Opened: December 24, 1918 by Fred Miller as Miller's California Theatre. The pre-opening photo is from the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The initial attraction was "Arizona" with Douglas Fairbanks. The 24 ushers were dressed in uniforms of the various Allied armies. Fairbanks was there along with many other luminaries including Clara Kimball Young, Louise Glaum, Thomas Ince, Charles Ray, Lois Weber, Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Mabel Normand, Samuel Goldfish and Harry Chandler.
It was in the 1918 city directory as Miller's New Theatre at 808 S. Main. In the 1919 and 1921 city directories the address is shown as 810-812 S. Main. Miller had opened Miller's Theatre down the block at 842 S. Main in 1913. In 1915 and 1916 he had also operated the Alhambra on Hill St.
Seating: 2,000 initially. Later it was down to 1,650. The theatre had a single balcony.
Pipe Organ: It was originally a Robert Morton, later replaced by a Wurlitzer installation. The instrument was usable until the theatre closed in 1988. This May 8, 1990 L.A. Times item located by Ken McIntyre noted the final events in the theatre before its demolition:
This drawing appeared with "Work Begun On Two Theaters," an article announcing the project in the May 13, 1917 issue of the L.A. Times. The other theatre featured in the story was the Kinema on Grand Ave., a theatre later renamed the Criterion. They were identified as "The newest film palaces of Los Angeles." The article noted that it was a project of Col. J.B. Lankershim and commented:
"The structure was planned by A.B. Rosenthal and construction bids are to be taken at once. the theatre has been leased to Fred A. Miller, proprietor of the present Miller's Theater on South Main St. The building will have a frontage of ninety feet by a depth of 183 feet and will be of reinforced concrete, being faced with matt glazed terra cotta. With the galleries, the auditorium will seat 3000 persons. the entrance will be flanked with stores. The cost of the building is estimated at $150,000."
The project was slow beginning. The same drawing appeared again with "Work Begun on Fine Theatre," an article in the February 17, 1918 issue of the Times. Their text:
"Half-Million-Dollar Project for South Main - New House Will Seat Twenty-five Hundred. Will be Fireproof and of Handsome Design. Work has been started for the palatial new film house for F. A. Miller on Main street, just south of Eighth, announcement of which has previously appeared in The Times. The theater, which is the crowning enterprise of the Miller interests in this city, will be one of the largest exclusive motion picture places in the West, having a seating capacity of about 2500. Architecturally it will be one of the most pretentious playhouses on the Coast.
"The building is being erected for Mr. Miller and his associates by Col. J.B. Lankershim, having been secured under a long-term lease. The structure was designed by A.B. Rosenthal and is being built by the contracting firm of Winter & Nicholson. It is understood that the total investment, including the valuation of the site, will be about $500,000. From six to seven months will be required for the construction. The theater will be three stories high at the street front, space being provided for offices and rest rooms on the upper floors. The frontage of ninety feet will allow room for stores of generous size on either side of the entrance lobby. The structure will have a total depth of 183 feet.
"The facade is to be of classic design and will be carried out in matt glazed terra cotta. There will be a handsome marquise over the entrance, which, with the lobby, will be furnished in marble. The interior will be finished and furnished in a sumptuous manner. The new film palace will stand half a block north of the present Miller Theater on Main above Ninth. Both its appointment and its arrangement will represent the result of long experience and careful study upon the part of the lessees. Harry Leonhardt, an old-time theatrical man who is associated with Mr. Miller, spent a considerable time in the East visiting the finest houses of the large cities to get ideas for the new Main-street theater."
The December 24, 1918 opening day ad in the Times.
The Times also had an article about the new palace in their December 24 issue:
"New California will Open Tonight - The amusement loving public of this city and the whole of Southern California is to be presented with a Christmas present this evening and on Christmas Day, for the California, Miller's new theater, is to formally open its doors tonight with the most representative audience that was ever invited to a similar event on the Coast. And on Christmas Day the popular grand opening will take place, starting at 11:15 a.m. and lasting to 11:30 p.m. Judging from the number of inquiries from people wanting to come Christmas Day, record-breaking crowds are going to be on hand all that day to welcome the new Miller Theater to the fold.
"Douglas Fairbanks is the star of the first week's nine-unit show. His feature is 'Arizona,' said to be the finest picture he has ever made...A forty-piece symphony orchestra directed by Nicola Donatelli, a magnificent symphonic organ played bu Dr. Hastings, Italo Picchi, the famous basso, in scenes from great operas -- these are but a few of the musical features that are going to be a part of the big show that is going to be presented this week and in the weeks to come."
