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Grand Opera House / Orpheum Theatre

110 S. Main St. Los Angeles, CA 90012 | map |

Opened: May 26, 1884 as the Grand Opera House. It was a project of Ozro W. Childs and was also known as Childs Opera House. Childs was a former tinsmth and nurseryman who had made a fortune speculating in Los Angeles real estate. The c.1890 "boudoir card" by A.C. Golsh is in the collection of the California State Library. The attraction at the time of the photo was "The Mikado."

The theatre was on the east side of the street just south of 1st. The address before the 1890s street renumbering was 8 S. Main. In the 1892 city directory they list it as 108 S. Main. The theatre was on the ground floor. The same building included office spaces upstairs above the retail stores and also a smaller upstairs hall upstairs, known at various times as the A.Q.U.W Hall and Opera Hall.  

As late as April 1884 Childs still hadn't decided whether to call his new theatre the Opera House or the Los Angeles Theatre. On the website of the California Digital Newspaper Collection is this article that appeared in the April 3, 1884 issue of the Los Angeles Herald:

 The ad in the Los Angeles Herald on May 25, 1884, the day before the opening: 

Architects: Ezra F. Kysor and Octavius Morgan, whose firm later became Morgan and Walls (designing the Pantages / Arcade Theatre in 1910) and later Morgan, Walls and Clements (designers of the Mayan, Belasco and many others). Kysor had earlier designed the Merced Theatre, the Pico House, and many other projects.

Well, at least Kysor and Morgan were the architects of record. In "The Childs Opera House," a lengthy article describing the theatre in the May 25, 1884 issue of the Los Angeles Herald it's noted that the "designer" of the house was a Colonel A.M. Gray. Gray was also involved in the initial bookings of the theatre. The article can be viewed on the website of the California Digital Newspaper Collection. It's also reproduced in full at the bottom of this page. 

Joe Vogel's research indicates that noted Chicago theatre architect James M. Wood (1841 - c.1907) probably also worked on the project. He's noted (as "Woods") in a July 8, 1888 Los Angeles Herald article as being involved in the theatre's renovation at that time. 

The Grand seen in a detail from a 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map overlaid on a 2007 satellite image of Main St. The bump offstage left was for dressing rooms and a prop room. Thanks to Jeff Bridges for the mapping. He has this on Flickr. Also see his Mainly Main poster set on Flickr for maps of the theatres on Main St.  

The theatre can also be seen on image 27 of Volume One of the 1890 Sanborn Map that's in the Library of Congress collection.

Seating: 1,800 was the capacity given in a 1936 L.A. Times story. It was a two balcony house. 1,500 was the number given in the 1897 edition of Julius Cahn's Theatrical Guide. 1,650 was the number noted in the 1901-02 edition of Cahn's. Later counts from other sources were 1,440 and 1,311.

A main floor seating chart that appeared in the 1900 edition of the San Francisco Blue Book. The theatre was the Orpheum from 1894 to 1903. Thanks to Glenn Koch for the image taken from a copy of the book in his collection. Note the interesting loge boxes half way back.

Stage specifications: 

Proscenium: 31' wide x 31' high    Stage wall to wall: 70'    Stage depth: 40'

Grid height: 65'   Distance between fly girders: 45'   

Rigging: hemp, of course, with flyfloors on both sides of the stage.

Illumination: Initially it was just gas. The building was electrified sometime prior to 1896.

Stage equipment: 4 sets of grooves for shifting scenery. They had 4 traps. The house had 4 lifts or "bridges" at the back of the stage that could be set at any angle desired. The height under the stage was 10'. There was a 40' x 20' paint frame. 

Dressing rooms: 14 total. 4 were in the basement, the rest either at stage level or above.

The Grand is listed as the Orpheum on page 193 of the 1897 edition of  "Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide." Charles Schimpf was listed as the manager. Prices at the time were 10, 25 and 50 cents. They had a seven piece orchestra. Seating capacity was listed as 1,500. The theatre is also listed on page 197 in the Cahn's 1900-1901 edition with the seating capacity as 1,650.

The 1907-1908 edition of "Henry's Official Western Theatrical Guide" has the theatre listed as the Grand Opera House on page 33. They note that the proscenium height was only 28'. The 40' stage depth number above comes from this source. All three publications are on Google Books.

Early history: The theatre went through several early operators. Al Hayman, also operator of the Baldwin Theatre in San Francisco, is mentioned in the opening ad as part of the management team along with Gustave and Charles Frohman. It's unknown how long these gentlemen were involved. In 1885 Childs tried without success to get Arthur Sullivan to come to Los Angeles so the new Opera House could become a west coast home for Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. An ad in the May 5, 1885 L.A. Times noted that McLain & Lehman were the lessees. An October 1, 1885 Times ad announced a reopening with Childs himself running it again. 

