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Orpheum Theatre: history

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

More Orpheum Theatre pages:  vintage exterior views | recent exterior views | lobbies and lounges | vintage auditorium views | recent auditorium views | booth | backstage | lofts |


Opened: February 15, 1926 with two-a-day Orpheum circuit vaudeville on a reserved seat basis. Many famous acts such as the Marx Brothers, Sally Rand, Duke Ellington and Jack Benny have performed at the Orpheum.

The Orpheum circuit had three earlier homes in Los Angeles for their shows. From 1894 until 1903 they were at the Grand Opera House, 110 S. Main St. In 1903 the Los Angeles Theatre at 227 S. Spring St. was renamed the Orpheum. Later it was known as the Lyceum. In 1911 the circuit moved to a new building at 630 S. Broadway, the theatre now known as the Palace. In 1922 the circuit had also built the Hillstreet Theatre at 8th and Hill for their "Orpheum Junior" policy of continuous films and vaudeville throughout the day.  

Phone: 877-677-4386   Website: www.laorpheum.com | Orpheum on Facebook

Architect: G. Albert Lansburgh, one of the country's most successful theatre architects. He had earlier designed the 1911 Orpheum (now the Palace) and the 1922 Hillstreet Theatre for the Orpheum circuit. His other work in Los Angeles includes the Warner Hollywood and the auditoriums of the Wiltern Theatre, the El Capitan Theatre and the Shrine Auditorium.



A pre-construction drawing of the theatre from Lansburgh's office. It's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Note all the windows on the left side that never happened. 

This French baroque fantasia was one of Lansburgh's most elaborate theatres and is one of the best preserved Los Angeles movie palaces. The Orpheum went wild with lots of marble in the lobby, huge crystal chandeliers, and plush furnishings. The "Orpheum style" we see in this house appeared in theatres for the circuit in other cities, sometimes replicated by other architects.



A drawing of the interior is seen in this ad appearing in the January 1, 1926 L.A. Times Annual Midwinter Number. Thanks to Hunter Kerhart for spotting it on the site Ad Sausage where they have has archived several hundred ads from the Midwinter editions from the 20s to the 60s. That "Hollywood Dramatic Theatre" also on the Lansburgh drawing boards at the same time is the El Capitan, although it didn't turn out as we see here.



Main floor and balcony plans appearing in "American Theatres of Today" by R.W. Sexton and B. F. Betts. The two volumes of the book were published in 1927 and 1930 by the Architectural Book Publishing Co, New York. It was reprinted in one volume in 1977 by the Vestal Press, New York. Thanks to Mike Hume for including a pdf of the four pages of Orpheum material from the book on his Historic Theatre Photography page about the theatre.



A longitudinal section of the building from "American Theatres of Today."



A transverse section of the Orpheum from "American Theatres of Today"

Seating: 2,350 originally. Later down to 2,190. Currently it's 1,976 seats with 1,019 of that on the main floor, 146 in the lower section of the balcony, 781 in the upper section of the balcony and 30 in the boxes.



"Another Orpheum Theatre Installs H-W Seating." Ads in the July 10 and August 7, 1926 issues of Motion Picture News advertised Heywood-Wakefield's "Special Opera Chair" installed at the New Orpheum. The ad is on Internet Archive.

Pipe Organ: It's a 3/14 Wurlitzer Style 240 that was installed in 1928, replacing an earlier organ. The Los Angeles Theatre Organ Society has a page on the current instrument.

Stage specifications: The proscenium is 50' wide and 28'6" high. The stage depth is 29' from the smoke pocket to the back wall. See the backstage page for more details.



This c.1928 ad has Jack Benny playing the Orpheum in the next to last spot. 



Page one of the program for the week of July 22, 1928 discovered by Danni Bayles-Yeager of the Performing Arts Archive. Vaudeville programs are scarce -- people tended not to save them as they did legit programs. A Mr. Frankenstein is heading the orchestra. And they were running film this week -- a newsreel instead of an intermission. See the full program on the PAA website. 

