

"What Price Glory" was a 1926 release that had played its initial roadshow run at the Carthay Circle as a silent film. The film was not a "talkie" but did have a Movietone score and sound effects track on the film. Movietone had actually had its New York debut in May at the Roxy as noted in an article on page 53 of the May 8, 1927 L.A. Times. But that was just for newsreels, not a feature film. The Times critic Edwin Schallert noted in "Talking Picture Developments," a November 13 article, that business at the Tower was booming for "What Price Glory" and that the Movietone shorts also on the bill were getting favorable audience response.

On the Vitaphone front, a November 10 L.A. Times article announced that West Coast Theatres and Warners had executed a contract for the equipment to be installed in the Criterion Theatre on Grand as well as in two suburban houses, the Uptown and the Figueroa. Edwin Schallert commented in his November 13 piece that a fourth theatre, the Warner Hollywood, "will, when completed, also use the innovation to provide supplementary entertainment."

The Tower allegedly hosted a sneak preview of Warner's "The Jazz Singer" prior to its first run engagement at the Criterion, opening there December 28. A November 8, 1927 Times story about the Westlake Theatre asserted that they had also recently previewed the film. The Tower got "The Jazz Singer" as a second run engagement beginning April 30, 1928. 

The ad for "The Jazz Singer" from the Monday, April 30, 1928 L.A. Times. In the Sunday ad it said "Wednesday." That was also noted in an editorial mention. Evidently they couldn't wait so moved it up a couple of days. 

An ad for a Vitaphone feature "The Lion And The Mouse" at the Tower in July 1928. They're advertising it as the first Vitaphone talking feature, meaning not just isolated scenes as in "The Jazz Singer." Thanks to Ken McIntyre for posting the ad on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.

More history: Initially the Tower was operated by Gumbiner as an independent. By 1935, Metropolitan Theatres was involved in the operation as Gumbiner was having a tough go at it. He had lost control of the Los Angeles Theatre to Fox. In 1946 Metropolitan subleased the building and it was renamed the Music Hall. It was frequently booked as a group with the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, the Music Hall in Hollywood (later known as the Holly Theatre), and the Hawaii Theatre on Hollywood Blvd., then called the Hawaii Music Hall.

In 1949 it was renamed the Newsreel Theatre after that policy was dropped at the Globe. As the Newsreel, the theatre sported a TV lounge in the basement and a news tickertape on the upper level of the lobby. At some point the theatre got a larger screen out in front of the proscenium, adding draperies to make the arch at the front of the sounding board the new proscenium. Front exits under the side boxes were abandoned and new ones added deeper into the auditorium.

The Tower name was restored to the building after a remodeling in 1965 followed a renewed interest in the business by a daughter of Mr. Gumbiner (Mrs. Vilius Randall) -- as well as the lapsing of the long term lease held by Metropolitan Theatres. The remodel included a refurbished marquee and vertical sign, removal of auditorium murals, new seats, paint, carpets and sound system The original center boxoffice was removed at this time and replaced with one at the south side of the new entrance doors.

The 1965 re-opening ad. Thanks to Woody Wise for posting it on the Los Angeles Theatres Facebook page. Check out Woody's Facebook page: Brotherhood of the Popcorn. 

After a period of lackluster business the venue was turned over to Pacific Theatres to operate, then later (again) by Metropolitan Theatres after Pacific got rid of their downtown holdings.

Closing and later use: The Tower closed as a film theatre in 1988 and use has been very sporadic since then. The seats on the main floor have been removed and there's a terraced floor that was installed for the filming of "Mambo Kings" in 1991. The original stage is hiding under the extension added on top and in front of it for the film. 

It had a fling as a church in 2002 and 2003. After the church left there was talk of the building being used for a swap meet type of operation but that plan never materialized. The only use for the last decade and a half has been for film shoots and the occasional concert or special event.  

The Tower has been owned by the Delijani family since 2007 when Michael Delijani acquired the building and the land under it. The building is part of the family's operating entity Broadway Theatre Group with Shahram Delijani now heading the firm. In 2007 the exterior received a cleaning (as did the Palace's facade) and additional painting and storefront improvements have enhanced the look of the building.

