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Kinema / Criterion Theatre

642 S. Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90017 | map |

Opening: December 15, 1917 as the Kinema with Cecil B. DeMille's "The Woman God Forgot" with Geraldine Farrar. DeMille himself served as master of ceremonies. It's a 1920 photo from the collection of Fred McSpadden, longtime California and Arizona theatre manager.

On the back Fred wrote: "Note STEAM URNS each side of front - At night steam flowed - with colored lights shooting thru steam." He noted he was on the house staff here as "doorman and asst. mgr." Also on the back: "Photo by J.C. Milligan, 422 1/2 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, California PLEASE CREDIT."  And so we have.

Fred was quoted in the Arizona Daily Star of May 3, 1959 talking about the Kinema: "I had best time of my life there…any afternoon of the week you could expect Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney, Mary Pickford or some other famous star to show up for a matinee. They would just walk in and sit down." Thanks to Bill Buehler of the Memories Project at the Tucson Fox for sharing the photo.

The opening of the theatre was covered on page 65 of the January 5, 1918 issue of Moving Picture World. It's on Internet Archive.

The theatre was designed specifically for films -- the stage was only 7' deep. Too bad that Grand Ave. never developed into a theatre district. The building was on the east side of the street between 6th and 7th. The site is just south of where Wilshire now is but that didn't get cut through until 1931. Down in the 700 block was the Grand Theatre. And a block beyond that is Trinity Auditorium

Architect: Architect William J. Dodd and engineer William Richards of the firm Dodd and Richards designed one of the earliest deluxe film houses downtown.

Seating: 2,500 was the original advertised capacity, most likely inflated. A later number was 1,856.

Organ: By the early 20s the house had a 5 manual 26 rank Robert Morton, built in Van Nuys. 

A drawing of the new theatre appearing with the article "Work Begins on Two New Theaters" in the May 13, 1917 issue of the L.A. Times. The other theatre was the California on Main St. Regarding the Kinema they noted that "The structure will have a frontage on Grand Avenue of seventy six feet and will be 167 feet deep. It will be of reinforced concrete and will be handsomely faced with artificial stone. Its cost will be over $100,000."

Also noted was that it was being built for Shirley C. Ward and Associates by the contractor Winter & Nicholson and would be leased "for a long term of years" to Emil Kehrlein, "a leading amusement man of San Francisco." Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the article for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.

On October 21, 1917 the L.A. Times reported "Gallery Stands a Severe Test" as 6,000 bags of concrete (1,500,000 pounds total) were placed on the balcony as a load test. Thanks to John Crosse for finding the L.A. Times item. It appears in a 2012 Southern California Architectural History post of his writings that covers an amazing variety of theatrical topics (in addition to the Kinema opening) and includes discussion of personages as varied as Rudolph Schindler, Edward Weston and Frank Lloyd Wright.

By 1918 Thomas Tally had control of the theatre. It's listed in the 1919 city directory as Tally's Kinema. Head down to the bottom of the page about Tally's Broadway for a listing of his other exhibition adventures.

A 1919 ad for the theatre when it was under Tally's management. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating it for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.

In 1920 Tally sold his interest in the theatre to the Gore Bros. and Sol Lesser but kept the Tally's Broadway operation. In the 1918, 1921 and 1922 directories it's just called the Kinema. By 1922 the holdings of Gore and Lesser had formed the nucleus of West Coast Theatres. In 1928 that firm got taken over by William Fox and became Fox West Coast.

A Kinema ad from March 1920 in the Vintage Cinema Adverts collection of Charmaine Zoe on Flickr.

An ad featuring the Kinema that appeared in the Long Beach Daily Telegram on March 1, 1920. Thanks to Ron Mahan for locating it.

The cover for the program for the week of October 30, 1920. It's from the collection of Fred McSpadden, who worked at the theatre. Here he's listed as the theatre's press representative. On the screen was "Nomads of the North." The inside pages are down at the bottom of the page.

