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Opened: August 16, 1920 as
the Pantages Theatre. The Pantages circuit initially just featured vaudeville but by the time this theatre opened had moved to a format of vaudeville along with feature films. Photo: Bill Counter
An August 8, 1918 article in the L.A. Times about the new project. They seemed to be having trouble spelling "architeure" and getting Mr. Priteca's name right. Thanks to David Saffer of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation
for locating the article.
A view of the new Pantages upon its 1920 opening. The illustration originally appeared in the August 14 issue of the Seattle Argus. Thanks to Danni Bayles-Yeager for posting it on a page about the theatre in her Performing Arts Archive. It's now also on Wikipedia. The caption:
"The newest and most beautiful unit of the long chain of fine theaters operated by the Pantages Theater Company will be opened in Los Angeles next Monday. Inserts, left, Alexander Pantages, President and General Manager of the company; right, Edward G. Milne, Northwest General Manager. This million dollar building was designed by B. Marcus Priteca of Seattle, who was architect for the Pantages Theater in this city [Seattle]. Carl Walker will be local manager of the new theater, and James Townsend will be stage manager. The Pantages Theater Company will open new houses in Toronto, Salt Lake, Memphis and Kansas City this Fall."
Seating: 1,757. Originally listed as 2,200.
Stage: The theatre had a fairly standard vaudeville stage, about 26' deep. There's one vintage backstage photo plus a dozen recent ones down at the bottom of the interior views page along with what data is available.
Greek-born Alexander Pantages (1867-1936) got his start in show business selling seats for readings of newspapers to miners in Alaska who were starved for information and entertainment. He opened his first theatre in 1900 in Dawson City, Yukon Territory.
In 1925 the Pantages celebrated the circuit's 25th anniversary and this theatre's 5th anniversary. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating the August 15 Evening Express article, and several photos that accompanied it, for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.
"A show inaugurating the world's largest vertical electric sign." It's an ad that appeared on February 14, 1927. Thanks to Comfortably Cool for locating the ad for a post on Cinema Treasures.
An article appearing in the February 24, 1929 issue of the L.A. Times.
Joe Kennedy had earlier tried to purchase the Pantages
circuit to improve the RKO position on the west coast but Pantages was then unwilling to sell. C.W. Porter's website about Joe and his ruthless business methods has a page on "How Joe Framed an Innocent Man."
Using "Sins of the Father" by Ronald Kessler and "The Kennedy Men:
Three Generations of Sex, Scandal, and Secrets" by Nellie Bly as
sources, he says:
"Pantages Deal Tied Up," a May 2, 1929 L.A. Times article noted that there was still no deal with RKO and the option they had on the circuit had expired. Although Pantages was quoted as saying that it would not be renewed the word was that the two parties were "attempting to iron out their differences." One of those differences was evidently agreeing on a valuation of certain of the properties. In "Pantages - R.K.O. Deal Near," a Times story on June 7, it was noted that they had "reached a point where only four or five problems need to be worked out." Rumors that the deal was done and RKO was moving into the San Francisco Pantages on June 27 were denied by Mr. Pantages.
Finally a deal. In this July 26, 1929 Times article they note that the purchase was valued at $12 million but earlier articles had noted that some of the payout might end up being in real estate swaps. The six theatres listed here were different than the ones listed in the July 25 article. Now Spokane was included and Seattle was out.
Of the four theatres still under consideration at this time two would end up with Warner Bros. and not RKO: Los Angeles and Fresno. One account of he long negotiating road to selling those theatres to RKO is detailed starting on page 117 of "American Zeus,"
the biography of Pantages by Taso G. Lagos. It's on Google Books.
The Eunice Pringle affair: The August 10, 1929 issue of the L.A. Times ran a story with the headline "Alexander Pantages Placed in Jail...". He was held overnight on a charge of "suspicion of a statutory offense" and claimed it was a frame-up. A sixteen year old dancer named Eunice Pringle alleged that she had been assaulted by the theatre magnate the previous afternoon. The Times noted that the incident occurred in "his private office" at the theatre, but it was actually a janitor's closet on the stairs.