In 1927 the Orpheum circuit (with theatres mostly in the west) merged with the Keith-Albee circuit in the east forming KAO - Keith-Albee-Orpheum. In October 1928 KAO was folded into a new entity called RKO. The R stood for Radio Corporation of America. RCA had just entered the business of manufacturing sound-on-film recording and reproducing equipment earlier that year. The mergers were the brainchild of Joe Kennedy who recognized that sound films were the thing of the future and he needed theatres for the films the new entity would produce. And RCA needed theatres in which to install their equipment as they fought the near-monopoly of Western Electric. There's more about RKO down at the bottom of the page.

On November 16, 1929 the L.A. Times ran a story by Muriel Babcock noting that the Orpheum, one of the last strongholds of vaudeville west of the Rockies, was installing film projection equipment and would be of offering films as of January 1, 1930. By that she evidently meant sound film equipment with the intent of running features. The theatre had been equipped with a full size booth when it was constructed and had silent film equipment for occasional use during the vaudeville programs.

While the Orpheum on Broadway went to a film only policy (for a while anyway) in the early 30s, the RKO Hillstreet at 8th & Hill continued with vaudeville. In early 1931 the Hillstreet was advertising "the only RKO vaudeville in Southern California." 


Lettering from the front of the RKO deco marquee redo of 1930. It's a detail from a great 1932 photo in the USC Digital Library collection.



An ad for the 1932 run of "Frankenstein" from DLZ1277's LA Spook Show collection on Flickr. In addition to the film, on Saturday nights of the run you got a late night Spook Show. One ad promised that "ghosts will walk." An ad for the 5th week noted that there would be "Two Hours of Terror. Do you dare?"  



"Big Time RKO Vaudeville" was back with the films by August 1932 as seen in this ad. Thanks to Scott Pitzer for posting it on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles



RKO in neon on the front of the Orpheum's marquee. It's a detail from a 1932 photo in the USC Digital Library collection.

Business remained so so bad at the Orpheum, despite the reintroduction of vaudeville programs, that RKO closed the theatre at the end of 1932. Sherill Corwin of Metropolitan Theatres (in conjunction with Charles Skouras' Principal Theatres) reopened the venue in September 1933 with vaudeville, big band shows, personal appearances and more. He kept the stage in use until 1947 when the circuit moved their vaudeville shows to the Million Dollar. 



Sally Rand and her fans as part of the show in 1940. Thanks again to Scott Pitzer for the detective work. 

The marquee currently on the building was installed in early 1941. RKO had done a deco update on the original one in 1930. A February 1931 USC Digital Library photo shows the deco redo. An early 40s photo from the Sean Ault collection appears to be the earliest look at the new marquee. The vertical sign on the building is the one RKO put up in 1930.



A 1943 Los Angeles Orpheum usher photo available on eBay. Thanks to both Michelle Gerdes and Sean Ault for spotting it.  



When we get closer we can see what he's advertising on his lapel: "Hollywood Pinup Girls." Starting Wednesday -- not a movie but a stage show with a cast of 40 and 12 big scenes! Presumably we got a feature film as well. 



Josephine Baker onstage at the Orpheum in 1947. It's a photo by Arnold Hylen and appears courtesy of his grand niece Greta Gustafsson. For more of Hylen's work, visit the Arnold Hylen- Photographer Facebook page. This particular photo can also be seen on the California State Library website.

Vaudeville took a break and was then was back with a heavily promoted return in 1949. It continued intermittently, along with rock and roll, big bands and personal appearances into the early 50s.



A 1950 ad for vaudeville at the Orpheum. Yes, you got a film too: "The Pirates of Capri." Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the ad for a post on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles.



Another ad for another vaudeville + film show in 1950. Again thanks to Ken McIntyre for a post on Photos of Los Angeles 

Closing as a film house: The Orpheum continued to be operated by Metropolitan Theatres until closing as a film house in 2000. 