The program for the week of January 8, 1921 from the collection of Fred McSpadden. On the screen that week was "Dangerous Business." Thanks to Bill Buehler of the Memories Project at the Tucson Fox for sharing the two programs. The inside pages are down at the bottom of the page.

The "Midnight Matinee" started at 11 pm on New year's Eve 1921. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating the ad. 

A 1923 L.A. Times ad for Charlie Chaplin's "The Pilgrim," a February release. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Ethereal Reality for including the ad in his Noirish post #5739.

The Kinema closing notice in the August 17, 1923 L.A. Times. 

The ad for the September 26, 1923 reopening as the Criterion Theatre with "A Woman of Paris," written and directed by Chaplin, as the gala first attraction. Plus the "Nocturne" atmospheric prologue "conceived and supervised by Charles Chaplin." Thanks to Mr. Comfortably Cool for finding the ad for a post on Cinema Treasures. With the reopening, the house was being operated by West Coast Theatres.

A 1924 Times ad for "Girl Shy." Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating it.

Vitaphone at the Criterion: The first Vitaphone installation in town was at the Egyptian, for the tail end of the run of "Don Juan" in 1926. They started with the silent version, then had a second premiere and introduced the Vitaphone version. Evidently the system wasn't used there after that engagement. The Tower Theatre had the gear installed, and Vitaphone shorts on its initial bill, when they opened October 12, 1927.

A November 10, 1927 article in the L.A. Times announced "permanent" Vitaphone installations for three houses in the West Coast Theatres circuit. The Criterion's first sound bill opened December 1, 1927. The feature, "Old San Francisco," had a Vitaphone track. Edwin Schallert, reviewing the program in the December 2 L.A. Times noted that he missed having an orchestra for the feature but was enthusiastic about some of the Vitaphone shorts that rounded out the program.

Warner Bros. did a deal with West Coast Theatres for the west coast premiere engagement of "The Jazz Singer," a run beginning December 28, 1927. The New York premiere had been on October 6. This December 27 L.A. Times ad announced the appearance of Al Jolson at the opening. Initially, the film was presented twice daily with all seats reserved. 
Evidently there were several previews of the film before the Criterion run. A November 8, 1927 Times story about the Westlake Theatre asserted that they had recently previewed the film. The Tower Theatre allegedly had a preview as well but no documentation of that has surfaced. 

The opening day ad in the Times for "The Jazz Singer" on December 28, 1927. Edwin Schallert reviewed the presentation in the December 30 Times and commented: "Here is a show! To miss it would be like failing to catch a glimpse of Lindbergh...It is probably one of the greatest events in the world of entertainment in years."  

A separate Times story on the 30th headed "Jolson Leaves for New York" reported: "Tarrying only long enough to attend the opening of his first film play, Al Jolson left yesterday on the start of his return journey to New York. The star crossed the continent solely to be the guest of Warner Brothers at Wednesday night's premiere showing of "The Jazz Singer" at the Criterion Theater, and is returning east to resume his stage engagements, pausing for a brief rest at Palm Springs..."

An ad on the side of an unidentified building for "The Jazz Singer" at the Criterion and "Sunrise" at the Carthay Circle. The photo is from the Tom B'hend and Preston Kaufmann Collection, part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collection.

"The Jazz Singer" was expected to run six months but lasted only until February 28, 1928. This West Coast Theatres ad announcing the last 7 days of the run appeared in the February 22 L.A. Times. The film had a sub-run engagement beginning April 30 three blocks east at the Tower Theatre. See the Film & Theatre Tech page for more on Vitaphone.

Becoming a Fox House: In March of 1928, the Criterion was "taken over" by Fox according to an item in the March 28, 1928 issue of Variety, available on Internet Archive. They said Fox was going to call it "The Movietone House" and have "Sunrise" and the "Four Sons" as their first two features. The article also mentioned that the sort of Fox presentations that had been playing the Carthay Circle ("at $1.50 top") would now go into the Criterion. They termed the format a "de luxe grind policy." In actuality, the theatre was still a West Coast Theatres operation. What was happening was that William Fox was buying stock and gradually taking control of the circuit, in 1929 getting rebranded as Fox West Coast Theatres. The Criterion was soon being advertised as the Fox Criterion.