A triptych of Alexander Pantages, the theatre at 7th & Hill and Eunice Pringle. Ken McIntyre found the item for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page. In many re-tellings, Joe Kennedy was involved in the plot to frame Pantages. C.W. Porter's webpage "How Joe Framed an Innocent Man" says:
"Pantages insisted that he was being framed, and that the young woman had torn and ripped her own clothing. At the new trial, Pantages' lawyers reenacted the alleged rape and showed that it could not have occurred in the small broom closet the way Pringle had described it. The jury was also shown how athletic Pringle was, casting doubt on her claim that she could not fight off advances by the slightly built Pantages. The second jury acquitted Pantages, but because of the notoriety, his business had plummeted..."
Porter goes on to suggest that two years later Eunice Pringle died
suddenly (of cyanide poisoning) and, in a deathbed confession,
implicated Kennedy in the conspiracy to set up Pantages. Wikipedia's
article about Eunice Pringle
notes that this story, while appearing in several books, is obviously
untrue as Eunice died in San Diego in 1996 at the age of 84. Thanks to David Saffer for the link to Porter's website.
Michael Parrish, in a June 16, 2002 Los Angeles Times article, tried (unsuccessfully) to get to the bottom of the story. He noted that the "deathbed confession" of Ms. Pringle may have been a story spread by the Pantages camp as part of the attempt to exonerate the theatre owner. Parrish concludes that even if the confession part of the much-repeated tale is untrue it would be difficult to prove there wasn't a conspiracy against Pantages involving Joe Kennedy. Thanks to Jeff Kurti for locating the Times article.
Prior to the trial, the prosecutors went to the theatre building to inspect the room where Eunice Pringle alleged that the assault took place. It's a Herald Examiner photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection from August 13, 1929. The Library also has another similar shot. The paper's caption for this one:
The interior of the janitor's room in a Herald Examiner photo published August 13, 1929. It's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Thanks to Eitan Alexander for locating several of these photos. The caption:
Pantages, center, in court with his attorneys in 1929. It's a Frank Bentley Herald Examiner photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
Pantages was in trouble again in 1931 in the "Hollywood Love Mart Case" where there was a party and it was alleged that money was given to several underage girls. This Herald Examiner photo from that case is in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
A detail from another Herald Examiner photo from the 1931 "Love Mart Case." It's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The caption:
"Courtroom scene shows Alexander Pantages and his wife, pointed out by arrows, seated side by side. Standing at left is Jesse H. Shreve, wealthy San Diego business man, jointly accused with Pantages on charges of contributing to the delinquency of two minor girls in connection with the asserted party. A full week already has been taken up in selection of a jury to try the case. Photo dated: June 3, 1931."
We can't blame the Eunice Pringle rape accusations and trial for forcing Pantages to sell his theatres. In fact, sales of at least eight theatres, including the theatre at 7th & Hill, happened before the alleged assault. Six had gone to RKO in July and on August 7 (two days before Eunice came to visit) the sale to Warner Brothers of the downtown Los Angeles theatre and the Pantages in Fresno was announced. Pantages kept his Hollywood Pantages project but when it opened in 1930 he had Fox West Coast as a managing partner.
The theatre reopened September 26, 1929 as the Warner Bros. Downtown Theatre with the two-strip Technicolor Vitaphone feature "Gold Diggers of Broadway," directed by Lloyd Bacon. Thanks to Mike Rivest for locating the reopening day ad in the Times. The redecorated theatre and the film were reviewed by Edwin Schallert in the late edition of the September 27 Times and in the regular edition on September 28. He referred to the Warner as "the exclusive home of audible pictures." Al Jolson was the guest of honor and Frank Fay acted as MC.
Typical interior plasterwork redone in 1929 with a "WB" replacing the "P" over a main floor exit door. The proscenium box areas were also redone with much of the original box construction removed. Photo: Sandi Ando Lessert - 2016
The marquee Warner Bros. put on the theatre in 1929. Well, actually this was version two. That right panel was a later addition. It's a detail from a 1938 Dick Whittington Studio photo in the USC Digital Library collection.
Pantages held onto a big project in the works at the time of the circuit's sale, the Hollywood Pantages, which was the largest theatre ever built for the circuit. Curiously, RKO did end up with the Hollywood theatre but not until 1949 and Joe Kennedy was long out of the picture. RKO at that time was being run by Howard Hughes.