In late 1886 McLain & Lehman were back. In 1894 Martin Lehman was one of the operators of the Imperial Theatre across the street. By July 1887 H.C. Wyatt was being advertised as the lessee and manager. The 1887 city directory listed the theatre at 8-12 S. Main with O.W. Childs as proprietor and Wyatt as manager. Among other adventures, Wyatt at times was also involved with the Los Angeles/Lyceum, the Mason Opera House and the Seaside in Ocean Park.

In 1887 acclaimed actor Edwin Booth decided it was time to visit Los Angeles. Thirty years earlier he had decided it would only be civilized enough when the town had built an opera house. On a national tour, his March 3 and 4 performances of "Hamlet," "Othello" (with Booth as Iago), and "The Merchant of Venice" sold out weeks in advance. An added March 2 performance of "Richelieu" by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (with the famous line “The pen is mightier than the sword.”) also sold out. Julio Martinez has the whole story in his 2017 post "Edwin Booth and Childs Grand Opera House" on the L.A. Stage Alliance website. He adds: 

"At the conclusion of his stay, Booth sent word to his bookers in New York that Los Angeles was decidedly civilized and most definitely a theater town. Within 15 years, Los Angeles was considered the crown jewel performance destination for all of the national booking outlets and the Grand became a destination for many of the East Coast and European headliners."

Lily Langtry also appeared at the theatre in 1887. 
The Grand got a renovation in 1888. The improvements were noted in a July 8 article in the Los Angeles Herald:

"THE GRAND -- The remodeled Grand Opera House will be thrown open to the public tomorrow night, and those who attend will scarcely believe that in so short a time so great a change could have been made. From the entrance on Main street to the back of the stage there is scarcely a feature which will remind the visitors in the least of the appearance of the house as it was six weeks ago. The lobby has been so changed by mural and stucco work that it presents an entirely different appearance. The box office wherein Frank W. Conant, the popular Treasurer, has held forth for many seasons, has been entirely remodeled and enlarged. It is now the model box office of the Coast, and with its plate and stained glass is an ornament which greatly relieves and makes inviting the entrance to the theater. As elsewhere in the theater, the tone of the work is terra-cotta and bronze, and must be seen to be appreciated.

"The entrance to the lower portion of the house has also been entirely changed and passing through the portals as now arranged the visitor will gaze upon one of the prettiest interiors in the country. The upholstering of blue plush harmonizes with the bronze and terracotta of the walls and proscenium, and the brass rails around the ledge and proscenium boxes add to the general appearance in such a manner as to give the impression that a master-hand has had the arrangement of the work. The seats on the main floor are new, and are upholstered in blue plush. They have the latest attachments designed for the comfort of the audience. The center aisle has been taken out and two side aisles run from the back to the stage. Just below the dress circle are six lodge boxes, each holding four seats. These are upholstered in blue, and are surrounded by highly polished brass rails. At each rail are four proscenium boxes so arranged that each has an obstructed [sic] view of the stage. The decorations of these are in perfect keeping with the rest of the house. The proscenium arch is a marvel of beauty and attracts immediate attention. The prevailing tone here is bronze and terracotta, with which the drapery of the boxes harmonizes. 

"The former gallery has been turned into a family circle, in which the chairs formerly in the parquet and dress circle have been placed. The entrance to this part of the house is by two flights of stairs starting at each side of the lobby. Above this is the gallery, from every part of which the stage is in plain view. This gallery increases the seating capacity of the Opera House by about 500. The new drop curtain is one of the prettiest ever seen on this Coast, and besides this there are eight new sets of scenery which will replace those of which the public is somewhat tired. Manager H. C. Wyatt is responsible for this change for the better in the Grand Opera House, and it was through his efforts that the architect, Mr. Woods, was engaged. The sale of seats for Denman Thompson will be at the new box office to-morrow morning."

Many thanks to Wendy Rae Waszut-Barrett for locating the article. She posted about the theatre on the Dry Pigment Facebook page and included the article's text in "Sosman & Landis: Shaping the Landscape of American Theatre - Employee No. 70 Jack Taylor," a post on the blog of her company Historic Stage Services. It's part of a series devoted to various employees of the influential scenic studio. The firm's "star" scenic artist Thomas Moses, with Taylor as his assistant, worked on both the Grand and the Los Angeles Theatre, the house later known as the Lyceum. She notes: 
"By June [1888], Moses was painting scenery for Sosman & Landis in California. When he arrived at the Grand Opera House in Los Angeles, the paint frame was still being completed...They painted together all June and into July."
Sarah Bernhardt performed in the drama "La Tosca" by French playwright Victorien Sardou at the Grand on September 14, 1891. Starting October 1, 1894 the theatre was known as Benson's Grand Operahouse with Arthur W. Benson as proprietor. Later he took in a Mr. Rickards as partner. 

