DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - When people walked into the theater on the southern portion of Broadway more than a decade ago, their eyes opened in wonder. The nearly century-old space had been miraculously restored. The millions spent on the project and the attention paid to small details were instantly apparent: the rich fabric on the seats, the ornate, glittering decor, the general sense of comfort in an aged venue with soaring ceilings.
The above occurred in 2001, when Steve Needleman reopened the Orpheum Theatre. The 1926 venue at 842 S. Broadway, which seats 2,000, has since become the prime example of the potential that lies in the street’s historic movie palaces. Three years later Needleman turned the upper floors of the Orpheum into 37 apartments, but today the building remains best known for the gorgeously restored theater that regularly hosts concerts and serves as a venue for film and television production.
The Orpheum turnaround preceded the unveiling of the Ace Hotel’s theater by 13 years. However, the two should be seen as complementary rather than competitors, as they serve as reminders of the beauty and potential in Broadway’s early 20th century gems. They also are examples of what can occur when a building owner decides to invest in and modernize a historic structure. Successfully transforming the Ace proves that the Orpheum upgrade, while precedent-setting, was not a one-of-a-kind success.
As with the Orpheum, the work undertaken at the Ace is impressive and frequently majestic. In saving and modernizing the 1,600-seat venue, the Portland-based chain salvaged a structure that was opened by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in 1927 (more recently it had been the home of the church run by the late Dr. Gene Scott). Ace did seemingly everything right, working with members of the preservation community, including the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, to ensure that a structure that will be utilized by modern audiences retains the standout elements from the past.
The work was neither easy nor inexpensive. However, the benefits are apparent. Already the theater is set to host a pair of attention-generating programs: It will open Valentine’s Day weekend with two shows by the English band Spiritualized, and on Feb. 20-22 the L.A. Dance Project, founded by noted choreographer Benjamin Millepied, will have three performances.
The arrival of the Ace Theatre, and the continued success of the Orpheum, also raises the pressure on the Delijani family, which owns four Broadway movie houses. For many years Downtowners have been frustrated by the general inaction on the Palace, Los Angeles, State and Tower theaters. Last year the Delijanis announced plans to reactivate the venues on a staggered schedule, and to fill them with bars, restaurants, lounges and other amenities. However, few details have since been put forth.
The opening of the Ace turns the attention again to the Delijanis. Downtown now has two clear examples of how a historic theater can be revitalized. The family can and should do the same.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014