Early Widescreen at the Warner: Warner Bros, like many studios, experimented with widescreen cinematography and projection in the late 20s and early 30s. Their process was called Vitascope and used 65mm film with the sound on Vitaphone records. The special projectors were developed by the Warner Bros. technical department.
The Warner Downtown got a 65mm installation but only ran one feature, "A Soldier's Plaything," which opened December 12, 1930. The Warner Hollywood also ran the 65mm Vitascope process. See the Film and Theatre Technology Resources page here on this site for more on early widescreen processes. Dates of early L.A. widescreen runs are on the From Script To DVD page "70mm & Wide Gauge: The Early Years" by Michael Coate and William Kallay.
Running a big vaudeville show, plus "The Purchase Price," in 1932 to compete with the RKO Hillstreet a block away. Stage shows were also being offered during this period at the Paramount and, sometimes, at Loew's State. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating the July 30 ad.
Signage revisions in the 1940s rebranded the theatre as Warners.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the building had a Trans-Lux Flashcast news ticker wrapping around the corner above the third floor. Thanks to WBHist for spotting this in some 1950 footage that's on Internet Archive. See a shot of the Warner from 2:40 into the eleven minutes of footage.
The Consent Decree: In early 1953 as a result of the Consent Decree the
Warner Bros. theatre division, the Stanley-Warner Corp., was spun off as
a separate company from the film production business. That company merged with RKO
Theatres (controlled by the Glen Alden Corp.) in 1967 to form
RKO-Stanley Warner. The process is discussed in the anthology The American Film Industry, edited by Tino Balio. In 1955 the theatre was being advertised as the Stanley Warner Downtown.
A detail from a 1958 photo showing the "WB" on the marquee replaced by Stanley Warner's "SW."
After Stanley-Warner: By 1960 RKO Stanley-Warner had left the downtown market and the theatre was then operated by Metropolitan Theatres. It became the Warrens Theatre on September 1, 1960. The rest of the RKO-SW properties in southern California including the Warner theatres in Hollywood, Huntington Park and Beverly Hills were purchased by Pacific Theatres in 1968.
Status: The theatre closed in 1975. It was then a church for a while. The main floor and lobby have been used for retail as the Jewelry Theater Center since the late 70s. A Burger King, now defunct, was added in the basement.
The main floor as a jewelry emporium. Most of the plasterwork is still intact and the balcony is untouched (but without seats). You can walk on the stage (where there are more jewelry stalls) and see the counterweight system T-wall stage right as well as look up to the grid. The switchboard stage right has been removed. It's worth a visit even if you don't want to buy any jewelry. Photo: Bill Counter - 2007
William Simmonds discussed the conversion in comments on the Los Angeles Theatres Facebook page:
"I turned that theater into a jewelry mart in about 1978. It was a fun
project. I purchased it from the Metropolitan Theater Company. I saved
as much as possible of the building. There are many vendors still in the
booths I rented to them back in 1978. See all those facades on the back
of the stage? I personally made that set with 'Z' bricks and various
odd size windows and awnings and the purpose was to draw customers to
the rear of the 'Store' much as grocery stores put the milk at the rear
of their stores so people would have to walk all the way to the back
while passing all the 'un-necessities.' I had previously made two other
Jewelry Exchanges on Hill Street. And I made another one in the Athletic
Club building. For every successful endeavor, I had one or two
failures, but I always landed on my feet."
The Pantages / Warner / Warrens in the Movies:
Harold Lloyd has some dazzling scenes up on what looks like an unfinished building in the 1921 Pathe release "Never Weaken." Some shots were from 1st & Hill but here we're at 7th & Hill. We get this nice vista down on the new Pantages. The building beyond the theatre is the Los Angeles Athletic Club. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for shots of Loew's State and the Mason Theatre from the film.
James Cagney works in a New York theatre run by Warner Bros. called the Strand in "Lady Killer" (Warner Bros., 1933). When it's time for a marquee shot we get this doctored footage of the Warner. Earlier we got a nice ushers roll call scene filmed on a roof several blocks away. Later Cagney goes to Los Angeles and, of course, becomes a movie star. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a view of the Montalban Theatre on Vine St. seen during a chase with some east coast mobsters.