A 1922 trade magazine ad featuring Mr. Miller. Thanks to Charmaine Zoe for including it in her Vintage Cinemas California album on Flickr.
A January 1923 program cover for the California, the "Home of Goldwyn Pictures," with Miller as the managing director. Thanks to Woody Wise for sharing the item from his collection.
The program cover for "Little Old New York," an August 1923 release with Marion Davies. Thanks to Anthony L. Vasquez-Hernandez of posting it on Cinema Treasures. You can scroll ahead for all the other pages as well. The film ran two performances a day with all seats reserved.
In mid-1924 both the California and Miller's Theatre were acquired by Marcus Loew with West Coast Theatres actually operating the venues for Loew's. A 1925 program/magazine for the two theatres is in the collection of the Silent Film Still Archive.
Miller didn't stay out of the business very long. In 1925 he opened the Figueroa Theatre, on S. Figueroa St. at what is now Martin Luther King Blvd. He was also the first operator of the Carthay Circle in 1926. Later both venues became West Coast Theatres operations. He was the initial lessee of the Elmiro Theatre in Santa Monica when it opened in 1934.
A lovely logo from the letterhead the theatre was using in the mid-20s. Poppies! Thanks to Sean Ault for the find.
"Las Campanas de Capistrano," Mexico’s first all-talking motion picture, held its world premiere at the theatre October 3, 1930. The news item appeared in the L.A. Times.
The California managed to retain its class long after the rest of the Main Street theatre district had deteriorated. Beginning around 1935 it was advertised as the Teatro California, a major showcase for Spanish language features that for a long period was operated by Frank Fouce. In 1983 the California had a short run as a $1.50 grind house. Then it became a porno venue operated by the Pussycat chain.
Closing: The theatre closed in January 1988.
Status: It was demolished in 1990 despite a prolonged campaign by several preservation groups. The building was owned by Jack Needleman's company Denmarst. Also involved in the business were his sons Steve, Mark and Dennis. The family has long been a major downtown property owner with the Orpheum and many other downtown buildings in the portfolio.
"It should come down," said Jay Rounds, executive director of the L.A. Conservancy in a September 5, 1990 L.A. Times article discussing the theatre's fate. Thanks to historian Chris Nichols for the link to the article. Rounds didn't retain his job for long after making statements like this and word also got out that the Conservancy had agreed to drop their objections to the demolition in return for a big donation. The Times story by Darrell Dawsey:
"Once-Glamorous Film Palace to Fall to Wrecking Ball. With each blow from the demolition crew's wrecking ball, a bit of Los Angeles history will come crumbling down this week. The California Theatre, the beaux-arts movie palace that was once a gem of the city's downtown theater district, is scheduled to be razed beginning late this week and continuing through September. News of the theater's demolition has created a stir among some in the local preservationist community, with angry theater buffs charging that the owners of the 72-year-old building have not tried hard enough to save it. 'This is a good, old building that we think can be restored if the commitment were there,' said Hillsman Wright, whose downtown-based Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation was unsuccessful in its attempt to have the city designate the theater as a historical landmark.
"The owners of the California Theatre--real estate investors and brothers Steve, Mark and Dennis Needleman--contend that they cannot rehabilitate the theater. They said they plan to convert the theater grounds at Main and 8th streets into a parking lot. 'The theater is a health hazard, an absolute detriment to the area, a drug hangout,' said Steve Needleman. Even if the theater were rehabilitated, Needleman said, the transients, prostitutes and junkies who live in the area around the California would frighten off potential theatergoers.
"In many ways, the history of the California reflects the history of the neighborhood around it. When the theater was built in 1918, the community was alive with recreational activity. Theaters, clubs and nickelodeons lined the streets, offering a variety of diversions. The California soon became the district's centerpiece. Goldwyn Pictures bought the theater in 1919 and hired S.L. Rothaphel, the impresario who would become known to the theater world as Roxy, to run it. 'They were producing their own pictures,' said Jill Dolan, a member of the Historic Theatre Foundation, 'so they wanted to feature their own pictures there so they wouldn't be busts.'
"However, after decades of premieres and first-run films, the theater went into a slump. As economic activity in the neighborhood declined, so did the theater's attendance. The California became a Spanish-language theater for a while, then was transformed into an adult-movie house. Finally, unable to turn even a marginal profit, the California closed in 1987. 'There is no way for that theater to do business in that location,' said Bruce Corwin, president of the Metropolitan Theater Corp., which owned the California during the 1970s. 'The only thing you can do is move on.'
