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Optic Theatre

533 S. Main St. Los Angeles, CA 90013 | map |

Opened: Early 1911 by Robert W. Woodley. Previously Woodley had operated an Optic Theatre on Broadway. In 1913 he would return to Broadway to open the Woodley Theatre, a house later taken over by Mack Sennett and renamed the Mission. Woodley was also involved at one point in operation of the Gayety Theatre. The Optic here on Main St. ran into the 1980s.

Thanks to L.A. transit historian Sean Ault for sharing the c.1945 photo from his collection. He notes that the Pony Express bus depot seen this side of the theatre was turned into a Metro transit station from 1961 until 1967. Scott Pitzer took a look at the marquee of the Gayety Theatre beyond. He thinks they're running "Hold That Blonde," a 1945 release.

Seating: 700 

It was a busy block. The Optic was on the west side of the street in the middle of the block between 5th and 6th. Just north of the Optic were the Star Theatre and the Gayety Theatre. South of the Optic down at the end of the block were the Picture Theatre (until 1926), the Art Theatre at 551 and the Bijou (until 1914) at 553. On the east side of the street were the Rounder at 510 (around in 1910), the Galway at 514, the Sherman at 518 (running until 1919) and the Burbank at 548.

This detail from plate 002 of the 1914 Real Estate Survey from Historic Map Works shows the Optic at 533, the Portola/Star at 529 in the Green Hotel Building, and the Gayety at 523 in the Interlaken Hotel Bldg.

A December 25, 1910 item located by Jeff Bridges: "Negotiations have just been closed with R.W. Woodley, the former proprietor of the Optic Theater on South Broadway, for a motion-picture theater, to be erected at No. 533 South Main Street. The place will have a seating capacity of about 900." The Optic replaced several shallow storefronts as well as a house on the rear of the lot. One of the storefronts had been a nickelodeon at one time.

An April 7, 1911 ad for the Optic appearing in the L.A. Times. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for spotting it.

A data point regarding segregation in downtown theatres. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating this 1911 newspaper item. By 1919 segregated seating was illegal in California. Bob Wolfe offers this commentary:

"Regarding segregated seating, California had had civil rights statues outlawing racial discrimination in theaters, among other venues. In 1919, the Legislature established a $100 minimum damage award. There are two published appellate opinions affirming $100 damage awards (one on a 22 cent ticket and a second from the Burbank Theatre on 6th and Main Street) to Black patrons who were deliberately seated in separate areas. (See Prowd v. Gore (1922) 57 Cal.App. 458.)"

An instance of theatre segregation in Pasadena is noted on the page for the Park Theatre.

Woodley was evidently gone from the Optic by 1913 as he was then occupied with his new theatre on Broadway. As for his later adventures? It turns out that films were only his second love. He was more infatuated with the gem business. He took a position with an L.A. diamond merchant named Clark and then moved to Bisbee, AZ to run the diamond counter at Phelps Dodge Mercantile, the company store operated by the mining company in town. Head to the bottom of the page for a 1918 story from the Bisbee Daily Review.

A 1915 L.A. Times article about a change in management. Years later Seth D. Perkins got into the drive-in business, running the Pico and San Val drive-ins. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating the item for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.

Business was good. It's a December 25, 1915 item that Ken McIntyre found in the L.A. Herald-Express. 

From the LA Times December 11, 1920: "Herman Gore is being sued for divorce by his wife of 16 days, Ruth. She declares he earns $110 a week as Manager for Optic and Regent Theaters; also that he has an interest in the new Ambassador Theater being built in Hollywood, and the Liberty, Lyceum, Kinema Theaters." Thanks to Cinema Treasures contributor Itscjsspot for finding the Times item. In the 1922 and 23 directories the theatre is listed as Gore's Optic.

In 1963 Popkin & Ringer, with offices at 306 W. 3rd St., operated the Optic, Art, Gayety, Hippodrome, Regent, Star and Banner, according to the 1963 Motion Picture Almanac. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for the data.