The Warner is seen in the 11 minute 1946 short film "Your Traffic Officer" from the L.A. City Clerk's office. The Warner has "Cloak and Dagger" a September 1946 release by Fritz Lang starring Gary Cooper. The film can be seen on YouTube. Thanks to Eitan Alexander for the screenshot. And to Michelle Gerdes, Torr Leonard and Hunter Kerhart for also spotting the theatres in the film. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for a shot of the Orpheum from the film.
The Warner is on the right as the camera moves east on 7th St. in this shot from March 1950 footage intended for use as process shot backgrounds in film or TV shows. The vertical is seen spelling out the name. Note the news headline ticker that was above the building's 3rd floor. This is 2:40 into in eleven minutes of great downtown footage that's on Internet Archive as Pet 1067 r 4.
We get this shot looking out from behind the cashier at the Warner in Owen Crump's film "The Couch" (Warner Bros., 1962). The guy we see is stabbing people on the streets of dangerous downtown. Next he'll go after his psychiatrist. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for shots of the Los Angeles and Paramount theatres from the beginning of the film.
The Warner was used extensively for the interiors of Ziegfeld's New Amsterdam Theatre in William Wyler's "Funny Girl" (Rastar/Columbia, 1968). The exteriors, some backstage shots and bigger production numbers were studio creations. Here we have a look at the stage from the back of the house. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for a dozen more views of the Warner from the film.
Chuck Connors is driving east on 7th in a red van filled with dynamite in "The Police Connection," a film directed by Bert I. Gordon also known as "The Mad Bomber" (Cinemation Industries, 1973). The theatre, by this time renamed the Warrens, is on the right. Vince Edwards is the cop on the case. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for some nice marquee shots of the Carmel/Paris Theatre from earlier in the film.
Mel Gibson plays a New York cab driver with some problems
in Richard Donner's "Conspiracy Theory" (Warner
Bros., 1997). We get this view of the Warner in a scene with lots of erratic driving at the
beginning of the film when he has a traumatic flashback. He's obsessed with multiple conspiracy theories and
when one of them turns out to be true, he's a target. The film also features Julia Roberts and Patrick Stewart. The
cinematography was by John Schwartzman. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for eight shots from a later scene over at the Orpheum.
Mark Wahlberg owes lots of money and gangsters in limos are chasing him when we get this shot in "The Gambler" (Paramount, 2014). He's an English professor with problems. The film, directed by Rupert Wyatt, also stars Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Anthony Kelley, George Kennedy, Alvin Ing and Michael Kenneth Williams. The cinematography was by Greig Fraser. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for shots in Mark's lecture hall at the L.A. Theatre Center, lots of stage and basement views at the Palace plus brief looks at the Los Angeles Theatre and the Tower.
We this murky view west from Broadway with the dark marquee of the former Warner in the center of the frame near the end of Dan Gilroy's "Roman J. Israel, Esq." (Columbia/Sony, 2017). The film features Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo in a story of a brilliant, idealistic lawyer who makes a serious misstep. The cinematography was by Robert Elswit. We also get views of the Orpheum, Rialto and Los Angeles Theatres. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for five more shots from this sequence.
More information: The Cinema Tour page on the Warner Bros. Downtown has some photos by Adam Martin and Bob Meza. The Cinema Treasures page on what they call the Warrens has a good history of the building and lots of photos.
See the Wikipedia articles on architect B. Marcus Priteca and owner Alexander Pantages. Stanford University also has a nice page on the career of Alexander Pantages.
There's an exhaustively researched 2018 biography of Pantages by Taso G. Lagos from McFarland Books called "American Zeus, The Life of Alexander Pantages, Theatre Mogul." A preview of the book is on Google Books.
The theatre is still labeled the Pantages on a very nice 1938 map of downtown appearing on the LA Magazine website. Thanks to James J. Chun for spotting the map.
The Pantages in Salt Lake City, later known as the Utah Theatre, opened the same year and was also a design of B. Marcus Priteca. Much of the decor was similar to the L.A.Pantages. See a nice set of photos and blueprints as well as historical data on the circuit on the Pantages Theatre Archives site of the Marriott Library of the University of Utah.
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