Early widescreen at the Criterion: Parts of "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929" (or perhaps the whole film) got a run in the 70mm Fox Grandeur process in New York at the Gaiety Theatre. Also on the program in New York was a 70mm Fox Movietone newsreel. The film opened at the Criterion on May 24, 1929. It's unknown whether the Los Angeles premiere at the Criterion was in 70mm.

The "70mm & Wide Gauge: The Early Years" page on the well-researched website From Script to DVD lists the Criterion run but who knows? The "Grandeur" page on discusses the "Follies" issue. Theatres running the Grandeur process used specially built Simplex projectors designed to accommodate the 70mm film. You'll find more on Fox Grandeur on the projection & sound page for the Carthay Circle, which definitely got equipped, as did Grauman's Chinese.
A typical Criterion ad of the period. This one was in the L.A. Times on September 25, 1929.

MGM's "Billy the Kid" ran at the Fox Criterion in that studio's 65mm Realife process. It got a review on page 23 of the November 3, 1930 L.A. Times. Supposedly ten theatres around the world were equipped for the process. The film also ran in 65mm at the Aldine Theatre in Pittsburgh, the Fox in Atlanta and the Paramount in Detroit. "The Great Meadow" was to be the next Realife film. Perhaps it never got produced in the process. See the Film & Theatre Tech page for more about the flurry of widescreen activity in 1929 and 1930.

Tally's involvement: Thomas Tally either had owned the building from 1919 to the end or had lost it and regained ownership. Or maybe was just leasing at various times. In any case, his name resurfaces in connection with the theatre from about 1933 onward. Between 1933 and 1938 it was being called Tally's Criterion. There's lots more about Tally on the Tally's Broadway page.

A 1934 ad for "Angkor" at Tally's Criterion. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding it.

The theatre ended its days called the Grand Wilshire.

Status: Tally was advertising the property for sale in 1941. It was then demolished that year to make room for an office building that didn't happen. The site was a parking lot for decades. There's now a mechanical plant there for the One Wilshire building next door.

The Criterion in the Movies:

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are cycling south on Grand toward 7th St. in the two-reel short "Duck Soup" (Hal Roach/Pathé, 1927). The light-colored three story building to the left of Stan's head is the Criterion. 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 and three shots showing the stage end of the Biltmore Theatre. 

Interior views: 

The "Red Cross Tea Room" at the Kinema. Thanks to Dallas Movie Theaters for finding the 1918 trade magazine photo for a post on Cinema Treasures.

"Electrical Effect Front Curtain in use at the Kinema, Los Angeles. Without light effects this curtain has the appearance of a rich Oriental Drapery." This fine view of the theatre's main curtain appeared with that caption in the May 1919 issue of Architect and Engineer. It was with the article "Evolution of Architectural and Other Features of Moving Picture Theatres."

The article, after a long discussion about various screens and masking, commented: "The stage of the Kinema Theatre in Los Angeles, erected last year after searching for the best of everything, has just been rearranged on entirely different lines from the original plans, although the owners of the Kinema Circuit of Theatres are among the oldest and most successful in the business. Here heavy lavender tapestry effect stage scenery masks the picture sheet."

"Reproduction of a ranch in the Canadian Rockies, Kinema, Los Angeles." The photo is from the May 1919 issue of Architect and Engineer

"Parisian Shop - Setting made for Patricia Manners. Set up complete in the Los Angeles Kinema in seven feet depth of stage." The photo is from the May 1919 issue of Architect and Engineer. Thanks to Mike Hume for finding the article on Internet Archive. Visit his Historic Theatre Photography site to check up on his latest explorations.