Status: It's owned by Steve Needleman of Anjac Fashion Properties. The theatre is open for for film shoots, business meetings, award shows and other special events after a $4 million refurbishment. The office building is now residential and known as the "Orpheum Lofts."

The Orpheum regularly hosts many concerts and other events plus there are occasional film screenings sponsored by the L.A. Conservancy. The theatre has events over 120 days per year, all rentals. They don't promote any events themselves.


The Orpheum in the Movies:



The Orpheum and the Warner Downtown are seen in the 11 minute 1946 short film "Your Traffic Officer" from the L.A. City Clerk's office. "Suspense" was a June 1946 release with Barry Sullivan and ice skater Belita. The film is on YouTube. Thanks to Eitan Alexander for the screenshot. And to Torr Leonard, Michelle Gerdes 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 Warner from the film.



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 Orpheum, Tower and Million Dollar. Edmond O'Brien is trying to track down the guy who gave him a lethal dose of radium. In the distance note the UA building with two lit verticals -- one for the theatre and one for Texaco. This footage also appears as part of the title sequence in Thom Andersen's "Los Angeles Plays Itself." See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for shots of the Tower and Million Dollar from the film.



We get a lot of action at the Orpheum in Billy Wilder's "The Front Page" (Universal, 1974) with the theatre's interior doubling as a Chicago Balaban & Katz house in the 20s. Susan Sarandon is seen here playing the organ. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for six more shots of the Orpheum. The post also includes two shots of the Regent on Main St. We see lots of Main St. while the police are chasing all over Chicago looking for an escaped prisoner.

The Orpheum's auditorium appears in a scene in Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" (20th Century Fox, 1975). The theatre's interior is a Hollywood favorite. If there's a theatre needed on the road anywhere in a musical bio-pic, or other period piece the Orpheum usually shows up. The Pantages also makes an appearance in "At Long Last Love"



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.



The Orpheum is standing in for the New Amsterdam in New York in Herbert Ross's "Funny Lady" (Columbia, 1975). Here Barbra Streisand and Roddy McDowell take a walk through the house after the closing night of a Ziegfeld Follies show. See the post on Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies for more Orpheum views from the film. We also go to the Los Angeles Theatre and the Pan Pacific Auditorium.



John Travolta walks off the Orpheum stage after not making the cut in an audition seen during the opening credits of Sylvester Stallone's "Staying Alive" (Paramount, 1983). We're supposed to be in New York with Travolta's Saturday Night Fever character trying to make it as a Broadway dancer. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more Orpheum shots as well as many from scenes done at the Philharmonic Auditorium.



We take a drive down Broadway for a look at the Orpheum's marquee as Harry Dean Stanton explains the code of the "Repo Man" (Universal, 1984) to Emilio Estevez. "Staying Alive" (1983) is playing.



We're at the Orpheum as playwright John Turturro is taking a curtain call for his play at the Belasco in New York City at the beginning of Joel and Ethan Coen's "Barton Fink" (Fox, 1991). The playwright moves to L.A. and goes to a hotel whose lobby looks suspiciously like that of the Wiltern. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for three shots at the "Earle Hotel" as well as two more backstage shots at the Orpheum.



The Orpheum is seen as a New Haven concert venue in Oliver Stone's "The Doors" (TriStar Pictures, 1991). The film stars Val Kilmer, Kathleen Quinlan, Meg Ryan and Kyle MacLachlan. Thanks to Chas Demster for the screenshot on his blog Filming Locations of Chicago and Los Angeles. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two more Orpheum shots as well as two in the 5th floor loft space at the Palace.

 We see the Orpheum very briefly in Kenneth Branagh's "Dead Again" (Paramount, 1991) as Branagh conducts the Los Angeles Symphony. The film is all about karma, past lives, gender switching, and many pairs of scissors. It features Branagh and Emma Thompson in dual roles (past lives, you know) along with Robin Williams, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Hanna Schygulla, Christine Ebersole and Campbell Scott. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for several shots from the Orpheum scene. 