Over the past few years the Delijanis have announced plans to revitalize all four of their theatres. In late 2009 they applied for a liquor license. In 2010 plans were before the city zoning administrators for reopening the Tower with a 7,429 sf basement bar/lounge, a 6,000 sf restaurant on the main floor and an 827 sf outdoor patio but the plans did not proceed at that time.  

A 2012 Los Angeles Downtown News story by Richard Guzman profiled Shahram Delijani and his family's plans to revive the building. In 2013 they secured liquor licenses and use permits that, for operational purposes, designated the four buildings as a single complex. Nothing was pursued in terms of increased use for the buildings. The licenses were later surrendered as one of the conditions was that kitchens were to be constructed in each of the buildings, something that didn't transpire.

The future: Rumors had been swirling around for several years. See the news at the top of the page.

The Tower in the Movies:

Harold Lloyd stars in "Feet First" (Paramount, 1930). Here, part of an elaborate sequence that started on Broadway, we're looking west on 8th St. with the Tower up the street at Broadway and 8th. Note the frames for signage (here seen empty) along the top of the 8th St. facade.

His high altitude building-climbing sequence in "Feet First" starts on Broadway at the Triangle Building just south of Olympic and we get views of the United Artists. Somehow we jump a block north and then, supposedly on the same building, we can see the Majestic and the 800 block instead. In these two views, still part of the same sequence, we've magically shifted a few blocks to 8th & Spring.

Another "Feet First" shot looking west on 8th from down a bit lower. The Tower Theatre is out the window with the Hamburger / May Co. Building beyond. See the Theatres in Movies post for more shots from the film.

The best part of "Down To Earth" (Columbia, 1947) is not the film itself but the 11 minutes of background footage Columbia shot in 1946 for process shots. Some of it is seen out the back window of a taxi Rita Hayworth rides in. This shot gives us a look at the Tower (then known as the Music Hall) and, farther down Broadway, the Rialto.

The footage on Internet Archive, labeled "Downtown Los Angeles Streets - 1946," is a great tour giving us glimpses of lots of theatres and vanished stores. We get night vistas of 7th and 8th streets, including looks at the RKO Hillstreet and Olympic, as well as a view of all the theatres on the east side of Broadway. See the Theatres in Movies post about the film for a few more theatre shots from the footage.

Rudolph Maté's "D.O.A." (Cardinal Pictures/United Artists, 1950) starts in San Francisco but about an hour in we come to L.A. and get a ride down Broadway with views of the Tower, Orpheum and Million Dollar. Edmond O'Brien is trying to track down the guy who gave him a lethal dose of radium. The entire film can be seen on Internet Archive.

A moment later in "D.O.A." we get this slightly better view of the theatre's original center boxoffice. The Tower, at this point known as the Music Hall, is running "Black Magic" with Orson Welles. Gregory Ratoff directed with, evidently, lots of assistance by the uncredited Welles.

Note the "Welcome Orpheum Vaudeville" on the marquee. It was a plug for the return of vaudeville in 1949 to the Orpheum Theatre down the block. This "D.O.A." footage also appears as part of the title sequence in Thom Andersen's "Los Angeles Plays Itself." See the Theatres in Movies post for the shots of the Orpheum and Million Dollar we get in the film.

About an hour into "High School Hellcats" (American International, 1958) we get a process shot for a drive north on Broadway with Joyce (Yvonne Lime) and her boyfriend Mike (Brett Halsey). In the distance of this frame we get a glimpse of the Tower as the Music Hall.

On the far left we get the Globe with the United Artists way down on the right -- we started our drive down near Olympic. In "Hellcats" we're headed for the Carmel/Paris Theatre on Santa Monica Blvd. See the Theatres in Movies post about the film for more shots.

In Boris Sagal's "The Omega Man" (Warner Bros., 1971) we see Charlton Heston cruising west on 8th St. past the Tower Theatre in a traffic-free Los Angeles.  

A great look down on the Tower in "The Omega Man" -- before the top of the clock tower was removed. We also spend some time at the Olympic Theatre -- running "Woodstock" of all things. See the Theatres In Movies post for those shots.