"As an introduction to First National's 'Wife Against Wife' the Kinema Theatre, Los Angeles, staged 'The Dance of the Butterfly' which went a long way toward putting the audience in a receptive mood for the picture. The big fan made a striking background that the dancer used to good advantage in putting her dance over." The film was a September 1921 release. The photo appeared in the February 11, 1922 issue of Exhibitors Trade Review. Thanks to Mike Hume for finding it on Internet Archive.  

The Kinema booth in 1921. Thanks to contributor Dallas Movie Theatres for finding the photo for a post on Cinema Treasures.

The auditorium c.1923 after pit and sidestage expansion as well as some re-draping. Note the 5 manual Robert Morton over on house right. Thanks to Dallas Movie Theaters for finding the photo for the Cinema Treasures page about the Criterion. 

More exterior views: 

c.1917 - An early shot from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

1919 - The facade with a bonnet for the run of "The Blue Bonnet." Thanks to Cinema Treasures contributor Dallas Movie Theaters for finding the photo.

c.1920 - Looking west on 7th Street from Broadway. Of course, we can't see the Kinema from here as it's way down there on Grand and off to the right. But take a look at the big arrow on the side of the Brockman Building pointing toward the Kinema. The photo from the California Historical Society is in the USC Digital Library collection.

The State Theatre would soon rise in place of the buildings on the left. Beyond the alley is the marquee of the Palace Theatre, a house only there from 1916 until 1921. In view across Hill St. is a roof sign for the Alhambra Theatre. The the sign isn't on the theatre building itself but it has an arrow pointing to the theatre on Hill between 7th and 8th. To the left of the Alhambra sign is bit of the back of the building housing the Grand Theatre on Grand Ave., at the time of the photo called the Strand.

c. 1920 - A detail from the USC photo of the Kinema signage on the Brockman Building .

1921 - A rare view of the Kinema from Marc Wanamaker's Bison Archives. They're playing "Lessons in Love," a May release starring Constance Talmadge. Also on the bill was the "Royal Purple Syncopated Orchestra." The photo appears on page 37 of the Arcadia Publishing book "Theatres in Los Angeles" by Suzanne Tarbell Cooper, Amy Ronnebeck Hall and Mr. Wanamaker. There's a preview of the book you can browse on Google Books.

1921 - Usherettes in front of the Kinema. Thanks to Stacey Hartley for sharing the photo from her collection.  

1921 - A detail from Ms. Hartley's photo offering a peek at the fancy frieze above the entrance doors.

1921 - Usherette Bernice Cooper at the Kinema. It's a photo from Stacey Hartley's collection. Bernice was her grandmother.

1921 - A big crowd for the "garment matinee" of the Jackie Coogan film "My Boy." The theatre's coat check room was filled with donations of clothing to be given to orphans. The photo appeared with an article about the promotion in the January 28, 1922 issue of Exhibitors Trade Review. Thanks to Mike Hume for finding the story on Internet Archive. 

1922 - A busy night for "The Masquerader," a July release with Guy Bates Post. It's a photo that was used in a full page ad for the film in the October 14, 1922 issue of Exhibitors Herald. It's on Internet Archive.

1924 - The Criterion is down in the lower right in this photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

1928 - The December 25 world premiere of "In Old Arizona," "Fox's First All-Talking Outdoor Picture." Thanks to Dallas Movie Theatres for posting the photo on Cinema Treasures.

1929 - The facade during the run of the "Fox Movietone Follies of 1929," a May release. The photo appears with "Harold B. Franklin Analyzes Theatre Personality," an article in the Motion Picture News issue of December 28, 1929. It's on Internet Archive. The Los Angeles Public Library also has the photo in their collection.

c.1929 - An aerial view by Dick Whittington Studio in the USC Digital Library collection. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor Ethereal Reality for finding the photo for his Noirish post #5739, where he also has other Criterion views.  

c.1929 - A detail from the Dick Whittington photo. The sign on the roof says "Fox Criterion 'Dynamite' Now." The Cecil B. DeMille film was a December 1929 release. On the side wall they're advertising Lon Chaney in "Phantom of the Opera" from 1925. The sign across the top of the facade announces the theatre as the "House of Hits."