The Orpheum is used as Minsky's Burlesque Theatre in the 1993 TV movie version of "Gypsy" with Bette Midler. Here Cynthia Gibb as Gypsy is on the runway. Mama Rose is lurking around there somewhere. Thanks to Mike Hume for the screenshot. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more Orpheum shots from the film as well as views of the State and the Palace.



The Orpheum is the star of "Last Action Hero" (Columbia, 1993) -- well, after Arnold anyway. On the street we're on 42nd St. in NYC. Inside, it's the Orpheum in Los Angeles. All but the booth (that's a set). The film is surprisingly funny and what's not to like? It's all about the joy of going to the movies in run-down old theatres. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more Orpheum interior shots, several views of the set built for the projection booth scenes, and a shot of the Olympic Theatre -- supposedly with New York City traffic in front.



In Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" (Touchstone Pictures, 1994) we head to a premiere of "Plan 9 From Outer Space" at the Pantages in Hollywood but when we go inside we're in the Orpheum. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more Orpheum shots as well as views of the Pantages, the Warner Hollywood and the Stadium Theatre in Torrance.



A band from Erie, PA heads to Pittsburgh for a show in 1964 in Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do" (20th Century Fox, 1996). See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for five more shots of the Orpheum from the film. Featured in addition to Hanks are Liv Tyler, Charlize Theron, Steve Zahn, Giovanni Ribisi and Tom Everett Scott.

Rene Russo and two apes she brought to the show have a brief scene in the balcony at the beginning of Caroline Thompson's film "Buddy" (Columbia Pictures, 1997). See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for two shots from the scene.



Policeman Michael Rooker goes to a Cartoon Festival at the Tower. But when we're inside it's the Orpheum. The bad guys are waiting but here comes Chow Yun-Fat down the aisle to save the evening in Antoine Fuqua's "The Replacement Killers" (Columbia, 1998). See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more Orpheum views from the film as well as shots of the Mayan, Tower and the Million Dollar.



All the interiors were done at the Orpheum for a folk music concert supposedly at Town Hall in New York City in Christopher Guest's folk music satire "A Mighty Wind" (Warner Bros., 2003). The film features Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Eugene Levy. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for many more Orpheum views.

In "Dreamgirls" (Dreamworks, 2006) we get a musical number filmed on the Orpheum's stage but the only architectural features we see are bits of the proscenium boxes on either side of the shot. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for interior and exterior shots of the Palace Theatre seen in the film.



In David Lynch's "Inland Empire" (Studio Canal, 2006) Laura Dern has all sorts of unfathomable adventures including coming into the Orpheum and seeing herself on the screen doing a tour of the theatre. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for another Orpheum auditorium view.



Looking north on Broadway in Michael Bay's "Transformers" (Dreamworks SKG/Paramount, 2007). Thanks to the Cinema Heritage Group for the screenshot, from their Cinemas in the Movies Facebook album. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for several more Orpheum views as well as a shot of the Rialto.



We see lots of the Orpheum in Tim Hill's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" (20th Century Fox, 2007). The theatre, of course, is where the Chipmunks' world tour is scheduled to start. In addition to the chipmunks, the film stars Jason Lee, David Cross and Cameron Richardson. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for nine more shots of the Orpheum from the film -- plus a few pretending to be the Orpheum. We also see Disney Hall at the end.



In David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Warner Bros., 2008), the Orpheum interior doubles as New York City''s Majestic Theatre with Cate Blanchett onstage for the ballet in a performance of "Carousel." See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for another shot from onstage at the Orpheum as well as several at the Los Angeles Theatre. It's standing in for the Opera House in Paris.

We get an exterior view of the Orpheum in Alex Holdridge's "In Search of a Midnight Kiss" (2008). But when we go inside to explore we're in the Million Dollar.

