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Biltmore Theatre

520 W. 5th St. Los Angeles, CA 90013 | map |


Opened: March 3, 1924 with a Ziegfeld production of "Sally" starring Leon Errol. The musical was written by Jerome Kern, Clifford Grey and Guy Bolton. It originally opened on Broadway in 1920, had a 1923 revival at the New Amsterdam Theatre, and was on the road for years. Wikipedia has an article about it.   

The theatre was under the management of the Erlanger circuit, a firm run by Abraham Lincoln Erlanger that also had the Mason Theatre on Broadway. Will Rogers was the opening night emcee and tickets were $10.00. The opening night photo from the Herald Examiner archives appears in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



"Inaugural Performance - This entire ticket may be retained as a souvenir of the opening performance." Thanks to Brenden Rittenberry for the photo of the brass ticket in his collection. He notes it's resting on its original protective cloth sleeve. The ticket noted that A.L. Erlanger and Joe Toplitzky were the owners with Edward D. Smith as manager.

Architects: Renowned New York hotel architects Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver designed both the Biltmore Hotel and the adjacent Biltmore Theatre. Interior decoration was by John B. Smeraldi. Anthony Heinsbergen was one of Mr. Smeraldi's apprentices. The theatre was separated from the hotel itself by walkways on the east and south sides.



A rendering from the architects. It's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



A section of the Biltmore. Grand Ave. is on the right.



The main floor plan. 5th St. is on the bottom, Grand on the right.



The plan at 1st balcony level. Thanks to Dallas Movie Theaters for finding the plans for the Cinema Treasures page about the Biltmore.



An ad for the Schultze & Weaver appearing in the January 1, 1925 L.A. Times "Annual Midwinter Number," a section they advertised as "A Pictorial Journey in and about Los Angeles." Thanks to Hunter Kerhart for spotting the ad on the site Ad Sausage where they have a selection of pages appearing in that section from 1923 to 1961.

Seating: 1,652 with 709 on the main floor, 60 in the boxes, 72 in the 1st balcony loge, 430 in the upper section of the 1st balcony and 385 in the 2nd balcony.

Stage Specifications:

Proscenium: 39' 6" wide x 28' high

Stage depth: 29' 6" according to a 1964 L.A. Times article

Curtain to footlights: 2'

Stage wall to wall: 77'

Grid height: 70'

Rigging: hemp, 36 sets, pinrail at stage level off right

Dressing rooms: 11 above stage level, 4 in the basement

Power: both AC and DC

The stage data and seating breakdown comes from the 1949 edition of the "ATPAM Theatre, Arena and Auditorium Guide." It's on Bob Foreman's terrific Vintage Theatre Catalogs site.

For four decades the Biltmore was the premier venue for touring Broadway shows playing Los Angeles. The Biltmore was still part of the Erlanger circuit during the 30s and 40s and busy all the time. The decline began, as it did for many movie theatres, with the advent of television. Performers of note included George Arliss (in "Merchant of Venice"), Ethyl Barrymore (in "Constant Wife" and "Laughing Lady"), John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine, Katherine Cornell, Noel Coward, and Jeanne Eagels (in "Her Cardboard Lover"). 

Other greats appearing on the Biltmore stage included Maurice Evans, Al Jolson (in "Mammy"), Gertrude Lawrence, Pauline Lord (in "Strange Interlude" and "The Glass Menagerie"), Bela Lugosi (in "Dracula," 1928), Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Fredric March (in "The Royal Family"), the Marx Brothers (in "Cocoanuts"), Otis Skinner, Mae West (in "Diamond Lil"), Bert Wheeler and many more. 



The theatre is seen in the upper left corner of a plan on the back of this brochure for the Biltmore, "A city of service under one roof." Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Ethereal Reality for finding it for his Noirish post #3778.



The theatre occasionally got a film booking, usually a prestige picture deserving roadshow treatment. This ad for "Ben-Hur" was in a 1926 program for the Mason Theatre, a house also run by Erlanger. The full program for "The Butter and Egg Man" is online from the collection of Danni Bayles-Yeager. It's one of many programs from theatres across the country appearing on her site, Bayles-Yeager Archives of the Performing Arts. "Ben-Hur" got a run of three and a half months.



A cover of the 1927 program for "The Shanghai Gesture" directed by Guthrie McClintic. See the full program on Danni Bayles-Yeager's site. Also see her page on the Biltmore.



The Paramount film "Wings" got a 5 month run beginning January 15, 1928. The film ran twice daily with all seats reserved. Thanks to Cinema Treasures contributor Dallas Movie Theaters for finding this nice ad. The immensely profitable run lasted longer than the time anticipated. Erlanger had to shuffle bookings around as various legit shows had been scheduled to play the theatre.