1930 - A Dick Whittington panoramic shot in the USC Digital Library collection that was taken from the top of the Richfield Building tower shortly after its completion. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor HossC for finding the photo for his Noirish post #24347, where he's got a giant size version of it. It's down below another very similar shot, also by Dick Whittington, that's in the Library of Congress collection.

1930 - Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor HossC for this detail he's made of the area around 7th and Grand from USC's Dick Whittington photo. Hoss has it on his Noirish post #24347.

1930 - A closer look at the Criterion from the USC Dick Whittington panoramic shot. The signage on the theatre's north wall advertises "King of Jazz," an April release with Paul Whiteman.

1930 - Joan Crawford in "Paid," a December 1930 release. The photo is included in the Herald Examiner collection of the Los Angeles Public Library.

1931 - A look at the entrance of the Criterion for "Bad Girl" that was featured in a two page spread about the great uses the theatre was making of its display case area in the October 3, 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald. It's on Internet Archive.

1931 - "Your Show Window! Are You Using It?" It's another view from the October 3 Motion Picture Herald article. The feature the week of the photo was Cecil B. DeMille's "Madam Satan." The article also has smaller photos showing details of the way the display cases were dressed for "A Connecticut Yankee," "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Transatlantic" and "Secret Six."

1931 - "Criterion Says It With Big Letters" was a fine spread in the October 10, 1931 issue of Motion Picture Herald showing the impact of large changeable letters on the facade of "The House of Hits." Also note the changeable copy up on the roof sign.

c.1931 - Looking east from 7th and Figueroa toward the Criterion in the distance right of center. The blocks between Figueroa and Grand would soon get sliced up for an extension of Orange St. as part of Wilshire Blvd. The California Historical Society photo appeared in a 2010 post on the site Urban Diachrony where they credit it to the USC Digital Library collection. Thanks to Sebi Garcia for finding the image for a 2013 post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.

1934 - A December view east from Figueroa after Wilshire was cut through. There's a parking lot at Grand where Wilshire deadends. A bit of the Criterion facade is visible just to the right of that. The California Historical Society / USC Digital Library photo appears in a 2010 post on the site Urban Diachrony. They note that while the widening of Wilshire between MacArthur Park and Figueroa St. wasn't completed until 1934, the three block extension between Figueroa and Grand was punched through in 1931.

The Criterion was demolished in 1941.

1946 - Looking west across Grand toward the extension of Wilshire Blvd. The site of the Criterion is out of the frame to the left. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the photo.

1946 - Another parking lot view looking a bit farther north on Grand. One Wilshire is now on the site of this parking lot. Thanks again to Ken McIntyre for locating the photo. 

2018 - The site of the Criterion. 7th St. is off to the right. Photo: Bill Counter 

More Information: See the Cinema Treasures page on the Criterion Theatre for lots of information unearthed by Joe Vogel, Jeff Bridges and a number of other contributors. See the post by Nathan Marsak about the architects, Dodd and Richards, on the blog On Bunker Hill.

The Kinema Program for the week of October 30, 1920:

The Kinema program for the week of January 8, 1921:

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  1. I have a photo of the Criterion Theatre in 1935, I could send a high resolution photo to you if you want it. Let me know where to send it to.

    1. I'd love to see it. I'm at Thanks. I'm looking forward to seeing what you have!

  2. I was hoping you might have a photo, magazine picture, advertising or details on how and why early radio broadcasting station KOG was located at the Kinema during part of 1922. This low power radio station later moved to the Los Angeles Evening Herald and went off the air for good in 1923.

    1. Alas, I know nothing about this little chapter in the life of the Kinema. Sounds interesting, though. Do let me know if you learn anything. Cheers!