In "The Great Buck Howard" (Magnolia Pictures, 2009), the Orpheum lobby and auditorium double for a theatre in Cincinnati. It's about a young man who signs on as the assistant to a magician.

In  Judd Apatow's "Funny People" (Universal, 2009) we're in San Francisco with an exterior shot of the Curran and Geary theatres. Then we go inside and we're in the Orpheum for a number of nice auditorium shots during a comedy performance.

In Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" (Warner Bros., 2011) we get an early 30s scene at the Orpheum with views of the auditorium and the lobby (with Shirley Temple). For the exterior views, the marquee is re-done as the Strand Theatre but the anachronistic Broadway Bar signage next door and 60s plex Orpheum readerboard are retained. There's also a great view up a digitally re-imagined Broadway with a theatre inserted across the street where the Majestic used to be.



We have a situation in Tim Hill's "Hop" (Universal, 2011) with a bunny who's designated to be the year's Easter Bunny but decides to skip his duties and run away to be a drummer. He shows up at the Orpheum for an audition conducted by David Hasselhoff. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more views of the Orpheum from the film as well as shots of the Pantages and the La Reina.



The Orpheum makes a glorious black and white appearance during the opening of Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" (The Weinstein Co., 2011). It's nice to see a band in the pit! Too bad they didn't reinstall those first few rows of seats for the film. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for another Orpheum shot as well as one at the Los Angeles Theatre.



The Orpheum is featured in Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock" (Fox Searchlight, 2012), a drama about the director's relationship with his wife Alma during the making of "Psycho." It stars Anthony Hopkins (seen here on the Orpheum stage) and Helen Mirren. The Suzanne Tenner photo is from the Fox Searchlight Facebook page. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for an Orpheum marquee view as well as several shots of the Palace.



Olivia Wilde, Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi are on the Orpheum's stage in Don Scardino's "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" (New Line/Warner Bros. 2013), a strange comedy about magic that's set in Las Vegas. The film also stars James Gandolfini and Jim Carrey. The Orpheum stands in for the showroom at a hotel called "Doug." See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for four more shots of the Orpheum from the film.

We also see a lot of the Orpheum in "Now You See Me" (Summit Entertainment, 2013), another film about magicians. They're caper artists stealing from banks to give to the poor. The exterior is a backlot creation pretending to be a theatre called the Savoy in New Orleans. Inside we're at the Orpheum. The film stars Morgan Freeman, Jesse Eisenberg and Isla Fisher.



We're backstage at the Orpheum, doubling for the Ed Sullivan Theatre, in Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys" (Warner Bros., 2014). The film also uses the Palace and Belasco theatres. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for some of those shots as well as more Orpheum views.

The Orpheum puts in an appearance in Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash" (Sony Classics, 2014), set in New York City. We get a nice exterior shot of Carnegie Hall but we're at the Orpheum when we go backstage, check out the lobby, and view the auditorium. The film, which also uses various bits and pieces of the Palace, stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.



Aspiring model Elle Fanning and her new friend Jena Malone head to a party in the Orpheum lobby in Nicholas Winding Refn's "The Neon Demon" (Broad Green Pictures, 2016). See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for a balcony lobby shot and several of the restroom -- but the one they use turns out to be at the Los Angeles Theatre.



We're outside the Orpheum 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. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for four more shots from the sequence where we also get brief glimpses of the Rialto and the Los Angeles.



The Orpheum dressed up nicely in April 2018 for a TV reboot of "L.A. Confidential." Thanks to David Johnson for catching the action on Broadway and posting this photo on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page. He also has a display case closeup and another street view.



The Orpheum appears in Craig Brewer's "Dolemite is My Name" (Netflix, 2018) as the site of the premiere of "Dolemite," a 1975 blaxploitation epic. The film stars Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key and Wesley Snipes. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a dozen more photos.

Also see IMDb for a page listing films shot at the Orpheum. 

