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Variety Arts Theatre: history + exterior views

940 S. Figueroa St. Los Angeles, CA 90015 | map |

Also see: Variety Arts Theatre - interior views

The news: The property is currently either for sale or lease. Contact Cushman & Wakefield brokers Mike Condon or John Eichler at 213-629-7379. It's been under renovation for 3+ years, a project not completed due to lack of a tenant.


Opened: May 5, 1924 as The Playhouse in the new building of the Friday Morning Club, a social and political group for women that had been founded in 1891. Will Rogers was the toastmaster at the opening and guests included Charlie Chaplin and C.B. DeMille. It was later known as the Figueroa Playhouse, the Neuhaus World Theater, the Times Theatre, the Major Theatre, the Figueroa 9th St. and the Variety Arts Center.

The opening attraction was Doris Keane in the play "Romance." This photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection has Ms. Keane's name and the title on the marquee with '"Herself," an added line in the middle, so you'd know the star would be onstage.

For rental of the Variety Arts for filming or special event use, talk to Rebecca Reynoso at Cap Equity Locations, 323-375-4192. Check out their web page on the Variety Arts for 154 photos of the property.



A pre-opening ad appearing in the Los Angeles Times. The idea was that the main theatre, leased out as a commercial operation, would generate revenue to help support the rest of the building. Initially the Playhouse was operated by Louis O. Macloon's Los Angeles Playhouse, Inc. His co-producer was his wife Lillian Albertson. Thanks to Floyd B. Bariscale for including the ad in his wonderful article on the Variety Arts Center as part of his Big Orange Landmarks series. The ad noted that Macloon had:

"...the honor to announce the opening of the new and beautiful 'PLAYHOUSE,' erected and furnished at a cost of over $750,000 for the exclusive presentation of legitimate stage attractions with celebrated New York and London stars. The Playhouse is located on Figueroa at Ninth Street in the new Friday Morning Club Building -- the most ideal theatrical location in the entire city -- accessible to leading car lines and with ample automobile parking within one block radius."

Architects: Allison and Allison designed the 6 story building. The firm is best known in the L.A. area for the CalEdison Building and Royce Hall.



A page of facade details by Allison and Allison from the February 1923 issue of The Building Review. Their work got an extensive article starting on page 15. This building was being planned at the time of the article and it includes some preliminary facade sketches on page 20 and 21. There are also several additional facade drawings later in the issue. It's on Internet Archive.

The October 1924 issue of Architect and Engineer gave the building a big spread including thirteen photos in an article entitled "A New Club Building in Southern California." Originally the club’s executive offices were on the ground floor. The second floor included lounges and a library. The fourth floor offered an assembly room and dining area for 500 people. The fifth floor had an art gallery and two small club rooms. The club's motto is on the facade: "In essentials unity – in non-essentials liberty – and in all things charity."

Seating: The main theatre seats 1,100. Well, we should say the main theatre used to seat 1,000. The seats were pulled out during the 2017-2019 renovation period and, as of mid 2019, not yet been replaced. The smaller theatre on the third floor, originally called the Lecture Hall, seats 250 but none are permanently installed there. 

Stage data: Scroll halfway down the interior views page for photos and a bit of tech information.  

More history: J. Craig Owens, in a history he did for his Facebook page Bizarre Los Angeles, notes that the theatre was "a venue for original plays (usually written by Hollywood studio scribes) and a mix of classics and Broadway favorites. According to biographer David Bret, Clark Gable made his acting debut in May of 1925 in a production of 'Romeo & Juliet.' Many silent film and early talkie actors appeared in staged productions throughout the 1920s, including Pauline Frederick, Lionel Barrymore, Patsy Ruth Miller, Dorothy Mackaye, Mae Busch and Dwight Frye."



An ad for a 1926 Pauline Frederick production at The Playhouse, where she did a number of shows. It's in a program for "The Butter and Egg Man" at the Mason Theatre. It's from the collection of Danni Bayles-Yeager. The full program is on her Online Archives of the Performing Arts site.



The cover for the November 1926 program of "The Cradle Snatchers" at The Playhouse. It's from the collection of Danni Bayles-Yeager. See the full program on Online Archives of the Performing Arts. Visit the site's home page for an introduction. There's also a page on the Playhouse Theatre.

