Outside the 26th Annual Academy Awards at RKO Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, Calif., 1954.
Beyond total demolition, nothing is more infuriating than bad alterations to a beautiful and original space. As you may know, in 1976 I was part of a team of young idealists bent on saving a local movie palace, the 2672-seat St. George Theatre, in Staten Island, where I still live. I’m grateful that, forty-plus years after we ran that theater, the only untenable alteration has been the leveling of the orchestra’s “rake” — the slant that allows a seated patron at the back to see above the heads of people in subsequent rows. In the late seventies, movie palaces were meeting their dates with the wrecker’s ball the way French aristocrats had, several centuries before, met theirs with the guillotine; so we residents of St. George are lucky to say we still have a theater at all. Current management has gotten around the leveled-rake problem by building various elevated platforms on the ground floor. Someday perhaps a billionaire with a big heart will come along and spend a wad restoring that floor’s slant. Until then, the ornate plaster, portraits of bullfighters, stained-glass chandeliers, tiered velvet, and mahogany pillars are, thankfully, just as Nestor Castro originally designed them, no alterations.
The same cannot be said for every movie palace. Here’s a purloined bit of Ben M. Hall’s movie palace bible, The Best Remaining Seats, to illustrate:
Today [Hall was writing in 1961] the golden age of the movie palace has given way to an age of brass...
The movies, which got their start in storefront ‘theatres,’ have come full circle. The few new houses being built today are storefronts too, places with seats and a screen and little else. Granted they are cooler, cleaner, smell better and cost more to get into than the pioneer nickelodeons; they are also drab, antiseptic and earth-bound....
As for the dwindling number of genuine movie palaces that still open their doors, the going is getting tough. A few have had their faces lifted by uninspired interior decorators whose idea of cosmetic surgery is to smother every vestige of ornament, from proscenium to projection boot, in bolts of neutral-colored fiberglass. The graceful French curve of the New York Paramount’s marquee has been supplanted by a frosted-glass trapezoid with plastic letters. [Theater demolished]. An escalator now runs right up the middle of the Capitol’s famous white marble stairs [demolished as well]....in Hollywood, the foliated-gold interior of the Pantages Theatre resembles a yard-goods department, and its seating has been drastically reduced...
If Hall thought theaters were “earth-bound” then, what would he make of the UA Stadium 16 across from Home Depot? “Drab, antiseptic and earth-bound” interiors became, alas, the norm, a trend accelerated as multi-plexes multiplied. (The AMC Parkway Twin, Stan Durwood’s brainchild for adding a second screen without employing additional staff, opened in Kansas City in 1963).
By the nineteen seventies, the extravagant Zeitgeist that had called forth movie palaces — and moguls like Pentages and Grumman and Roxy Rothafel — had melted away. Speaking of Roxy, the theater that bore his name in New York City was a glorious pile of rubble in 1960, the year before Hall published The Best Remaining Seats. In that same year the Pantages in Hollywood was drastically modernized, something that Hall was obviously still taking stock of as he completed his book.
It’s all about alterations this week: I’d like to focus my carbon-arc spotlight on the Pantages, L.A.‘s last-built movie palace, not only because it has had such an interesting life in terms of restoration, but in a general tribute to Los Angeles, a city with a theater-preservation mission. A tip of the hat as well to the Theatre Historical Society of America, whose conclave meets in L.A. next week, and whose founder, as a matter of fact, was Ben M. Hall.
Greek-born Alexander Pantages, arguably the Roxy of the West and a Vaudeville impresario of considerable chops, commenced the building of the theater that still bears his name in the late twenties, but soon sold out to Fox West Coast Theatres. Pantages, had spent a chunk of his fortune defending himself in a sensational rape trial, but that’s another story, for, perhaps, another blog post.
Marion Davies — in the talkie, “The Floradora Girl” — and “The Rose Garden Idea” — a Franchon & Marco stage revue, opened the Pantages, possibly the grandest of the grand Deco theaters, on June 4, 1930. Here’s a description from Cinema Treasures that’s too opulent not to quote at length:
“The grand lobby is a magnificent poly-chromatic fan-vaulted space, that is 110 feet wide and 60 feet deep. It is decorated in a zigzag geometric design in gold and henna shades. At each end is a 20 foot wide stairway, lined with vaguely Egyptian and Assyro-Babylonian styled statues, one of which depicts in an Art Deco style, a camera crew filming.”