"Wright's group disagrees. The foundation, which envisions the theater as part of a revived downtown entertainment district, argues that a rehabilitated California Theatre could spur economic growth in the surrounding neighborhood. 'The experience in scores of American cities is that by using these theaters and putting things on stage, people will come back downtown after dark,' said Wright. 'They will park their car, eat a meal. Some of them will shop. All of this serves to provide jobs, create a tax base.'
"The Needlemans--and even other preservationists--insist that the California could never be a vital part of a local entertainment hub. Some say that the theater's physical location would hamper its profitability. 'It is not one of the Broadway theaters,' said Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. 'Had it been located on Broadway as part of that district, it would have been possible to look at the chance of revitalizing it as a part of that group. Efforts were made to find a way to save it, but we haven't been able to come up with a viable solution. It should come down.'
The California in the Movies:
We get some lovely aerial shots of abandoned downtown Los Angeles in Boris Sagal's "The Omega Man" (Warner Bros., 1971). Here we're looking at the north side of the California during the opening credits. We also get several nice views of the Tower Theatre and spend some time at the Olympic. See the Historic L.A. Theatres In Movies post for those shots.
The remake of "Breathless" (Orion, 1983) with Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky has several scenes shot inside the California. We get a glimpse of the back of the auditorium and spend some time making love on a pile of curtains backstage while "Gun Crazy"(1949) is playing. We also get this look at the exterior. Thanks to Chas Demster for the screenshot. It's on his blog Filming Locations of Chicago and Los Angeles where he also has photos of many more of the film's locations.
We get a couple very brief, blurry, views of the theatre in James Cameron's "The Terminator" (Orion Pictures, 1984). Here the marquee is on the right during a chase scene about 39 minutes into the film. Thanks to Randall Yoder, Jr. for spotting the theatre. See the Historic L.A. Theatres in Movies post for a couple more shots plus a bit of the State Theatre and the Warner Downtown.
The main stairs as construction is finishing up in 1918. Note the ladder and the workman in the mirrors. Thanks to Dallas Movie Theaters for finding the photo for a post on Cinema Treasures.
Silent film star Mae Busch gets a tour of the California in 1923. She's being shown the theatre's new installation of a panel of indicator lights showing vacant seat locations. Thanks to Dallas Movie Theaters for finding the photo for a post on Cinema Treasures.
On the landing up to the balcony. The theatre used a combination of stairs and ramps. Dallas Movie Theaters found the photo for Cinema Treasures.
The balcony level lobby. Beyond the well looking down on the main floor note the vomitory leading to balcony seating. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.
A lounge area off the balcony lobby in 1918. The nursery is at the far end of the space. Dallas Movie Theaters posted the photo on Cinema Treasures.
A peek into the nursery. It's a 1918 photo on Cinema Treasures from contributor Dallas Movie Theaters.
In the auditorium:
A Saturday Evening Post ad for Klearflax carpeting featured a photo of the California's main floor and a testimonial from Mr. Miller. At the time of the ad, the theatre had been open 135 weeks, putting us in mid-1921. Thanks to Sean Ault for finding the ad.
A closer look at the photo. "Los Angeles is, quite naturally, the home of one of the most beautiful moving picture theatres in the world -- the California.... 6,000,000 people walked upon this carpet during a period of 135 weeks -- an average of 50,000 a week, and not one cent of expense for mending or repairing it!"
An view toward the stage in the theatre's later years. Most of the interior decoration had been stripped out in various modernization programs. On the right side of the proscenium it's an added Statue of Liberty mural. On the left side, as Michael Hudson-Medina notes, it's Mexico City's famous statue the Angel of Independence. Thanks to Bill Housos for sharing the photo from his collection. He notes that he purchased the two California Theatre photos decades ago from the Theatre Historical Society.
The rear of the auditorium perhaps in the 1970s. Note the main floor booth with its ports enlarged for CinemaScope. Thanks to Bill Housos for sharing the photo from his collection.
On the great stage:
The set for a street scene in Tangiers, used for a prologue accompanying "Eye For Eye," a December 1918 release with Alla Nazimova. The photo appeared in the May 1919 issue of Architect and Engineer with the article "Evolution of Architectural and Other Features of Moving Picture Theatres." It's on Internet Archive. The article comments about the new theatre:
"While there is in this theatre a proscenium arch, it is, through the ingenuity of the designers so cleverly arranged that, instead of the heretofore abrupt division between stage and auditorium, the spectator in the audience actually has the feeling of being in and part of the stage portrayals. This feeling of cosiness and intimacy with the features of orchestra, pictures and productions, is accomplished by many innovations of which this proscenium arch is just a part, and its curtain on raising has the same relation to this theatre, that throwing open a curtain between two parts of a large drawing room would have in a home entertainment.