The show in its 4th month. It was an April 13, 1928 ad in the Times.  



The program for "Dracula" in 1928. It's from the collection of Lane Wallace. Yes, Bela Lugosi was on the road playing the part. Also see the reverse side.



A September 20, 1928 Times ad for the Cecil B. DeMille film "The Godless Girl" from Pathe. There was also an article that day. It was in its 5th week but Cecil himself and many of the stars of the film were going to show up at the theatre that night as it had been designated Culver City Day. The film had opened August 21.



Another fall film in 1928 was the indie "Simba." It opened October 9. The ad is from the October 10 L.A. Times where it also got a review. 



Carl Laemmle's big production of "Show Boat" had its west coast premiere at the Biltmore May 6, 1929. It was basically a silent with an added soundtrack. And they added a Movietone prologue with a few of the songs from the Broadway production. It's an L.A. Times ad.



Universal's "all singing - all talking - all dancing" film "Broadway" got its west coast premiere at the Biltmore June 17, 1929. This ad appeared in the June 19 issue of the Times, where it also got a review. Yes, it was the wrong ad to run that day. 



The program cover for the 1937 production of "Brother Rat," a comedy starring Tom Ewell and Paul Ballentyne. The image appeared on the now-defunct website TheatrePrint.



Helen Hayes played "Victoria Regina" in a 1938 road production at the Biltmore. Thanks to Lane Wallace for sharing the program from his collection. Also see the reverse side.



A program for the 1940 engagement of George White's "Scandals" that included Ann Miller in the cast. It's from the collection of Danni Bayles-Yeager. Also see the reverse side. Thanks, Danni!



A 1944 ad for a run of "Blossom Time" that appeared in an issue of Playgoer magazine. Thanks to Eric Lynxwiler for sharing it on Flickr. It's in his wonderful Paper Ephemera collection.


A May 1958 story about a sale of the building. The owner was the estate of Marcus Helman of New York, one of the original builders. The purchasers were restaurant owner Paul Cummins and his wife Ruth who raised the possibility of demolition if enough theatrical bookings weren't forthcoming. The demolition worries were premature, but only by a few years. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for adding this as a comment to a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page. 

The theatre was then purchased in 1959 by the Greek Theatre Association, Inc., a partnership of James A. Doolittle and San Francisco theatreman Louis Lurie. Among Lurie's holdings was the Curran Theatre. They turned around and did a sale and leaseback with Biltmore Associates. When the lease term was up in 1964 Doolittle decided not to renew as he had just purchased the Huntington Hartford in Hollywood, the house now known as the Montalban. It's all discussed in "Biltmore Theater Again Appears to Be Doomed," a May 3, 1964 L.A. Times article that was located by Mike Hume. It's reproduced at the bottom of the page. 

In the article, Doolittle noted that the theatre was the last of the downtown legit theatres but was no longer needed with the opening of the Music Center. He was quoted as saying: "We salvaged the Biltmore and gave it five years of extra life when they were going to tear it down for a garage. It was the only theater left in Los Angeles. We staged 60 or 70 productions there, enjoyed by two or three million people."

Closing: April 25, 1964 was the last night of operation. "Enter Laughing" with Yvonne DeCarlo, Alan Mobray and Alan Arkin finished a 23 week run.   

Status: The theatre was demolished in 1964 at an estimated cost of $100,000. The L.A. Times ran a story about the beginning of the demolition in their September 3, 1964 issue.

The owners at the end were Joseph Harris, David Karno and Joseph Rubin of Biltmore Associates. They didn't have a specific plan other than turning the site into a parking lot pending future development. They noted that there hadn't been any steady demand for use of the building and the taxes were killing them. After years as a parking lot, a tower addition to the hotel was built on the site in the 1980s.


The Biltmore in the Movies:


Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are cycling south on Grand toward 5th St. in the two-reel short "Duck Soup" (Hal Roach/Pathé, 1927). The stagehouse of the Biltmore is on the left just after the intersection. Over on the right are the grounds of the Central Library. Thanks to John Bengtson for the screenshot from his Silent Locations post "How Laurel and Hardy Filmed Duck Soup." See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for more about the film, two more Biltmore shots, and a view headed toward the Criterion Theatre north of 7th.


Lobby areas:


Looking across to the house right end of the main lobby and the entrance doors onto 5th St. The 1924 photo is in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The standee area at the rear of the main floor and the stairs to the balconies are through doors on the left.



Closer to the 5th St. doors. It's one of 10 Mott Studios photos taken in 1924 that are in the California State Library photo set #001384377.



