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United Artists Theater


Architect: Walker & Eisen

The United Artists Theater has reopened alongside the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles late in 2013. Ace, operator of the theater, was drawn to the building because of its intriguing history as the flagship theater for a group of great artists rebelling against the Hollywood studio system, as well as its strong aesthetic identity. Ace envisions the reactivated theater as a focal point for arts and culture in Downtown LA. Ace Hotel co-founder Alex Calderwood has said that, "We're honored to be able to restore a true national treasure to the neighborhood, and thrilled to be a part of the ongoing effort to revitalize South Broadway in Downtown LA and the neighborhoods it serves. We believe in a vibrant dialogue with the communities we join. This property will be developed with attention to creating a synergy with the surroundings that is beneficial for our future guests, local artists and business, and the community as a whole."

The United Artists Theatre opened on December 26, 1927, simultaneously with two other studio movie palaces (one in Detroit, a day earlier; and another in Chicago, which was a remodeling) heralding the studio's entrance into the arena of theatre operation. The opening of the studio's Flagship premiere house in L.A. marked the beginning of a theatre chain that is one of the nation's largest today. Mary Pickford took large part in the project, selecting the site, the architect, and spending so much money on it that the plaster cast molds used for the theatre had to be re-used in Detroit and Chicago to amortize their cost. Although C. Howard Crane of Detroit was engaged to design his only theatre west of Omaha (not counting Sydney, Australia), the 12-story office frontage for the complex was designed by the L.A. firm of Walker and Eisen for a long term lease by Texaco for their western regional offices. The UA Building was the tallest privately owned structure in LA until 1956, when the city finally repealed its Beaux Arts inspired "City Beautiful" concept of a 125-foot height limit for everyone but City Hall. In fact, the tower on the roof exceeds that limit but squeezed through on a technicality since it was unoccupied space used to house elevator equipment, the sprinkler system reservoir, and other equipment. The building permits described it as "signage."

The style of the building was originally described as "Spanish Gothic," a rare combination for an auditorium. Much of the plaster decorations around the building’s entrances and in the auditorium are copied from those at the Cathedral at Segovia – although the Spaniards themselves never contemplated anything on this scale. The lobby of the UA is half a block long, separating the auditorium from an adjacent office building. To mitigate the length and height of the lobby space, Crane designed two double-decked bridges to connect each balcony with a staircase on the opposite side of the lobby. The vaulted ceiling is finished in fresco murals, the only installation of its type on a west coast theatre. All mirrors in the lobby are gold-backed. Stairways at either end lead to basement lounges, a smoking room and a powder room. The smoking room was elaborately furnished in the Moorish manner and still retains its elaborate Malibu tile baseboards. Most of the original furnishings were relocated to Santa Barbara when the Fox Arlington theatre was restored as a performing arts center. The lavishness of the smoking room could probably be explained by the fact that it also functioned as a lobby for a private screening room built for Mary Pickford's use. The screening room is also connected by passageways with the dressing rooms, and elevators from the lobby to the balconies.

Although United Artists needed a theatre to guarantee an outlet for their product, they had no intention of operating it themselves. The Publix unit of the Paramount Corporation was engaged to open the theatre, an arrangement that lasted until the depression. Always more committed to film than to the stage, United Artists discontinued stage productions here several times, but always seemed to revive them when competition got the edge with downtown stage shows. The theatre was closed briefly during the depression, then reopened to spotty attendance, due to the relatively remote location it occupied too far south on Broadway. Saddled with a 50 year lease they couldn't break, UA decided in 1956 to day and- date first run with their Hollywood houses by remodeling the UA for 70mm Todd- AO wide screen projection. The booth was relocated from the second balcony to the main floor, a curtain and a screen were installed in front of the proscenium (necessitating the removal of some decorative elements), and the first balcony or "golden horseshoe" was removed to guarantee sightlines from the back corners of the orchestra level. The remodeling cost over $200,000. The theatre reopened with a first-run engagement of "Oklahoma," which soon closed, as did the theatre. After being dark for the next 10 years, the UA reopened as a Spanish language movie house, in surprisingly good condition as a result of the wear and tear it was spared in the early 60's.

Several notable features of the UA include the auditorium murals depicting the history of the film industry, featuring UA players, of course. The fire curtain bears an adaptation of the Shakespeare quote "The Picture's The Thing" implying the ultimate triumph of the motion picture over performing arts. The theatre also contains one of the most ambitious lighting systems of its time, controlled by an immense 35 foot, pre-set control board. All ceiling fan vaulting is backlit, as are organ screens, illuminated in layers. The ceiling dome is indirectly floodlit, and can be adjusted to contrasting and changing color combinations. The 4 manual Wurlitzer was removed in 1955, but an orchestra pit lift still functions (outliving those at the Hollywood Pantages and downtown Paramount). (Courtesy of the L.A. Historic Theatre Foundation)












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