In the 1980s, Broadway's fabled theaters and movie houses were closing one after the other, falling victim to changing cultural tastes, the ravages of age and disuse. Vaudeville and Wurlitzer organs had long ago given way to Spanish language flicks and churches, though even those films would soon end.
Concerned over the crumbling state of the historic treasures, Mayor Tom Bradley called in prominent local property owner Ezat Delijani. One venue in particular, the lavish Los Angeles Theatre at 615 S. Broadway, was in immediate peril as its owner began plans for demolition.
Bradley asked Delijani for a favor: Buy the 1931 theater and save it from the wrecking ball. It was no small request considering the busy corridor's seedy turn and the building's rundown condition. Graffiti was etched into nearly every visible marble surface, smoke permeated the rugs and walls, gum had ruined the plush seats and vibrant murals had been painted over.
But where others saw a white elephant, Delijani saw potential. He agreed to Bradley's request and purchased it in 1987.
"My father always said we have to contribute to society and everyone shares responsibility," said Michael Delijani, who now operates the theater. "Our heart is here on Broadway, even though most of our financial holdings are not."
Like most property owners along the corridor, the Delijanis prefer to keep a low profile. Nonetheless, their controversial story is tightly woven into the fabric of Broadway and its hoped-for rebound. Since his father acquired the Los Angeles Theatre 20 years ago, Michael Delijani has continued the preservation effort and purchased three other theaters: the State at 703 S. Broadway, the Palace at 630 S. Broadway and the Tower at 802 S. Broadway.
Delijani's Delson Investment Company has spent millions to acquire the theaters, though the lion's share of his attention when it comes to renovations has centered on the Los Angeles Theatre, arguably Downtown's most lavish.
Last New Year's, for example, a pump broke and flooded the lower level. It was a long holiday weekend and the water sat for several days, damaging the bathrooms and destroying the ballroom's intricate wood floor. Instead of replacing it, Delijani said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring back the original zigzag pattern. He has also restored the seats, complete with the Los Angeles Theatre emblem emblazoned on the back, rather than replace them.
"I like to have everything 100% original," Delijani said. "I want to think I'm sitting where Chaplin used to sit. We want to make this a modern day vaudeville where people can spend an hour, then have dinner in another part of the theater. We want to have musical acts, skits and screenings. It's about loving art and architecture and history."
Despite the lofty aspirations, many prominent Historic Core players are critical of the Delijanis. They believe the family should be further along in repairs, especially since they have owned the Los Angeles Theatre for two decades. They point out that his theaters have generated lucrative filming revenue that could be sunk back into the venues - as much as $5,000 a day, in some cases.
"I wish that his family, instead of continuing to purchase other theaters, would have put that money into theaters they already own," said Steve Needleman, who spent $3.5 million to renovate the Orpheum Theatre at 850 S. Broadway. "Why did he buy the Palace Theatre only to own another building that has sat empty for years? Why not put it into the Los Angeles Theatre? To bring these theaters back to life takes a commitment. No one else is going to save them but the property owner or a very altruistic person."
Ed Kelsey, who has worked in Broadway's theaters for 20 years, including the Los Angeles and now the Orpheum, agreed. "I don't think [the Delijanis] have done a lot of big dollar improvements," he said. "They've been waiting until they get their parking issues resolved. A lot of the changes have been done for movie production and TV shows."
Michael Delijani grew up in Tehran, where he lived in a 100-year-old home built for the British ambassador. As a child he had dreams of becoming an architect or archeologist.
Ezat Delijani and his family fled the tumult in Iran prior to the revolution and came to Los Angeles in the 1970s. Their plight was similar to that of other Iranians who immigrated to Los Angeles and went into business in Downtown, some purchasing faded historic buildings.
Michael Delijani assimilated well. He was voted "most likely to succeed" in high school and went on to study at UCLA.
Though he prefers to stay out of the spotlight, Delijani is in fact at the center of a wave of momentum sweeping Broadway. The usually media-shy businessman agreed to a rare one-on-one interview with Los Angeles Downtown News (though his office did not respond to requests to be photographed for this story). Over lunch, he detailed his plans to bring back his theaters and help create a vibrant entertainment district that would draw throngs of visitors.
"The Broadway theater district can attract millions of tourists, create billions of dollars and lots of jobs," he said. "We need to promote it as a tourist destination. New York's Broadway generates $5 billion. Our Broadway is like a big secret. Nobody knows about it. People go all the way to New York to see a show when they should be seeing one here."