J. Craig Owens notes: "In 1929, the stage manager, author and cast members were arrested by 19 detectives in a raid following the final curtain for a controversial juvenile crime drama, 'Bad Babies.' Silent film star Jobyna Ralston was among those arrested. In 1930, the play was ruled 'indecent' and the cast members were required to pay a $300 fine for their participation in the production. By 1930, the Playhouse was struggling to book new plays.

"After going dark for months, theatrical producer Victor Neuhaus of the locally renowned German National Theater signed a five year lease in August of 1931, where he attempted to produce 'English, French and Spanish playwrights of the world.' The theater was renamed the Neuhaus World Theater and its first production was 'The Living Mask' by Luigi Pirandello, starring Arnold Korff, reprising his role as 'Henry VI' from the Broadway version of the same play. The play received critical acclaim, however, the economic slump brought on by the Great Depression and the rising popularity of talking pictures made it difficult for a serious minded theater to exist."

In the 1934 city directory it's the Figueroa Playhouse. In the 1935 and 1936 city directories, it was listed as the Major Theatre with J.L. Crown as the manager. From 1937 to 1939 it's back to being the Figueroa Playhouse. Owens notes that from 1932 to 1938 CBS used the theatre for the "Burns and Allen Show" and that there were also broadcasts by Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and, allegedly, a speech by Eleanor Roosevelt. Dorothy Parker once spoke at the theatre as well.



A program cover for the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre's first production at the Playhouse, "The Beggar's Opera." The company's 2nd production was to be Molnar's "The Guardsman." Thanks to Brady Westwater for finding the program.

Starting in 1940 the main theatre was running films and called the Times Theatre. There were also occasional stage shows and lectures during this period. The theatre kept the Times name at least until 1958. As the Playhouse it was running Spanish language films and occasional Chinese double bills as late as 1973.

Becoming the Variety Arts Center: The Society for the Preservation of the Variety Arts bought the building from the Friday Morning Club in 1977 and renamed it the Variety Arts Center. Milt Larsen, of Magic Castle fame, headed the organization. Programming in the theatre included a mix of shows intended as a tribute to variety and vaudeville entertainers. The famed annual Larsen presentation "It's Magic" at times used both the main and smaller theatre upstairs. Larsen was also running the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica during this period.

Under Larsen, many different areas of the building were used as bars, exhibit areas and performance spaces. The smaller 3rd floor theatre was known at different times as The Masquers Theatre and the Tin Pan Alley Little Theatre Cabaret. The organization also had a library focused on vaudeville and related topics.

Mark Barrett reports that in 1982 he worked on a show called the "Variety Vanities of 1938" in the 4th floor ballroom that was called the Roof Garden Theatre. Alexandra Leh notes that the stage of that space had the original "Tonight Show" set. The building was granted City of Los Angeles landmark status on August 9, 1978. It's also on the National register.



In 1982 Larsen installed a 52' boat on the roof, a model made for the 1948 MGM film "Luxury Liner." Noirish Los Angeles contributor Noir Noir talks about it on Noirish post #47095. The photo appears on page fifteen of a pdf of a twenty-eight page "Variety Arts Center Commemorative Edition" brochure that's on the Los Angeles Public Library website. Floyd Bariscale comments that "you could see the ship from blocks away. I used to see it at night time, and... if I remember correctly... the ship was actually lighted, making it visible during the night."

Larsen wanted to save the boat and noted "When we sold the building the new owner was supposed to let us know when he needed us to remove the boat. He forgot that part and told a crew to get rid of the trash on the roof. They made the Queen Minnie into firewood." Thanks to Scott Charles for coming up with the story's final chapter for his Noirish post #47101. The boat was mentioned as going by the name U.S.S. Variety Club in a July 7, 1987 article about the club by Jack Smith in the L.A. Times. Noir Noir found the 1982 permit for the boat installation as a "sign." It's on Noirish post #47104.



One event in 1987. Thanks to Michael Rocchio for the scan of this poster. In 1987 and 1988 the theatre's calendar was filled with rock and pop shows in an attempt to generate enough revenue to save the building. Larsen end up closing the building at the end of 1988 on New Year's Eve due to an inability to pay the bills and back taxes. He had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1986 and had been shopping it around for an asking price in the $2.5 to $3.5 million range.

The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency had loaned Larsen's group $500,000 for restoration work and the CRA now had to come up with an additional $1.7 million to forestall an IRS auction. This bought some time to find a buyer for the property. The CRA held the first trust deed on the property.