The Tower, Rialto and Orpheum appear briefly in Sidney Poitier's "Let's Do It Again" (Warner Bros./First Artists, 1975) although we're supposedly cruising around New Orleans.

A bit of the facade and marquee is all we get of the Tower in this shot from the Peter Hyams film "Peeper" (Fox, 1976) as Natalie Wood and a kidnapper head north on Broadway to go inside the Globe Theatre. The film also stars Michael Caine.

A "Peeper" shot at the Globe with the Tower's vertical in the distance. See the Theatres in Movies post for many shots of the Globe's interior.

The Tower is featured prominently in Arne Glimcher's "The Mambo Kings" (Warner Bros., 1992) as the Empire Ballroom in New York City. The film features Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante. Here we get a look at the lobby. 

Here we're looking toward the stage from the back of the main floor in "The Mambo Kings."

Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante at the back of the terraced main floor in "The Mambo Kings." See the Theatres in Movies post for several more Tower shots as well as a view of the Rialto.

We get a look at the Tower's exterior in "Last Action Hero" (Columbia, 1993). The film also gives us an exterior shot of the Olympic and we spend lots of time inside the Orpheum. See the Theatres In Movies post for many views from the film.

In Nick Cassavetes' "She's So Lovely" (Miramax, 1997) the theatre is used as a ballroom called the Suenolindo. It's uncertain what city we're supposed to be in.

"Siberian Mist -- make it a double." Sean Penn and Robin Wright go dancing at the Tower in "She's So Lovely." See the Theatres in Movies post for a shot at the boxoffice, an overhead marquee view that also shows the Rialto down the block, and another Rialto shot.

A look up at the Tower's marquee and vertical in Antoine Fuqua's "The Replacement Killers" (Columbia, 1998). When we go inside for the cartoons, however, we're at the Orpheum.

A crowd is lined up outside the Tower waiting to see the Cartoon Festival in "The Replacement Killers." Note we get a bit of the Rialto marquee with Esther Williams in "La Sirena de Millon Dolares" ("Million Dollar Mermaid," 1952) displayed.

A Tower facade view near the end of "The Replacement Killers" with Michael Rooker relating the terrible time he had at the Cartoon Festival. In "Replacement Killers" we also see a lot of the Mayan and Orpheum interiors as well as views of the exterior of the Million Dollar. See the Theatres in Movies post for more from the film.

Edward Norton walks up 8th St. near the end of David Fincher's "Fight Club" (20th Century Fox, 1999). In this shot we also get a bit of the Olympic Theatre on the left. On the right is the old Hamburger / May Co. department store building. See the Theatres In Movies post for two more views on 8th St. showing the Olympic Theatre as well as shots of a scene filmed in the booth at the Los Angeles.

The Tower makes an appearance as a New York City building in the Peter Hyams film "End Of Days" (Universal, 1999) with Arnold Schwarzenegger. There seems to be a subway tunnel and all sorts of deeper labyrinths underneath. At one point we go through the Belasco lobby to get in.

An entrance view of the Tower from "End of Days."

Arnold Schwarzenegger heads into a very murky Tower Theatre in "End Of Days." We also pay a visit to the Los Angeles Theatre, where the Pope lives.  

The gloomy vista toward the rear of the auditorium in "End Of Days." See the Theatres In Movies post for ten more screenshots from the film.

The Tower is a New York City venue, the Bowery Ballroom, in David McNally's "Coyote Ugly" (Touchstone Pictures, 2000). Here Piper Perabo's coyote friends are at the rear of the main floor coming in to see her perform near the end of the film.

Piper Perabo performing on stage at the Tower in "Coyote Ugly." See the Theatres in Movies post for another performance shot at the Tower.

Naomi Watts and Laura Herring are in the balcony of the Tower where it appears as a strange nightclub, Club Silencio, in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" (Universal, 2001). Tower Theatre General Manager Ed Baney notes that YouTube has a clip of the song "Crying" from this portion of the film. 

A look at the top of the proscenium in "Mulholland Drive." 