The Orpheum on video: See the great 12 minute video "Orpheum Theatre" by Hollywoodish on YouTube. Also see Mike Rivest's "Orpheum Theatre Los Angeles" which features an interview with owner Steve Needleman.

And don't miss "The Markham Collection," Don Solosan's wonderful video done for the L.A. Conservancy. It's about the historic curtain collection of Steve Markham. Much of it was shot in the Orpheum. Stick around for Mr. Solosan's fine time lapse action sequence behind the final credits. 

More Information on the Orpheum Theatre: The Cinema Treasures page on the Orpheum Theatre has a great discussion of the theatre's history and many photos. The Cinema Tour page on the Orpheum has many great photos by Adam Martin.

Visit Mike Hume's page on the Orpheum on his Historic Theatre Photography site for lots of tech data and many terrific photos.

More information about the Orpheum Circuit and RKO: We get a brief history of the circuit on page 612 of Frank Cullen's "Vaudeville Old And New" (1,368 pages in 2 volumes, Routledge, 2006). It's on Google books. Cullen's comments about the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit:

"In 1927, after a score of years of rivalry and increasing accommodation through joint booking arrangements between the two big-time circuits, the Keith-Albee and the Orpheum circuits merged into a single corporation, Keith-Albee-Orpheum. The event should have been momentous, two giants combining and consolidating their power and reach, but it occurred late in December 1927, ten weeks after the part-sound movie 'The Jazz Singer' opened in New York City. By that time, any news that vaudeville could generate was relegated to the back pages; motion pictures that talked, sang and danced were the talk of the town.

"The stronger of the two circuits was Keith-Albee, and as E.F. Albee held a substantial block of voting shares of the combined stock, he became president of the corporation. His lieutenant, J.J. Murdock, whose holdings were about half that of Albee's, was made vice president. It was Murdock who brought Joseph P. Kennedy into the deal. Albee had assumed that Murdock was as loyal to him as Albee had been to B.F. Keith. Murdock had always made it seem that way, but J.J. was interested in getting into the movie business. He believed that Albee had failed to recognize the growing importance of motion pictures and the decline of vaudeville. Murdock looked to Kennedy to bring new energy and purpose into the Keith-Albee-Orpheum enterprise and to give Murdock a commanding role in the new order.

"In less than a year, Keith-Albee-Orpheum was no more. It had been recast as Radio-Keith-Orpheum, and its business refocused by the participation of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), founded by David Sarnoff, who also headed the first and most developed radio network, National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The new agenda included RCA's development of an improved system for sound motion pictures, the adaptation of the Keith-Orpheum operation to distribute and exhibit movies in their coast-to-coast network of theatres, and the utilization of Kennedy's FBO studios to produce talking pictures. Albee's power, along with his name, had vanished from the new corporation, RKO, yet Murdock did not win the top executive slot and replace Albee. The era of showmen was over, and not just in vaudeville. Show business had become an industry, and financiers wielded the power in industry."

C.W. Porter's website about Joe Kennedy and his ruthless business methods has a page on "The Robber Baron and the Film Industry." He quotes from "The Sins of the Father" by Ronald Kessler regarding Joe's adventures assembling what became RKO. Some excerpts from the page:

"After making his fortune on and off Wall Street, Joe was one of the first Eastern businessmen to grasp the potential of the movie business. By the mid-1920s, the American film industry was turning out 800 films a year and employed as many people as the auto industry. This was 'a gold mine,' Joe told several friends. After buying a chain of thirty-one small movie houses, Joe realized that the way to make real money was on the production side. Moreover, he was attracted to the glamour of Hollywood. Not only could he influence the way films were made, he could meet dazzling young women. While his wife Rose was in Boston, pregnant with their eighth child, Joe was in Hollywood engaged in his notorious liaison with the superstar Gloria Swanson.