Later operators: A number of operators used the building as a nightclub and concert venue. Paul Sehdeva had purchased the building in 1989 and operated one short-lived nightclub venture there. It ended up in the hands of Anschutz Entertainment Group, developer of Staples Center just to the south of the Variety Arts Building, for a purchase price of about $8 million. After they couldn't come up with a viable plan for the property, the building was sold in early 2007 to David Houk, who formerly owned the Pasadena Playhouse.

Houk (partnered with Robert Abassi of RTI Properties) intended to produce original shows in the main theatre but the project was later put on hold awaiting more financing or an additional partner, neither of which materialized. There were only occasional rentals for the building. Houk was also involved in the sad end of the Philharmonic Auditorium in the 1980s.

Status: The building was sold again in 2012 to Robhana Management, Inc. (213-683-8000), a unit of Robert Hanasab's Partners Capital (213-684-4800). Prior to the sale it had been on the market for several years with an asking price just under $10 million. Houk had earlier been looking for $12.5 million.

In late 2015 Robhana signed a fifteen year lease on parts of the building with a church group called Hill Song L.A. and proceeded to embark on an extensive renovation project. Eddie Kim had a January 2016 story in the L.A. Downtown News about the deal. Hillsong was scheduled to move in sometime in late 2017 after the upgrades were completed.

The project dragged on and Hillsong backed out of the lease in 2018.  A 2018 application by the owners for a conditional use permit envisioned dancing, alcohol sales, the works, in four separate venues in the building. As of 2020 the renovation still had a ways to go and no tenants for the building had been announced. The property is now available either for sale or lease.  

The Variety Arts Theatre in the Movies:


The Variety Arts is used for the auditorium of Windsor College, the site of much of the action late in Wes Craven's "Scream 2" with Neve Campbell (Dimension Films, 1997).
 


A view from the stage out into the house in "Scream 2." The dangerous man on the right with the gun is Liev Schreiber. "Scream 2" opens with lots of action at the Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena and also used the Vista Theatre for interiors. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more Variety Arts shots as well as those showing the other theatres.



John C. Reilly onstage at the Variety Arts. The theatre was the scene for one his big concerts in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" (Columbia, 2007). See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for several more shots at the Variety Arts as well as views of the Palace, Warner Grand and Shrine Auditorium from the film.

The Variety Arts gets a credit on Catherine Hardwicke's "Plush" (Blumhouse Productions, 2013) but none of the theatre's public areas are seen in the film. Perhaps it was used for dressing room shots, etc. The theatre was also used for "Vanished" (Advanced Visual Media, 2013).


More exterior views:


 A c.1924 view in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



A c.1924 entrance detail in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



A 1924 Mott Studios view of the Playhouse featuring one of their regular attractions, Pauline Frederick, in the play "Spring Cleaning." It's in the California State Library collection, one of twelve photos in their set #001384324.



North across the facade. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1924



A facade view looking south. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1924



A 1924 Mott Studios photo in the California State Library collection indexed as their #001384378.



A view from the Los Angeles Public Library collection that they date as 1926. On the marquee: "Coming Pauline Frederick."



The facade in a c.1930 Los Angeles Public Library photo.



A crowd for "Abie's Irish Rose" in the 30s. The photo is in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. 



Another "Abie's Irish Rose" view from the Los Angeles Public Library. 



A 1941 view looking north on Figueroa from the USC Digital Library collection. The theatre at the time was a 20 cent film house called the Times Theatre. The photo is from the Automobile Club of Southern California. 



A detail from the USC photo above.



A view looking south in 1941 from the USC Digital Library collection. Note that the side of the building still has signage as "The Playhouse."  It's an Automobile Club of Southern California photo that was taken "showing old type buildings that would have to be moved for street widening." Meaning, in this case, the buildings on either side of the Friday Morning Club. 



A detail from the USC photo above. 



A 1977 look at the building with the theatre being used as a Spanish language film house. The photo is from the Los Angeles Department of City Planning. Thanks to Floyd B. Bariscale for including it in the article on the Variety Arts Center as part of his Big Orange Landmarks series.



A photo of the building taken in 1980 as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey. It appears on the Library of Congress website. Also see the HABS index page and the ten page data pdf.  