Dan Whitehead comments: 

"Believe it or not, Walnut Properties either owned or leased the Optic Theatre in its last days. It was running as a grindhouse and was not showing x-rated. I was there a few times for service calls and repairs. By that time (some time between 1978 and 1981) it was in bad shape and had some scary clientele (and I don’t scare easily). The projector heads were Simplex E7s, the lamphouses were Peerless Magnarc xenon conversions done by Leonard Pincus and the pedestals were those old, heavy cast-iron Simplex 5-point pedestals. The screen had been torn so many time that Mr. Miranda and Mr. Tate had pegboard installed and painted white. On one of my calls, I remember an episode of that awful 'T. J. Hooker' show with William Shatner was being shot in a nearby parking lot. I was told that the Optic was one of the first houses in Los Angeles to install sound; I have no idea if that’s true or not."

Status: Demolished in the late 80s. A parking garage is on the site. 

The Optic in the Movies:

Mark Stephens takes a stroll by the Optic in "The Street with No Name" (20th Century Fox, 1948). See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a number of screenshots featuring the Regent, the Regal and the Muse theatres.

The Optic and the Gayety (with a bit of the Star in between them) are seen on the left at 8:22 into nearly 11 minutes of 1950 footage intended for use as process shot backgrounds in film or TV shows. A lovely colorized and remastered version is on YouTube from NASS as "1950s - Views of Los Angeles in color..." The original footage is on Internet Archive as Pet 1067 R 4. On Main St. we also get views of the Muse, Burbank, Regent, Follies, Hippodrome and Liberty theatres. 7th St. footage includes the Warner and Loew's State.

We get a look at the Optic as part of an opening montage displaying many of L.A.'s high culture sites in "The Swinger" (Paramount, 1966). The film stars Ann-Margret and Tony Franciosa. She's a journalist posing as a swinger to get magazine editor Tony to publish a story she wrote while his goal is to get her to pose for the centerfold instead. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for shots of five other theatres seen in the little travelogue.

In "Uptown Saturday Night' (Warner Bros. / First Artists, 1974) we get this sliver of a view of the north end of the Optic marquee. Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier are going into a bar for some trouble -- it's Main St. doubling for Chicago. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for another Optic Shot as well as views of the Burbank, Regent and Follies theatres.

That hulk on the right with the dim blue neon is the Optic, making an appearance in Sidney Poitier's "Let's Do It Again" (Warner Bros./First Artists, 1975). The shot is supposed to be a street in New Orleans. On the left is the Santa Fe Building vertical sign at 6th & Main. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a shot of the Tower, Rialto and Orpheum theatres on Broadway.

Judge Reinhold is on Main St. being chased by the police (as you can see in the mirror) in "Ruthless People" (Touchstone Pictures, 1986). At the left we see the marquee of the Optic. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for another Optic view from the film. Jim Abrahams and David Zuker directed the film, also starring Bette Midler and Danny DeVito.

We get a murky view of the Optic's entrance in "Inside Deep Throat" (Universal, 2005), a documentary about the making of the film and its later influence. The film didn't actually play the Optic. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for another Optic shot as well as views of the Art Theatre down the block as well as visits to the Sunset and the Monica.

The Optic on TV:

A shot looking south toward the Optic from the opening sequence of of "The Rockford Files." Thanks to Michael Dains for the screenshot. The one minute sequence can be seen on Vimeo. The Optic is running "Point Blank."

Another shot from a "Rockford Files" episode. Here we're looking north across 6th St. 

Cinema Treasures contributor Mcpierogipazza notes that the Optic appears in the background in a 1975 season 1 episode of "Starsky and Hutch" called "The Bait." David Zornig notes that the theatre appears in a 1981 episode of “Hill Street Blues” titled "Hearts and Minds."

An interior view: 

A lovely shot from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

More exterior photos: 

c.1907 - Looking north along the west side of the 500 block. The Optic's future site is just this side of the the building with "G. A. Theil Wallpaper" on the side. That building was later to be the home of the Portola Theatre, a venue that ended up being called the Star Theatre. Here the Optic's lot has a house in the rear and three shallow storefronts in front of it. It's a California Historical Society photo on the USC Digital Library website.

To the right of the Theil building, the theatre later to become the Gayety is seen here as the Peoples Theatre. In the upper left note the Alexandria Hotel on the southwest corner of 5th and Spring. The steel going up is for the Security Building on the southeast corner of 5th and Spring. The building housing the Picture Theatre, 545 S. Main, is in the lower center. The little sign in the middle of the parapet wall says "Adams Hall," a 2nd floor venue later used as a dance hall.

c.1908 - Several storefronts in note the arched entrance of an early nickelodeon, name unknown, in the building that that would be replaced by the Optic. We're looking south toward 6th. It's a detail from a much wider California Historical Society photo on the USC Digital Library website where we also see the Burbank Theatre across the street. USC dates the photo as c.1918 but it's obviously much earlier.