He spoke softly but authoritatively about his properties, reciting historical facts and details. Though he was visibly uncomfortable with revealing personal information, he became animated when discussing his love of classic cars - he spent 10 years restoring a silver Trans Am to mint condition.
But restoring the Los Angeles Theatre has been quite another project, one that in many ways has little if any fiscal payoff for an independent property owner.
Kelsey estimated that getting the Los Angeles up and running would cost about $10 million, just for the basics. That means improving patron comfort with new seats, clean carpets and revamped restrooms, as well as technical upgrades such as stage rigging for lighting, drapes and electrical.
"Beyond that, everything else is negotiable," Kelsey said. "You don't have to restore all the gold leaf or make it look like it did the day it opened. The Orpheum was fixed with paint, and though the gold leaf may not shine like it did 82 years ago, the seats are clean, the restrooms are nice and everything is clean and comfortable."
Preparing the venue to bring in opera, theater and dance could cost up to $40 million, Kelsey said. It would require major construction such as installing a larger stage, sloping the floor, reconfiguring the balcony and making the building accessible to handicapped patrons.
Kelsey and others noted that many of Broadway's property owners have held on to their theaters instead of investing in them because there has been little demand for their use. But that could change now that the area is blooming with new housing and entertainment. Downtown's renaissance could help attract a nonprofit to operate the venues, which is how it's typically done in other theater districts - often with private partners such as Disney or Live Nation.
"These theaters will never pay off for an independent owner," Kelsey said. "Usually someone donates money but that hasn't been done on Broadway. That's why the owners haven't stepped up to do it. For most owners it has to make economic sense."
Michael Delijani has been active for years in Downtown business and community organizations. It's a trait inherited from his father, and both Delijanis are well-respected in the Southern California Persian community - their conference room is hung with photos taken with Bradley, Bill and Hillary Clinton and other political leaders.
Though the senior Delijani has retired, many who know the business leader say he still plays an active role in the family enterprise, including deciding to what extent the historic properties are improved and operated. Some local observers say Ezat Delijani continues to pull many of the strings behind the theaters' curtains.
Nevertheless, his son has made a name for himself, becoming the family's face in Downtown Los Angeles. In 1999, Michael Delijani helped found the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District, serving as president for three terms. The coalition of property owners in the Historic Core funded a team to clean the streets and hired security patrols.
However, the BID has been largely dormant in recent years, even coming under fire for mismanaging its resources and failing to implement any meaningful revitalization plans. Earlier this year, the board hired a new executive director. Next year, property owners will vote on whether to approve the BID for another five years.
Delijani has also been working with City Councilman José Huizar, whose 14th District includes Broadway, to create a legislative "overlay zone" that would allow developers to open bars and restaurants and activate the theaters.
But some onlookers remain skeptical that Delijani and other stakeholders can overcome the problems that have hindered Broadway redevelopment over the decades - namely the lack of consensus among landlords and an unlikely retail market. Many of the existing Latino tenants on Broadway, for example, pay as much as $8 a square foot per month for street-front space on the busy corridor (more than what people pay in Beverly Hills), often in cash. It's a deal few landlords want to give up, and an arrangement that would discourage "mainstream" tenants such as bookstores, boutiques and high-end restaurants.
"I hope this effort on Broadway bears fruit, but no one should kid themselves when it comes to the complexity of this redevelopment effort," said developer Tom Gilmore, who sold the Palace Theatre to Delijani in 2003. "We sold the Palace Theatre primarily because I realized that without sustained effort on the part of the city government and sacrifice by the local business and property owners, Broadway had no chance of being revitalized, and I didn't see that happening. I haven't changed my opinion.
"No one seems to be willing to touch the dysfunctional status quo that exists there, the underground economy," he continued. "It's a political third rail that will be avoided at all cost."
But there are other signs of change. Needleman of the Orpheum Theatre is booking a regular slate of concerts and events, and is working to secure a long-term theater engagement in 2008. Michael Hellen of Mideb Inc., who owns several properties on Broadway, plans to restore the Arcade Theatre and is nearing completion on the Broadway Arcade Building, where a mid-block retail thoroughfare will open along with 142 apartments.
Delijani said the Los Angeles Theatre could come online for programming as soon as next year. He pointed to improvements such as restoring the ornate fountain and the light fixtures. Several statues that had been hidden under plaster were uncovered and are being restored. Black paint was stripped from the marble walls in the men's restroom.