Another 1980 photo on the Library of Congress website. The show at the time: "It's Magic," an annual presentation that went through many editions. There's no attribution on the LOC site but Hunter Kerhart has determined that these two are photos by Julius Shulman. The Getty Research Institute has two very similar shots he took at the same time.



The building in 2010 when it was for sale. Photo: Bill Counter



The north side of the building. The light patterns are reflections from the new building to the left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



A facade detail. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



An entrance detail by Martin on his terrific site You-Are-Here. Note the changeable neon letters.



Another look at the changeable neon letters, the last that were in use in Los Angeles. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010. Also see a 2011 photo by Michael Zyda of a rack of changeable neon letters in the basement



A facade view from the 2012 Curbed L.A. story "Touring South Park's...1924 Variety Arts Theatre,"  about the use of the building for a haunted house extravaganza. It features a wonderful 25 photo set by Elizabeth Daniels.



The side exit passage on the north side of the building looking toward Figueroa St. Photo: Elizabeth Daniels / Curbed L.A. - 2012
 


A fall 2012 facade view by Hunter Kerhart. He reported at the time that the lower portion of the front had been repainted, the doors refinished and lots of debris had been hauled out. Keep up with Hunter's explorations: on Facebook | hunterkerhart.com | on Flickr  



The newly painted street level of the facade. Thanks to Hunter Kerhart for his 2012 photo. 



Looking up at the entrance arches. Photo: Hunter Kerhart - 2013



The dedication plaque on the building. The words by Caroline Severance, noted abolitionist, suffragette, and Friday Morning Club founder, had previously been on a bronze tablet on the Friday Morning Club's old clubhouse. That building, dating from 1900, was demolished for the present structure. Photo: Hunter Kerhart - 2013 

Floyd Bariscale, in his Big Orange Landmarks article on the building, notes: "Next to the front entrance, you’ll find a memorial tablet dedicated to Caroline Severance. The words, taken from a speech given by Severance on her 71st birthday, had earlier been carved in bronze and were placed on the old clubhouse. Unveiled on January 12, 1923, on what would’ve been Severance’s 103rd birthday (she died at the age of 94 in 1914), the new tablet was later incorporated into the current building’s fa├žade." 



The building as seen from a fire escape on the Hotel Figueroa. Photo: Bill Counter - 2014 



The rear of the building. The double doors are the stage loading door. Up on the roof note the two square chimneys -- they're the smoke vents for the stage. Thanks to The Location Portal for the c.2014 photo. Visit the Variety Arts Center page of their website for 72 shots taken all over the building. The firm represents property owners in negotiations with companies looking for locations for filming or special events. They can be reached at 310-928-3456.



The north side of the building. Photo: Cap Equity Locations - 2014. Cap Equity brokers deals between various building owners and those seeking spaces for filming or other purposes. See their Variety Arts page for 154 photos of the building. Thanks to Rebecca Reynoso for the use of the firm's photos.



The building shrouded for exterior restoration. Photo: Bill Counter - January 2016  



The vista north on Figueroa. Photo: Hunter Kerhart - February 2016



The helicopter view. The Variety Arts, shrouded, is in the center of a whole district getting rebuilt. The orange building behind the crane, the Hotel Figueroa, was also getting a renovation. Photo: Hunter Kerhart - February 2016. Thanks, Hunter! 



The Variety Arts facade after restoration work. Photo: Hunter Kerhart - 2016


 
The building in 2020 with the construction fence still up and still looking for a tenant. Or a buyer. Lots of infrastructure upgrades were done during the renovations but work wasn't completed due to lack of a tenant. Photo: Bill Counter - April 13



Want it? Here's the data. Photo: Bill Counter - 2020


Up on top:


Outside on a balcony along the south side of the ballroom, looking toward Figueroa St. Photo: The Location Portal - c.2014



The balcony on the north side of the ballroom. We're looking west toward Figueroa St. Photo: Cap Equity Locations - 2014



Another view toward Figueroa St. Photo: Cap Equity Locations - 2014



A roof view on the east end of the building. Just beyond the corner of the ballroom note the smoke vent with the flip top for the theatre down on the main floor. Photo: Cap Equity Locations - 2014. 



Another roof view on the back of the building. Photo: Cap Equity Locations - 2014
 


On the roof of the front of the building along Figueroa St. looking northwest. Photo: The Location Portal - c.2014  



Another roof view along the front of the building looking south toward the elevator equipment room. Photo: The Location Portal - c.2014

More on the Variety Arts building: Floyd B. Bariscale has compiled an extraordinary spread on the Variety Arts Center as part of his Big Orange Landmarks series. Floyd has included a number of his own recent photos as well as many historic images of the building in his article. And there's even more on his Variety Arts photo set on Flickr.