1911 - Looking north from the Pacific Electric Building at 6th & Main. A bit of the Optic's facade can be seen as the squat white single story facade this side of its "Vaudeville" vertical, hung on the building next door. On our left, the 2nd building beyond the 6th St. intersection is the Howell Hotel Building. At the time of the photo it housed the Bijou Theatre at 553 S. Main. Later it would house the Art Theatre at 551.

In the distance beyond 5th note one of the early Rosslyn Hotel Buildings. Thanks to Tom Ohmer for spotting the photo when it was posted by the Los Angeles Times. It appeared on the "Framework" section of their website but that's now vanished. They titled it "Congestion on Main St."

1911 - A detail from the photo above. Thanks to Douglas Rudd for finding this version for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page. By 1913 the Vaudeville vertical will be down and replaced by one saying Optic.

1911 - A view by G. Haven Bishop looking south from just above 5th & Main. It's a photo taken for Southern California Edison that's in the Huntington Library collection.

1911 - A detail from the G. Haven Bishop photo. That first "Colyear's" vertical is for a furniture store. Beyond, we have signage for the Olympic Theatre, earlier the Peoples, much later called the Gayety. Beyond that, there's the "Vaudeville" vertical and the illuminated arched entrance of the Optic. It's a photo taken for Southern California Edison that's in the Huntington Library collection.

1913 - A January photo from the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive. At the left is the Optic Theatre, with its vertical sign mounted on the Brennan Hotel building, which soon was to house the Portola/Star Theatre. On the right is what had been the Olympic, here renamed the Century Theatre.

1913 - A detail from the Fire Department's photo. The facade would get a fancy redo in later years.

1913 - Looking across from the roof of the building the Picture Theatre was in toward the Brennan Hotel Building with the Optic's vertical sign. The theatre itself is down below that "Kings Court" sign. It's a photo from the  L. A. Fire Department Historical Archive.

1913 - Another view from the L. A. Fire Department Historical Archive. For more coverage on the LAFire site go to the Major Incident page and look for "Brennan Hotel Fire, 1913" in the index on the left column. On the Brennan page, click on "see completion LAFD photo album photo collection" under the photo for more views.

1913 - A L. A. Fire Department Historical Archive view looking down on the theatre during the Brennan fire. Thanks to Michelle Gerdes for spotting these in the LAFire collection.

c.1917 - A California Historical Society photo looking north showing the Optic sign on the Hotel Green building. The Optic and the Portola/Star entrances are out of the frame in the lower left. The "Burlesque" vertical and two more beyond are for the future Gayety Theatre, here called the Omar. Note the new Rosslyn Hotel Building on the northwest corner of 5th and Main. The photo is on the USC Digital Library website. It's also in the Los Angeles Public Library collection where they credit it to C.C. Pierce. USC also has another similar 1917 view evidently taken at the same time.   

1926 - The Optic running "The Temptress" with Greta Garbo and Antonio Moreno. This October release was an epic about an architect trying to restrain his passions for a the seductive Ms. Garbo. Thanks to Chris Nichols for spotting this for sale on eBay. Note the Indians in front as part of a parade.

1938 - A delightful view of the poster cases. Note the "Woodley's Optic" in the mosaic. Thanks to  Maurice Ideses for finding the photo.

1939 - A great Dick Whittington photo showing the west side of the block as we look north toward 5th St. The photo is in the USC Digital Library collection. Note the Optic's much fancier facade when compared to earlier photos. That's the Star and Gayety on the right.

1939 - A detail from the Dick Whittington photo giving us a closer look at the Optic. "Hard to Get" with Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland was a November 1938 release. Their co-feature "Orphans of the Street" with Tommy Ryan and Ace the Wonder Dog was a December 1938 release.

1947 - Behind the rear of the streetcar we see the top of the facade of the Optic. The marquee of the Gayety is visible down the block. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding the photo for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.

1955 - A view taken by Chris Shaw. It's included with many other lovely photos of Los Angeles taken the same year in a post on the site Serendipitism. Many thanks to Nathan Marsak for spotting the post.