"But instead of its being a silken portiere brushed aside, this is a thick curtain, thirty-six feet high, and fifty-five feet wide of pure asbestos fiber woven onto steel wires, reinforced with iron pipes, and it is lifted bodily thirty-six feet straight up into a specially provided loft of steel and concrete. It is so evenly counter balanced that it can be operated by a child. It is suspended by five steel cables operating over ten 14-inch ball bearing sheaves, and for case of of emergency five additional quarter-inch steel link chains allow it to descend only to the level of the orchestra floor. It slides in two 72-foot slots, each four by eight inches deep, made of quarter-inch boiler plate.
"Back of this curtain is the setting for the screen and the mechanical and scenic appliances with which the atmospheric, operatic, dramatic and spectacular productions will be staged."
"An Oriental setting used one week at the California Theatre, Los Angeles." The center stairs and the balustrade were permanent features for the theatre at this time. The photo is another that appeared in the May 1919 issue of Architect and Engineer.
The setting for the prologue before "Sahara," a June 1919 release starring Louise Glaum. Thanks to Dallas Movie Theaters for posting the trade magazine photo on Cinema Treasures.
A closer look at the stairs. The drop is one used for the prologue before "Wagon Tracks," a July 1919 release with William S. Hart. It's a trade magazine photo located by Dallas Movie Theaters for a post on Cinema Treasures.
Jesse Crawford at the Robert Morton console in 1919. It's a trade magazine photo located by Dallas Movie Theaters for a post on Cinema Treasures.
The theatre's orchestra, here partly onstage in their concert mode. Note that the front of the stage had been rebuilt eliminating the balustrade and center stairs. Thanks to Michelle Gerdes for sharing this postcard from her collection.
In the booth:
A photo of the booth appearing with "My Favorite Projector," an article by Frank Hardill, chief projectionist at the California, in the February 4, 1922 issue of Exhibitors Trade Review. It's on Internet Archive. Hardill, after discussing the merits of Powers projectors, talks about the booth:
"The projection room, which is located on the main floor of the theatre, measures nine by eighteen feet with a twelve foot ceiling. It is constructed of tile and concrete and the equipment consists of two Powers projectors, Powers double stereopticon, two Crescent spot lamps, Weaver auto dousers, Moon magnetic speed indicators, Enterprise arc controls and Hooker enclosed re-wind with automatic cut-out switch.
"The picture, which measures fourteen feet six inches by nineteen feet six inches, is projected on a crystal bead screen. We also use the Western Electric system of inter-communicating telephones, which connect the projection room with all parts of the house, as well as a signal system connecting with the stage and orchestra pit, on which low voltage lamps are used entirely, doing away with all buzzers.
"All of the resistance is kept in a small room built into one corner of the projection room itself. The switchboard is built in one side of this room with the back of the board opening into it, making it easily accessible at all times. An efficient system of ventilation is used, consisting of both fresh air intakes and hot air exhausts, which keeps the booth cool at all times."
More exterior views:
1918 - The pre-opening photo made the cover of the May 1919 issue of The American Globe. Thanks to Joe Vogel for locating it.
1918 - Signage up for "Arizona" with Douglas Fairbanks, the theatre's initial attraction. Dallas Movie Theaters found the photo for Cinema Treasures.
1918 - "Welcome Our Boys in Blue." It's a photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1919 - The display cases on the north side of the ticket lobby. The posters are for "Other Men's Wives," a June release. Dallas Movie Theaters found the photo for Cinema Treasures.
1919 - A look at the side boxoffice window during the run of "Wagon Tracks," a July release with William S. Hart. The theatre also had a boxoffice in the center of the ticket lobby. It's a trade magazine photo located by Dallas Movie Theaters for a post on Cinema Treasures.
1919 - The crowd for "The Brat," a September release with Alla Nazimova. It's a trade magazine photo located by Dallas Movie Theaters for a post on Cinema Treasures.
1920 - A view from the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Note the signage for the California Theatre on the triangular building. Earlier, the sign was for Miller's. The Orpheum Auto Park, just up Spring St. to the left, is under construction. Milller's Theatre, off to the right, is hidden in shadow.
c.1921 - A view showing the roof sign at night. It appeared in a 1921 issue of The Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers with an article "Lighting for Motion Picture Theatres." They were demonstrating the use of some new flood lights on the facade. It's in a reprint edition of the publication's issues 10-14 on Google Books. Thanks to Cinema Treasures contributor Broan for spotting the photo. The photo also appears with an article about the theatre's booth in the February 4, 1922 issue of Exhibitors Trade Review. It's on Internet Archive.
