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Opened: August 17, 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
Architect: B. Marcus Priteca. Priteca, a prolific theatre architect based in Seattle, did all the Pantages circuit houses from 1911 onward including the last one, the Hollywood Pantages, in 1930. His other theatres in the Los Angeles area were the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills and three suburban deco palaces, the Warner Beverly Hills, Warner San Pedro and Warner Huntington Park.
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."
This 1920 creation was quite typical of the favored Pantages classical style of the 20s. The home of the Pantages circuit prior to this in Los Angeles was the 1910 building at 534 S. Broadway. That theatre is now known as the Arcade.
Seating: 1,757. Originally listed as 2,200.
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.
Alexander and his son Rodney in a photo by Estep and Kirkpatrick, from the Herald Examiner archives in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Rodney would go on to manage the second San Francisco Pantages upon its opening in 1926 and, in 1930, the Hollywood Pantages.
A tall 1925 ad for the "Show Place Beautiful" where "Like the Pantages skyscraper overtops a cottage, this show tops everything else in town." The feature is "The Best Bad Man" with Tom Mix and Clara Bow. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Tourmaline, who found the ad for his Noirish post #14530 about Tom Mix. He found it on the site Western Clippings.
Scandals, Joseph Kennedy and a sale of theatres: After Joseph P. Kennedy put RKO together in 1928 by merging Radio Corporation of America and the Keith Albee and Orpheum circuits, he started looking around for additional theatre holdings to expand his reach. He tried to purchase the Pantages circuit to improve the RKO position on the west coast but Pantages was initially unwilling to sell.
A triptych of Alexander Pantages, the theatre at 7th & Hill and Eunice Pringle, a secret agent of Joe Kennedy (according to one version of the story). Ken McIntyre found the item for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.
C.W. Porter's website about Joe Kennedy 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:
"In February 1929, Joe Kennedy made an offer to buy the Pantages theater chain, the second biggest in California, from its owner Alexander Pantages, a Greek immigrant who had built the chain from scratch into a multi-million dollar business. Joe's innate arrogance was now rampant, and when Pantages rebuffed his offers, Kennedy threatened him by boasting of his influence in the banking and movie businesses. Soon, Pantages found his theaters were being denied first-run blockbuster features from major studios, but that was only the beginning.
"On August 9, 1929 in Pantages's flagship theater...in downtown Los Angeles, an hysterical lady in red emerged from the janitor's broom closet on the mezzanine screaming: 'There he is, the Beast! Don't let him get at me!' She pointed to the silver-haired Alexander Pantages in the office next to the broom closet. Poor Pantages was convicted and sentenced to fifty years, but the verdict was overturned on appeal, on the basis that it was prejudicial to Pantages to exclude testimony about the morals of the plaintiff. The court found her testimony 'so improbable as to challenge credulity.' The girl, Eunice Pringle of Garden Grove, California, told police that she had come to Pantages looking for work as a dancer. Instead of offering her a job, he had pushed her into the broom closet, wrenched her underwear loose and raped her.
"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's piece has factual problems with the chronology of a sale of some theatres to RKO. He also 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.
Michael Parrish, in a June 16, 2002 Los Angeles Times article, tries (unsuccessfully) to get to the bottom of the story. He notes 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'll be difficult to prove there wasn't a conspiracy against Pantages involving Joe Kennedy.
We can't blame the Eunice Pringle rape trial for forcing Pantages to sell his theatres. In fact, sales of at least eight theatres happened before the alleged rape. On July 25, 1929 Pantages sold six theatres to Joe Kennedy's RKO for something like $4.5 to $5 million. Those were in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Diego, Spokane and Tacoma.
The long negotiating road to selling those six 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. On August 7 (two days before Eunice came to visit) he announced the sale of the downtown Los Angeles theatre and the Pantages in Fresno to Warner Brothers. He kept the Hollywood Pantages but when it opened in 1930 it was managed by Fox West Coast.
Prior to the trial, the prosecutors went to the theatre building to inspect the room where Eunice Pringle alleged that the assault took place. The room is on the office building stairs located half way along the 7th St. side of the building. It's on a landing between the mezzanine and the 2nd floor. Alexander Pantages' office was not "next to the broom closet" but up a few stairs and way down the hall to room 205, overlooking the theatre's marquee. 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: "Chief Deputy District Attorney, Robert P. Stewart, who led the investigation party, is pictured in doorway of the room, which opens from the mezzanine floor. The doorway to the room is so low, Mr. Stewart had to stoop."
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. The caption: "Photo shows interior of the 'little mystery room,' a private conference room in the Pantages Theatre building, where Eunice Pringle, dancer, charges she was attacked by Alexander Pantages. Prosecutors inspected the room today." Thanks to Eitan Alexander for finding these two photos above in the LAPL collection.
Pantages, center, in court with his attorneys in 1929. It's a Frank Bentley Herald Examiner photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
Thanks to David Saffer, of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, for the link to Porter's Joe Kennedy website. And many thanks to Jeff Kurti for digging out the Los Angeles Times article that debunks some aspects of the Pringle story.
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." 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." It's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
Acquisition by Warner Bros: Although Pantages had sold part of his circuit to RKO, they didn't need this Pantages house at 7th & Hill as they had two other large theatres nearby, the Orpheum on Broadway and the Hillstreet a block away at 8th & Hill. Thus this one ended up with Warner Bros.
An August 8, 1929 mention in the L.A. Times about the theatre going to Warner Bros. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the article.
There was a shutdown for a general refurbishing which, in addition to interior work, included a new marquee. 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. 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.
An ad for "The Lash" at the Warner Downtown (in 35mm) or at the Warner Hollywood (in 65mm Vitascope -- "uncanny in its realism"). Thanks to the terrific site In70mm.com for the ad. It's from their article "Magnified Gandeur" by David Coles.
Signage revisions in the 1940s rebranded the theatre as Warners.
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 as the Warrens Theatre. The rest of the RKO-SW properties in southern California including the Warner theatres in Hollywood, Huntington Park and Beverly Hills were purchased Pacific Theatres in 1968.
Status: The theatre closed in 1975. It was then a church for awhile. 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
In the Movies as the Pantages:
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.
In the Movies as the Warner:
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.
Also from 1946 is a Downtown Los Angeles Traffic Study. It's less than 4 minutes long. At 2:12 a shot looking south on Hill gives a look at the Warner. Thanks to Eitan Alexander for spotting this one on YouTube.
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.
We're driving south on Hill St. with a look at the Warner as Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn try to get away from Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron's "The Terminator" (Orion Pictures, 1984). Thanks to Jonathan Raines for spotting the shot in the film. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two shots from 7th and Broadway as well as a shot from a scene in the alley behind the State plus a sliver of a view of the facade.
We have a lot of fun downtown in Dominic Sena's "Swordfish" (Warner Bros., 2001) including this brief view of the Warner during a chase heading up St. Vincent court. The counter-terrorist thriller stars John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a shot of a restaurant built up against the south side of the Los Angeles Theatre as well as many views of a sequence shot in the Belasco.
We get a nice shot of the Warner building at night toward the end of "The Gambler" with Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson (Paramount, 2014). We also see other theatres including the Tower and the Palace. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for more about the film.
It's not much, but we get a fuzzy look at the Warner in the distance in a shot west on 7th St. in Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups" (Broad Green Pictures, 2015). The film spends a lot of time on top of and inside the Palace and also has brief views of the Los Angeles, State and Wiltern theatres. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for more shots from the film.
We get a brief glimpse of the Warner from Broadway 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. We also get views of the Orpheum, Rialto and Los Angeles Theatres. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more about the film.
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.
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