1955 - Another photo by Chris Shaw from the Serendipitism site. The bill looks like "River of No Return" with Robert Mitchum (1954) and "Canyon City" (1943). That's the Star Theatre just beyond, with what looks like a blank readerboard. 

c.1960 - A  rooftop  view across from the east. To the right of that parking lot we get the south wall of the Optic and part of the facade. In the foreground we're looking down onto the roof of the Burbank Theatre. The building with the radio towers on the left is the Arcade Building. Thanks to Sean Ault for locating the photo.

1963 - A view south toward the Optic as a LAMTA officer holds back the pedestrians. The bus and driveway are where the Gayety Theatre had once been. The area was being used as a temporary Main St. bus station. The Dover Hotel building housed the Star Theatre. Thanks to Sean Ault for the photo. It had appeared in the October 1963 issue of the MTA Emblem that's in his collection.

c.1970 - A look north on Main St toward 5th from the Sean Ault collection.  The Art Theatre, 553 S. Main, is behind the bus with the Optic up the street and a glimpse of the then-closed Star Theatre beyond. At 5th are the Rosslyn Hotel buildings. Thanks, Sean!

c.1970 - A detail of the Optic from Sean's photo.

c.1972 - A Victor Plukas photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The Optic is advertising "The Hunting Party," a 1971 release with Oliver Reed, Candace Bergen and Gene Hackman. Note that the theatre's fancy pediment has been removed. The building to the right of the Optic once housed the Star Theatre.

c.1972 - A detail from the previous photo. That crazy vent pipe that looks like it's coming from the Optic's booth is actually from the rear of the Todd's Men's Furnishings building at 6th & Main, just south of the Art Theatre.

1973 - Looking north toward 5th with the Optic on the left. They're advertising "The Twilight People," a 1972 release. The Burbank, on the right, would be demolished in 1974. It's a photo by Victor Plukas in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

1974 - The Optic's down the street just beyond the Kent billboard with the Art Theatre in the shadows on the left and the Burbank Theatre on the far right. Thanks to Sean Ault for spotting this one on eBay. 

1974 - A view from across the street taken by the same photographer as the previous shot. "Someone Behind the Door" was a 1971 release with Charles Bronson, Anthony Perkins and Jill Ireland. The "Electra Instrument Co." storefront in the building next door had once been home to the Star Theatre. Thanks to Sean Ault for spotting this one on eBay. 

c.1979 - A facade view by William E. Ault. Thanks to Sean Ault for sharing the William Ault photos from his collection. He was Sean's grandfather.

c.1979 - An entrance detail. "Four Features Daily." Photo: William E. Ault

c.1979 - Another look at the entrance. "White Lightning," on the side of the marquee, was a 1973 release with Burt Reynolds. They ran lots of oldies -- they were cheaper to book. Photo: William E. Ault

c.1979 - A marquee detail. "Death Rides a Horse" was a 1966 release with Lee Van Cleef. Photo: William E. Ault

c.1979 - A noirish look north on Main past the Optic. The Galway Theatre is over on the other side of the street in the Leonide Hotel Building (still on Main, minus the theatre). The Regent Theatre is up in the next block at 448 S. Main. Photo: William E. Ault 

1980 - We're looking south from just below 5th with the Optic Theatre on the far left above the back of the white van. The building with the white facade this side of the Optic once housed the Star Theatre. On the right it's a bit of the Rosslyn Hotel building. Thanks to Sean Ault for finding this one on eBay.  

c.1980 - The Optic as it nears the end.  It's a photo by filmmaker and cinematographer Gary Graver. Thanks to his son Sean for the use of the photo. See more of Mr. Graver's theatre photos shot over several decades on two compilations on YouTube: "Second Run - part 1" and "Second Run - part 2."  

1983 - A view of the Optic in all its glory from the American Classic Images collection. 

2019 - The Optic's site in the middle of the 500 block was about where the palm trees are. We're looking south toward 6th St. The only historic building left on the west side of the block is the Rosslyn Hotel building off to the right at 5th St. Photo: Bill Counter

More information: See the Optic Theatre page on Cinema Treasures for a fine discussion of many of the early Main Street theatres.

Check out a lovely 1950s downtown map that shows many theatre locations including the Optic. It's from a now-vanished website by Tom Wetzel about the history of L.A. transit.

A 1918 article from the Bisbee, AZ Daily Review:

Thanks to Ken McIntyre for locating the article for a post on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.  

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