Frank Schultz, who manages all four of Delijani's Downtown theaters, is overseeing the restoration of the Los Angeles' nursery, where children once played while parents watched a film in the theater above. Like much of the venue, the nursery was badly damaged and defaced. Work on the marble-clad bathroom, for example, was just completed; the solid walnut doors were taken off their hinges, sanded to remove graffiti and refinished by hand.
"It's piece by piece," Schultz said. "It's genuinely a labor of love. This bathroom was a two-week project of four guys working every day. You might look at it and say it's just a tiny bathroom, but it's a really expensive room."
As important as the restorations are the plans for the future. Last month Delijani applied for a conditional use permit to operate several entertainment venues in the theater.
As the Los Angeles Theatre comes together, Delijani is turning attention to his other properties. His most recent acquisition is the Tower Theatre, built in 1927 by S. Charles Lee. At 8,900 square feet, it is among the smallest of Broadway's 12 historic theaters.
Delijani bought the Tower after a deal fell through with Downtown bar owner Cedd Moses, who wanted to turn it into a nightclub. The bulb sign on the exterior has been restored and the grimy façade cleaned.
A block north, the 1921 State Theatre, which is currently occupied by the Iglesia Universal church, could become a boutique hotel, Delijani said. The 12-story venue is topped by jewelry manufacturing offices. Delijani has replaced the tattered awnings and cleaned the imposing brick façade, though recently a water line broke and flooded half the building, a setback that required replacing much of the plumbing.
The 1911 Palace Theatre is primarily used for filming (part of Dreamgirls was shot there). The venue has an advantage over other Broadway theaters because of its ample loading capabilities, which could enable it to host live theater. Below the stage is the original crank lift, which can hoist camera dollies weighing as much as 1,500 pounds.
In the bowels of the theater, where the auditorium above slopes the ceiling, Delijani has reclaimed much of the basement, which he envisions hosting retail or restaurant space. Light from the glass tiles embedded in the sidewalk above filters down.
A ride to the fifth floor penthouse loft via the hand-cranked elevator reveals a stunning space illuminated by arched windows with brightly colored terra cotta peeking out from the façade. In the far corner of the loft are a skylight and two walls of windows. Tara Jones, a historic consultant for Delijani and head of the nonprofit National Preservation Partners, said the space would be ideal for a special events location or restaurant.
"There's so much behind the scenes that people don't see," Jones said. "They just see that it's not open and think the theater owners must not be doing anything."
Delijani bristles at criticism that his family has been slow to restore the theaters.
"If it wasn't for my father, none of this would have happened," he said about the revitalization efforts. "We asked, 'What can we do to save some of the others?' and so we invested in others one by one. These theaters aren't about ownership. It's a work of love."
The Delijani Portfolio
A Rundown of the Family's Downtown Theaters
- Los Angeles Theatre: Built by H.L. Gumbiner at a cost of more than $1 million - at the time the most expensive theater ever built, on a per-seat basis - tickets originally cost 25 cents. Constructed during the Great Depression, Gumbiner struggled to finish it. Charlie Chaplin stepped in to complete the project and premiered his silent classic City Lights in the space at 615 S. Broadway. Eventually, William Fox of 20th Century took over and it served as the home of Fox Film until 1988.
- Palace Theatre: The 1911 structure at 630 S. Broadway dominated the vaudeville circuit for 40 years. Located on Main Street for more than 20 years, it moved to Broadway to keep pace with development trends. The theater holds 1,056 seats and has two steep balconies, one of which sat only "colored" patrons. These days it is used mostly for film and television productions, including frequent "CSI: New York" appearances.
- State Theatre: Built in 1921 in the Spanish Renaissance style, this 2,380-seat theater at 703 S. Broadway boasts the largest brick façade of the 12 Broadway theaters. Judy Garland got her start on this stage and it hosted several popular vaudeville acts. In the 1960s it screened Spanish language films. It is now occupied by a church.
- Tower Theatre: The French Renaissance venue at 802 S. Broadway was S. Charles Lee's first theater, and perhaps one of his most challenging - he had to squeeze 1,000 seats onto the tiny parcel. Metropolitan took over the theater in the 1960s and operated it until its lease expired a year and a half ago. It has been used for filming since the 1990s. With its tiered floor, it is suitable for cabaret shows, dancing, comedy acts and live music.
Contact Kathryn Maese at email@example.com.
page 1, 12/3/2007
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