1922 - The California's entrance during the premiere of "A Tailor Made Man" with Charles Ray. Thanks to Sean Butay of WalterFilm for the photo. They deal in vintage movie posters, lobby cards and other film memorabilia. walterfilm.com | on Facebook
1920s - A Los Angeles Public Library photo. Their caption: "Man standing on a roof looking out on Main Street. Some of the buildings seen in the distance are National Bank Building, Hotel Cecil (640 S. Main St.), Roy Furniture Co., California Theater, and Main Talking Pictures." The Main they're referring to is Miller's Theatre at 842 S. Main St.
1920s - A great view looking down at the intersection with the California in the middle right and a bit of the Miller's roof sign and the vertical in the lower right. The photo was a post by Pattern Bar on Facebook. They're in the building at the southwest corner of Main and 9th. Check out their History Album 1887-1951 for more vintage views of the neighborhood.
1924 - A float promoting the world premiere of "Robinson Crusoe" at the theatre. Thanks to Cinema Treasures contributor Dallas Movie Theaters for posting the trade magazine photo on that site's page about the California.
1928 - A ticket lobby view from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1930 - The premiere of "El Presidio," MGM's Spanish language version of their talkie "The Big House." It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.
1935 - The theatre as a Spanish language film house. It's a photo from the collection of the City's El Pueblo Monument appearing on the Los Angeles Public Library website.
1935 - The opening of "Santa." It's a photo from the William Mason collection now in the collection of the El Pueblo Monument. It appears on the Los Angeles Public Library website.
1930s - Looking south on Main from 7th St. The California is on the left half way up the image. It's a photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
late 1930s - A photo by the Dick Whittington Studio. We get a bit of the California up the block on the right, including an edge view of its roof sign. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for spotting it in the USC collection for a post on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles.
1939 - Looking north on Spring in a Dick Whittington Studio photo from the USC Digital Library collection. We get a bit of the California Theatre at the right.
1939 - The California's roof sign and south wall can be seen on the left. On the far right it's a bit of Miller's theatre, here called the Roosevelt. It's a Dick Whittington Studio photo in the USC Digital Library collection.
1939 - A view of the north wall. That's 8th St. heading off to the left. It's a Dick Whittington Studio photo in the USC Digital Library collection.
c.1948 - The theatre with a Pacific Electric Red Car. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo.
1956 - A view from Marc Wanamaker's Bison Archives that appears in the fine 2008 Arcadia publishing book "Theatres in Los Angeles" by Suzanne Tarbell Cooper, Amy Ronnebeck Hall and Mr. Wanamaker. There's a preview of the book on Google Books.
1965 - A William Reagh photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1965 - A view from the north by William Reagh. The photo is in the California State Library collection. Also in the collection is another take with different pedestrians.
1966 - A William Reagh photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.
1966 - A great photo by William Reagh from the California State Library collection. That's Main St. looking north on the right, Spring on the left. You can still see the California Theatre with its roof sign. Miller's is no more.
c.1970 - A view located by K. Safer for a post on the now-defunct photo hosting platform Webshots.
1970s - A boxoffice view by Ave Pildas from the 1980 book "Movie Palaces: Survivors of an Elegant Era" by Mr. Pildas and Lucinda Smith. It's available on Amazon. For more about the photographer visit www.avepildas.com. The tile work on the boxoffice was reportedly by Batchelder.
1970s - A look northeast from 9th with the theatre in the center of the image. Thanks to Nathan Marsak for including the photo in his Noirish Los Angeles post #19325.
1970s - A look north under the marquee. Again thanks to Nathan Marsak for the photo. It's in Noirish Los Angeles post #19325.
1982 - Looking north toward the theatre in April. Thanks to Paul Kakazu for sharing his photo on the Photos of Los Angeles Facebook page.
1988 - A post-closing photo by John Miller that's in the AMPAS Tom B'hend - Preston Kaufmann Collection.
2019 - Looking south toward the site of the California from 9th St. Photo: Bill Counter
More information: Lots of history about the life (and death) of the California Theatre is on the Cinema Treasures page. Many researchers have contributed interesting facts and stories.
Don't miss Paul R. Spitzerri's 2020 article "That’s a Wrap with 'Screen News and Programs of the California and Miller’s Theatres'..." on the Homestead Museum blog. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for spotting it.
The California is discussed in the 2019 Indiana University Press book "Hollywood Goes Latin - Spanish-Language Cinema in Los Angeles," edited by Maria Elena de las Carreras and Jan-Christopher Horak. There's a preview on Google Books and it's available on Amazon.
See the page about Miller's Theatre here on this site for more views of the 9th / Main / Spring intersection.
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