A view of one of the boxes flanking the stage in "Mulholland Drive." See the Theatres in Movies post for several more shots at the Tower from the film. 

In Christopher Nolan's "Prestige" (Touchstone/Warner Bros, 2006) we get an exterior view of the Tower that has been digitally altered to make it the Pantages in London. Inside, we're at the Palace. London never had a Pantages, but maybe it should have. "The Prestige" also spends lots of time inside the Belasco and Los Angeles theatres. See the Theatres In Movies post for more screenshots from the film.

The Tower appears in Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German" (Warner Bros., 2006) as a rundown old cinema in the French Quarter of Berlin. Here Cate Blanchett heads up to the booth for a rendezvous. "You can never really leave Berlin."

Looking up at Cate Blanchett and the Tower's appropriately peeling ceiling in "The Good German." See the Theatres in Movies post for several more shots at the Tower including one in the booth.

In "Dark Streets" (Samuel Goldwyn, 2008) the Tower is a major player as a nightclub called, appropriately enough, The Tower. Bijou Phillips and others strut their stuff on a thrust stage at the Tower in many musical numbers.

A look up toward the Tower lobby ceiling in "Dark Streets." Other nicely utilized downtown L.A. locations include the Alexandria Hotel and the lounge areas of the Los Angeles Theatre. See the Theatres in Movies post for several more shots from the scenes at the Tower.

There's a ride up Broadway with a look at the Rialto and the Tower in "Big Ass Spider!" (Epic Pictures Group, 2013). The film, directed by Mike Mendez, is about an alien spider that escapes from a military lab and goes on a destructive binge in Los Angeles.

The Tower is Club Figaro in "The Gangster Squad" (Warner Bros, 2013) with Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn and Emma Stone. It's about the LAPD vs. east coast crime figures in the 40s. The photo, from Warner Bros., appeared in an L.A. Times article about the film's locations.

The Tower's proscenium appears behind Emma Stone in "Gangster Squad." The still from Warner Bros. is featured in a post "Taking Potshots at Fact..." about the movie. The draperies and chandeliers were added for the film. See the Theatres in Movies post for several shots at the Chinese that were deleted from the film.

The Tower 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. 

The Tower on Video: See the 8 minutes of footage Sal Gomez shot during the 2012 LAHTF "all-about" tour of the building in his "Tower Theatre Tour" on YouTube.

More Information: The Cinema Treasures page on the Tower has ooodles of historical data and lots of photos. The Cinema Tour page on the theatre has a number of photos, including interiors by Mark Campbell.

Harrison Aster's Old Movie Palaces on Broadway set on Flickr includes interior views of the Tower taken in 2007 plus a few exterior views of other Broadway theatres. See Nick Bradshaw's Dead Cinemas, downtown set on Flickr for 50 great views of various movie palaces, including 2008 photos of the Tower interior.

The 2010 Facebook photo album by Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles has many nice interior photos of the Tower, including many seldom seen nooks and crannies. The set also includes the Palace and the Los Angeles. Sal Gomez has 21 photos from 2012 in his Tower Theatre photo set on Facebook.

Sandi Hemmerlein's many fine photos from 2012 are on her Avoiding Regret blog: Lobby, House & Balcony and Backstage, Booth and Basement. See Ed Kelsey's fine "History of the Tower Theatre" on the Theatre Historical Society website.

Eric Lynxwiler has over 50 photos of the Tower in his huge Los Angeles Theaters album on Flickr. Start with one of his auditorium views and you can page through about 45 more. The set includes the basement lounge, the lobby and the tower. Corey Miller has some evocative interior photos in his Movie Theatres: everything inside and out set on Flickr.

Don't miss Escott Norton's 75 item set Tower Theatre Tour on Facebook, taken at the 2012 LAHTF tour.

Other surviving theatre buildings on the 800 block: Rialto | Orpheum |  Vanished theatres on the block: Arrow | Garrick | Tally's Broadway | Majestic | Woodley/Mission Theatre |  

The Tower Theatre pages: back to top - history | vintage exterior views | recent exterior views | lobby areas | lounges + basement support areas | vintage auditorium views | recent auditorium views | organ chambers | booth level | attic | roof | tower |

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