Coming in for a Christmas Eve show in 1942. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo from their Herald Examiner collection. 



Looking across to the house left end of the lobby. The door on the left was to the coat check room. The exit doors went out to a passageway on the south side of the theatre. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1924



One of the theatre's lounge areas, perhaps the men's smoking room. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1924



Another lounge view. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1924 


The auditorium:  


A construction view of the house left box area. It's a photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



The house left boxes. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1924



A look across from the 2nd balcony. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.



"The Last Act Begins - Debris litters the stage of the Biltmore Theater after wreckers started leveling the building for parking lot." It's an L.A. Times photo that appeared with a September 3, 1964 article about the demolition. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding it for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page. 

Performance shots: The Los Angeles Public Library has a Herald Examiner photo Lloyd Nolan and other performers in a scene from "The Silver Whistle" in 1950. Also see a Valley Times photo of Joan Blondell with other performers in a scene from "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" in 1960.


More exterior views:


1924 - The afternoon of the theatre's March 3 opening. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.



1924 - Looking west on 5th with the theatre running the the John Golden touring production of  Frank Bacon and Winchell Smith's play "Lightnin." It was the second show to play the Biltmore, opening on March 17. It's Los Angeles Public Library photo.



1924 - The entrance from across the street. The musical comedy "Caliph" with Raymond Hitchcock was playing the theatre in July. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library set #001384377



1924 - Looking toward the hotel. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library



1924 - The view west on 5th toward Grand Ave. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library



1924 - The view east across Grand. Those are the dressing rooms on the corner. The stage loading door was in the arch at the far right.



1924 - A detail of a retail space on the 5th St. side of the stage end of the building. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library



c.1925 - A photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



c.1925 - The Library's groundbreaking ceremony. It's a photo from the California Historical Society collection appearing on the USC Digital Library website. 



c.1925 - The site of the new Central Library at the right. It would open in 1926. The block was formerly the site of the State Normal School. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.



c.1926 - A great aerial view with the newly completed Central Library in the center. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. Thanks to Cinema Treasures contributor Gary Stella for coloring in the theatre on this version of the photo.



c.1927 - A view east on 5th from the California Historical Society that's in the USC Digital Library collection.



1929 - Looking south on Grand with the theatre's stagehouse over on the left. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. Beyond the theatre, it's an addition to the hotel. They also have a very similar shot but taken earlier with the lot beyond still a parking lot.



1937 - A Herman Schultheis photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. "Room Service" opened at the Biltmore on October 4.



1939 - Crowds waiting for Helen Hayes. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo from the Herald Examiner archives.



1944 - A William Reagh photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. "Kiss and Tell" opened December 4 for a two week run.



1949 - Up on the balcony level breezeway with a policeman inspecting one of the giant vases after someone had tried to push one into the street. It's a Herald Examiner photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

The perp called himself "Superman." Playing at the time was a production of Shaw's "Man and Superman." Other photos from the break-in from the Library's collection include views of the perp in handcuffs, radiators pulled from walls, and seats kicked over.



1949 - Five theatregoers pose for a snapshot. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.
 


1962 - Looking east on 5th with the Biltmore Theatre on the right. Note the vertical sign for the Auditorium Bldg. in the next block on the left. It's a William Reagh photo in the California State Library collection as their item # 001383078



1963 - A display case detail. The William Reagh photo is in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



1964 - "Show With a Bang." Cleveland Wrecking Co. on the job. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.



1964 - A demolition view by William Reagh from the California State Library collection as their item # 001382805.    



1973 - Looking west toward the Library and the Arco Towers. That's a corner of the Biltmoire on the left. The parking lot beyond had been the site of the theatre. It's a Victor R. Plukas photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The Library also has a similar 1971 photo by Mr. Plukas. 



1974 - The theatre site, on the right, as a parking lot. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.


 
1985 - Still a parking lot. The tower on the site went up later in the 80s. We're looking east on 5th toward the doomed Philharmonic Auditorium, demolished soon after the photo was taken. It's a William Reagh photo in the California State Library collection as their item # 001383079.


2018 - The tower now on the Biltmore Theatre corner at 5th & Grand. Photo: Bill Counter 

 

An L.A. Times article from May 3, 1964:


Thanks to Mike Hume for locating the article. Visit his Historic Theatre Photography site for tech data and thousands of terrific photos of the theatres he's explored.

More Information:  Floyd B. Bariscale has a fine Biltmore Hotel article as part of his Big Orange Landmarks series. Cinema Treasures has a page about the Biltmore.

The Pacific Coast Architecture Database has pages on the Biltmore Hotel and the Biltmore Theatre. See the Wikipedia article on the Biltmore Hotel.

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