J. Craig Owens' 2011 Bizarre Los Angeles Facebook post has a fine history of the building along with photos. His article came from digging into various Los Angeles Times articles. The Cinema Treasures page on the Variety Arts Center has some data and photos.

Curbed LA had a 2012 Adrian Glick Kudler story (with many photos by Elizabeth Daniels) about the building when it was being used for a haunted house: "Touring South Park's (Fake-Haunted) 1924 Variety Arts Theatre." See photo #25 in the article for a reproduction of a 1933 newspaper detailing a story about the theatre manager's wife disappearing after assisting a magician perform the "Vanishing Maiden" trick. The article is also included in the Noirish Los Angeles post #32810 from Mr. Ethereal Reality.

 A 28 page "Variety Arts Center Commemorative Edition" brochure with many photos and a history of the building appears on the Los Angeles Public Library website. The L.A. Times has many articles about the Variety Arts Center in their archives.

BifRayRock's Noirish Los Angeles post #9393 includes a number of photos. Danni Bayles-Yeager has a page on the Playhouse as part of her Performing Arts Archive. Wikipedia has an article about Variety Arts Center founder Milt Larsen.


The earlier Friday Morning Club building:


The first clubhouse on the site dating from 1900. It's a California Historical Society photo in the USC Digital Library collection.  



A photo of the first Friday Morning Club building in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

 J. Craig Owens, in his post on the Facebook page Bizarre Los Angeles about the Variety Arts Center, discusses the Friday Morning Club:

"Wealthy suffragist and abolitionist Caroline Severance had already established the New England Woman’s Club and the American Woman Suffrage Association back East before moving her family to Los Angeles in 1875. As soon as she settled into her estate on West Adams Street, she and her husband, Theodoric, founded the city’s first Unitarian congregation, Unity Church and established the first kindergarten in Los Angeles.

"In 1891, at the age of 71, she founded the Friday Morning Club, Los Angeles’ first women’s political club and is credited as being the first woman to register and vote in the State of California. In 1899, Severence formed a corporation and issued stock to its membership of the Friday Morning Club. The money raised from the stock, made it possible to purchase a parcel of land on Figueroa between Ninth and Tenth to build a clubhouse, which would eventually be leased back to the club.

"On September 14, 1899, the cornerstone for the clubhouse was laid. On January 19, 1900, four months later, a $13,000, two-story Mission revival structure was completed and opened for meetings. Severence died in 1914 at the age of 94; however, the club that she stared continued to prosper and grow its membership. In April of 1922, the Friday Morning Club hired architects James & David Allison to design and build a brand new five-story, Italian Renaissance clubhouse on the site of the original building. At a cost of $750,000, the old clubhouse was razed and the new clubhouse was built." Thanks, Craig!

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1 comment:

  1. On October 7, 1991, Procol Harum played the old 1,100-seat Variety Arts Theatre on Figueroa at 9th St in Downtown LA. I reviewed the concert for the Pasadena Star-News, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune & the Whittier Daily News (collectively, the San Gabriel Valley Newspsper Group)

    Of course, it was a great show!

    Afterward, we were invited to the post-concert reception in the private club on the 5th floor that used to be run by a wonderful old English character actor, Alan Mobray (you've seen him in countless movies, including 1946's "Sherlock Holmes in Terror By Night" in which he played Professor Moriarty's right hand man, Colonel Sebastian Moran, who was on a train trying to steal the Star of Rhodesia Diamond).

    Group leader Gary Brooker manned the door greeting everyone. What a pleasure to meet the great man! He worked the room so we chatted for a minute or two & then he left for the evening.

    My buddy Randy& I ended up hanging out with keyboardist Matthew Fisher and the band's lyricist Keith Reid for a couple hours, partaking of the open bar & discussing music and baseball with the guys. Reid moved to the States & fell totally in love with The Great Game - so we had an absolute blast with those guys!

    We were the last four in the pace around 2am. Matthew Fisher had the keys to both the 5th floor club & the theatre and after he locked the place up we all said what a pleasure the evening had been & we all bid each other a good night.

    What a memorable night!

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