An ad appearing in the September 28, 1894 issue of the L.A. Times. Prior to the opening of Benson's fall season the theatre had been dark for the summer. Other theatres operating in L.A. at the time were the Lyceum (then called the Los Angeles), the Burbank, and the Imperial Theatre (the former Mott's Hall). One L.A. Times columnist had wondered if the city could actually support four theatres. And, if it could, it would be perceived as a truly sophisticated city.
An enthusiastic article about the new company appearing in the October 1 issue of the Times.  
"Grand Success - Spontaneous and Unmistakable." An ad for the second week of the Benson regime that appeared in the Times on October 7, 1894.

This article about the troubles - and a prediction that the theatre would soon have a new operator - appeared in the December 1, 1894 issue of the L.A. Evening Express.
This ad for what was the last performance of the last show of the Benson and Richards [sic] management also appeared in the December 1, 1894 issue of the L.A. Evening Express. Thanks to Anthony Caldwell for locating the Express ad and article as well as unearthing this entire Benson chapter of the theatre's history. An article about Mr. Rickard's troubles in the December 2 issue of the L.A. Times noted that the theatre closed after the December 1 performance. 

The house reopened as the Orpheum Theatre on December 31, 1894. This ad appeared in the Times on December 30. That line "The two great  society vaudeville theatres of the west" referred to this theatre and the original Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, opened in 1887 by the gentleman we see pictured in the ad, Gustav Walter. 

This became the first home for Orpheum Circuit vaudeville in Los Angeles. This program for the last week of December 1894 and the first week of 1895 from the California Historical Society collection appears on the USC Digital Library website. 

Los Angeles thus became the second location for what was to become the dominant chain of vaudeville houses west of the Mississippi. The expansion was largely engineered by Morris Meyerfeld, Jr., who joined the financially-strapped firm in 1897 as a partner and investor. He became president when Gustav Walter died of appendicitis on May 9, 1898. Meyerfeld was joined at Orpheum by Martin Beck, who became general manager.

First Film Exhibition in Los Angeles:
On July 6, 1896, the theatre was the site of the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures in Los Angeles. Several films from the Edison studio were projected by Billy Porter, who went on to become a noted silent film director.

"To-night your last chance to see PAPINTA and the VITASCOPE." Papinta, credited with being the first "modern dancer," was featured in one of the shorts doing her "flame dance." This L.A. Times ad appeared on the final day of the Vitascope exhibition at the Orpheum. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the ad for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page. 

"Before The Nickelodeon - Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company" by Charles Musser (University of California Press, 1991) has a fine account of early film history. In Chapter 4 of the book the first film showings in Los Angeles are discussed. Head to page 81 for all the details. It's on the California Digital Library website. Edison's equipment then went on a tour of other vaudeville houses for several weeks before being set up at the rear of Tally's Phonograph & Vitascope Parlor at 311 S. Spring St.

Orpheum moved in September 1903 to a theatre at 227 S. Spring St. that had been called the Los Angeles. That venue was renamed the Lyceum Theatre after the circuit left in 1911 for a new Orpheum on Broadway, a house now called the Palace Theatre.

This June 1903 article in the L.A. Times announced the upcoming move of the Orpheum Circuit:

Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the article. He posted it as a comment on a thread about the Lyceum on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page. 

Later Years at the Grand: When Orpheum left, the theatre resumed using the Grand Opera House name, initially with Stair & Havlin as the lessees from Mr. Childs. In the 1907-08 edition of "Henry's Theatrical Guide" it was noted that Clarence Downs was managing with the theatre playing Stair & Havlin attractions "in season" and Ulrich stock productions in the summer. The S&H contract was expiring in June and it was expected that the theatre would be devoted to stock productions in the future.

Charles Kavanagh was listed as the manager in the 1911 and 1912 city directories. In 1912 Billy Clune was running the theatre with movies as Clune's Grand. It's unknown how long he stuck around. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for spotting the ad. See the Cameo Theatre page for more about Clune's various exhibition adventures.

Later the name was shortened to just The Grand, not to be confused with a theatre of many names on Grand Ave. also called the Grand Theatre at times. Yes, Billy Clune was also in that one for a spell as well. It's still listed as the Grand in the 1928 city directory. By 1930, with increased competition from newer theatres, the Grand Opera House became a showplace for Mexican stage shows and movies as Teatro Mexico.

Status: The theatre closed April 5, 1936 and was soon demolished for a parking lot. The Caltrans building is now on the theatre's site as well as occupying many other lots on the block.