Dig that! Gotta love those Egyptian/Babylonian camera folk...
And the entry goes on, “The entire area was illuminated by three huge Moderne frosted glass chandeliers hanging from three star-shaped domes. Beneath the grand lobby are the rest rooms and lounges. The ladies lounge and powder room is decorated in black patent leather walls and hung with beveled diametric shaped mirrors and a silver leaf ceiling...”
What exactly happened to this theatre that got Ben M. Hall so upset in 1961?
Accounts differ, but everyone agrees that Howard Hughes bought the Pantages in 1949 and operated it, largely unaltered, from 1950 – 59. His offices were upstairs in the building that adjoins; his ghost is rumored to hang out up there. The first-ever televised Academy Awards took place in 1953 on this theater’s magnificent 180 foot wide stage, beneath a double blue-sky ceiling; ceremonies continued there through the fifties.
By 1960 — America’s decade of Danish Modern — elaborate interiors were hardly in style. In anticipation of an exclusive 70 mm roadshow release of Spartacus, Universal Pictures, who had booked the theater, urged a modernization, which would include, among other things, reducing seating capacity to 1, 512 (from 2,812). Accordingly, both the side seating sections of the orchestra and rear seating of the balcony were actually curtained off! A large concession stand was built in the center of the grand lobby, and the three frosted-glass chandeliers were removed from their individual star-shaped domes. The marble and bronze zig-zags and other wonders of the lobby were cloaked in some sort of covering, and a drop ceiling, of all things, was installed. All this to showcase Spartacus, and the West Coast runs of Cleopatra, Tora, Tora, Tora and other wonders. “Entrance and exit doors are off-white Formica,” boasts The Modern Theatre, May 1, 1960. Who could ask for more?
Pacific Theatres to the rescue. In 1967, they bought the Pantages and took down those pesky curtains, so the auditorium space was, once again, fully visible. Pacific ran it as a movie theater until that fateful year, 1977, when so many palaces went dark (The Loews Kings in NYC (shuttered), my own hometown palace, Cincinnati’s Albee (torn down). Again, the Pantages was more fortunate. Waiting in its copious wings, were the Nederlander people, who saw the theater’s potential for live performances and restored the place to its former glory. Out with modernization!
Unfortunately, Ben M. Hall, murdered in New York City in 1971, never lived to see certain "earth-bound” decorative effects expunged from this classic movie palace.
Since I began this post by quoting Hall’s The Best Remaining Seats, I’d like to end with a riff on that phrase. I bought my copy of the book in 1976, when we ran the St. George. Dean, my partner in that venture, to whom I just read this post, has something to add. Here’s a little story in his words:
We were showing The Exorcist (the only movie we presented as theater operators that ever sold out the house). Dafan (one of our ushers) came down the main staircase two steps at a time. Clearly he was excited.
“People are everywhere tryin’ to find a place to sit. And the balcony’s open!” (A miracle — we usually only sold enough tickets to populate the front part of the orchestra).
I paused. I’d been dying to use a certain phrase since the day we opened in April. “Tell them,” I said, “that the best remaining seats are in the upper balcony, direct them there.”
“Wha... What kind of seats?” Dafan asked.
“Never mind.” I sighed. “Just tell ‘em to go upstairs and sit down.”
Well, it wasn’t the Roxy...but the St. George was still standing, all red and gold, its chandeliers in place. And, for once, it was full.
1. A tip of the hat to our friend, master projectionist Bob Endres, who knows the projection booth at the Pantages intimately, having traveled far and wide.
2. And another tip to Alicia Perry who commented when this post first ran (6/23/17):
“What's even worse than a bad reno is when a single-screen theater is sliced into plexes. That happened to a couple of smaller theaters in coastal Connecticut I used to go to. The sound was wacked and in one auditorium, every middle seat ended up on the right-hand-side aisle...”
To which I say, “Amen.”