"In 1926, Joe convinced a patron of his brokerage firm, named Guy Currier, to finance his plans to enter the movie business. Using insider information he received as a broker at Hayden, Stone, Joe bought the Film Booking Offices of America (FBO), sight unseen, from its British owners; and then received a commission of $75,000 from the trading company for the deal. Joe quickly changed the studio's focus to making cheap Westerns and dog pictures that could be turned out in a week for $30,000 to $50,000 each. Although they lacked artistic merit, the pictures sold, and FBO profits ballooned.

"The following year, Joe Kennedy used the profits from FBO to purchase the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) who had a new system for making motion pictures with sound. Now that Joe headed a studio, he wanted to buy a theater chain to distribute his pictures. This desire would eventually lead to the infamous 'Pantages Scandal.' [Note: Joe Kennedy may have had stock in RCA or its parent, General Electric, but he never "owned" RCA. - B.C.]

"Kennedy purchased KAO (Keith-Albee-Orpheum Theaters Corp), a chain with 700 movie theaters in the US and Canada, and more than 2 million patrons daily. Edward Albee, the founder of KAO, had initially refused to sell out, but when Joe promised that he would remain in control of the chain, Albee agreed to Kennedy's offer. But once the papers were signed and Joe was chairman, Joe said bluntly, 'Didn't you know, Ed? You're washed up. Through.'

"In 1928, Joe was asked to serve as a special adviser on the board of Pathe Exchange Inc., a production company who produced a weekly newsreel. Joe soon became chairman of Pathe and began implementing his own ideas, beginning by slashing the salaries of the employees. The cost-cutting applied to others, however, and not to himself - he was drawing a salary of $100,000 from Pathe. Later that year, Joe merged FBO with his chain of theaters (KAO) to form the famous RKO. Joe then had RCA trade its FBO stock for stock in the new company, a deal which brought him $2 million. [The acquisition of FBO and KAO by RCA, later to be known as RKO, happened in October 1928. - B.C.]

"In 1931, Joe Kennedy plundered Pathe Exchange. He arranged for RKO to pay Pathe insiders like himself $80 a share. The rest of the stockholders would receive just one dollar and fifty cents a share... Since Joe had acquired the stock for $30 a share, he more than doubled his investment in fewer than two years. Stockholders filed suit, but nothing came of it. Moreover, he took advantage of privileged information from the files of major stockholders in the movie companies who were clients of Guy Currier, his partner at RKO. While Currier was on vacation in Italy, Kennedy pillaged his files for inside information such as the size of holdings of other stockholders and their financial condition. He then used the information to further his own interests.

"When Currier returned, he discovered that RKO's value had plummeted, and he and his fellow investors had been betrayed. Years later, Wisconsin Congressman John Schafer took to the floor of the House to denounce Joe Kennedy as the 'chief racketeer in the RKO swindle.' Joe Kennedy had been chairman of FBO for two years and nine months, chairman of Keith-Albee-Orpheum for five months, special adviser to First National Pictures for six weeks, special adviser to RCA for two and a half months, and adviser to Paramount Pictures for seventy-four days. In all, Joe had made an estimated $5 million in the movie business."

Also see an October 27, 1928 Motion Picture News story on Internet Archive about the merger of RCA with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit. The combined circuit had about 700 theatres.

In 1929 RKO purchased six of the Pantages circuit's theatres to enhance their west coast holdings. Kennedy's initial offer was $15 million for the whole circuit. He ended up with just six of the theatres in a July 1929 deal for $4.5 to $5 million. The story is that after Alexander Pantages rebuffed Joe Kennedy's initial offers, he started finding product hard to obtain for his theatres. Pantages troubles deepened when one Eunice Pringle claimed she was raped by Pantages in August 1929 in a broom closet at the Pantages Theatre at 7th & Hill St. Pantages had agreed to sell the theatre to Warner Bros. two days before Eunice's visit. See the Warner Downtown pages for more salacious details.

Wikipedia has articles on Joe Kennedy's Film Booking Offices as well as RKO Pictures.

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