The Grand Opera House in the Movies:

Joe E. Brown, Ann Dvorak and Patricia Ellis are seen on the Grand's stage as members of a traveling burlesque troupe in Busby Berkeley's "Bright Lights" (1st National / Warner Bros, 1935). Here some ladies of the company are on the runway for the number "Powder My Back." See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for eight more shots from the scenes at the Grand as well as several from a scene shot inside the Follies Theatre. 

Interior views: 

An 1898 view from onstage. Note all the people in the aisles. It's a photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. 

The house right boxes. Note the railings on the far right for the loge boxes. It's a 1936 photo from the Herald Examiner collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.

A look across the foots to house left. It's a 1936 Herald Examiner collection photo from the Los Angeles Public Library.

A balcony side wall view in 1936. It's a Herald Examiner collection photo from the Los Angeles Public Library. It's one of several published April 17 with the caption "Scenes in the old Childs Grand Opera House, or El Teatro Mexico, located on Main Street near First Street. Note the architectural designs over the windows and on the ceiling. The building is being razed."

Performers backstage in 1936. It's a photo from the Herald Examiner collection at the Los Angeles Public Library. It was published April 8 with this caption: "In the old days the Green Room was the scene of gaiety and laughter and, sometimes, heartaches as Los Angeles society and 'stage-door Johnnies' gathered to meet the famous stars. Photo shows the last Green Room gathering with members of the Mexican theater troupe chatting in the darkening shadows."

The prop room in 1936. It's a photo from the Herald Examiner collection at the Los Angeles Public Library.

More exterior views: 

c.1889 - Looking north toward 1st St. It's a California Historical Society photo by C.C. Pierce in the USC Digital Library collection. They note: "...The Childs Opera House is on the right, built 1883 and opened May 1884. Beyond it the bell tower is atop the headquarters of the Confidence Engine Company, a volunteer organization which was formed in 1874 -- Headquarters 7 Reg. N.G.C. formed May 1888. The Opera Restaurant is at left. The Chamber of Commerce had its second quarters in the room above the restaurant. The new U.S. Hotel is in the distance." The Huntington Library also has a version of the photo.

c.1889 - A gathering of fine gentlemen in front of the theatre. Thanks to Nick Wright for sharing the photo from his collection. 

c.1892 - The theatre running "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.  

c.1900 - The wall at the rear of the auditorium with "Orpheum" added above the Grand Opera House lettering. It's a detail from a photo by William Henry Jackson. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating it in the Denver Public Library collection. 

c.1920 - "Best Show in Town." Atop the vertical sign it says 10 cents. Note the new streetlights. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.

1920s - Looking north toward 1st St. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating this version of the photo for a Facebook post on Ken's Movie Page. There's also a fuzzier version in the Herald Examiner collection of the Los Angeles Public Library

1920s - A photo from the Herald Examiner collection at the Los Angeles Public Library. They give this one a March 1, 1929 date. The Library also has another copy of the photo indexed separately.

1930 - Looking north toward 1st St. during a Communist demonstration. Note the Teatro Mexico vertical sign. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the photo.

early 1930s - Note the Teatro Mexico lettering on the back of the auditorium. In the distance it's St. Vibiana Cathedral in the 200 block. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.

c.1935 - A look west toward the stagehouse of the Grand, here as the Teatro Mexico, and on toward Broadway. The new L.A. Times building is on the left. It's a photo by Maynard L. Parker in the Huntington Library collection. Thanks to Noirish Los Angeles contributor BifRayRock for including the image in his Noirish post #22357.

c. 1935 - A detail of the barn-shaped Teatro Mexico stagehouse from the Maynard L. Parker photo. The tower beyond is the old L.A. Times building on Broadway.

1936 - A last look as the theatre is closing. It's a photo from the Herald Examiner collection at the Los Angeles Public Library. The photo was published April 8 with this caption: "That treasure house of the gaiety and culture in old Los Angeles, Childs Grand Opera House on Main Street just south of First Street, is no more. The curtains went down for the final time and the old showhouse was being torn down. Photo shows the old opera house when its lights were dimmed for the last time. It was built in 1884 by Ozro W. Childs as the last word in theaters. In the past decade it has been known as El Teatro Mexico."

2019 - Looking south from 1st St. toward the Caltrans building on the site of the Grand Opera House. Photo: Bill Counter 

The story that appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on May 25, 1884: 

 The article can also be viewed on the website of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

More information: A good history of the Grand Opera House by Joe Vogel and other contributors as well as a lively discussion of other early Los Angeles theatres is on Cinema Treasures.

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  1. I have discovered libretti from operas performed at the LA Grand Opera between 1808-1926 that I'd like to sell. Do you have an suggestions of where to find the people most interested in our operatic history?

    1. I really don't. Have you queried anybody at the L.A. Opera? Your best bet might be to just put the items on eBay unless you can interest some local archive like USC or the Public Library in your collection.