Optic Theater in Downtown Los Angeles Circa 1913

posted by Manwithnoname on December 27, 2004 at 7:40 am

The Optic Theater formerly located on Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles can be seen extensively in the 1913 Mack Sennett comedy “Mabel’s Dramatic Career”. Sennett himself is seen inside and outside the then Nickelodeon known as Woodley’s Optic. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is also seen inside.

You can see the postercases and the floral design walkway leading from the sidewalk to the entrance doors but the marquee is never shown. Inside, the entire auditorium is seen including the piano being played by an unidentified woman. A large poster outside proclaims the next change to be another Sennett film “At Twelve O'clock” and a large board behind it advertises “Big Amateur Contest every Tues. & Thurs. nights..two shows”.

The seats are folding chairs and 2 scenes show the projection booth with only one projector. This short comedy is contained in the DVD set “Slapstick Encyclopedia” released by Image and the theater is identified in liner notes by film historian Joe Adamson who stated when he wrote the notes in 1998 that the theater had only been recently demolished.

Another film in the set, a Sennett comedy featuring Mack Swain entitled “A Movie Star” (1916) features yet another theater that is sadly unidentified. It is far more ornate inside and out and this time the box office is shown. A poster for a Marie Dressler film can be seen.

Absolutely fascinating stuff.

Theaters in this post

Comments (61)

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 27, 2004 at 7:31 pm

It’s interesting that the Optic was owned by Woodley. There was a Woodley’s Theater on Broadway at that time, on the site where the fourth Orpheum was later built. This Woodley’s was later renamed the Victory, and then was purchased by Mack Sennett in 1920, remodeled and expanded and renamed the Mission. So there’s another connection between Sennett and Woodley.

I wonder if the Woodley’s/Victory on Broadway could have been the more ornate second theatre you mentioned? Does “A Movie Star” include any scenes of that theatre’s surroundings, so that its location might be identifiable as the middle of the 800 block of Broadway? Hamburger’s Department Store (later the May Company) was just up the block across the street, and the Garrick Theater on the southeast corner of 8th was only a few doors up from Woodley’s. The Majestic would have been across the street and south a bit, and Tally’s original Broadway probably almost directly across the street. Broadway also makes that bend at Olympic Boulevard, so a scene looking south might have revealed that, though I’m not sure in what year Broadway was cut through that block.

Manwithnoname on December 28, 2004 at 10:23 am

Joe, this weekend I will watch them both again and advise. I remember at least one street scene but that may have been shot elsewhere as it does not have the theater in frame. Another location used in the film is the Sennett studios itself including Mabel Normand standing in front of the entrance.

Manwithnoname on December 29, 2004 at 10:31 am

Joe, I got curious again and viewed both films with my thumb on the freeze frame. It was a frustrating experience. First off, the theaters in both films fill the frame and nothing else on the street can be seen. In “Movie Star”, there are 2 street scenes: one shows the length of the street with the block being taken up by a single wall or building. Although the scene shows reaction shots to what is happening at the theater I suspect it was shot elsewhere…perhaps even on the Sennett (Keystone) property. No street sign. The second street shot is another location which shows store fronts which are obliterated by a line of cars parked bumper to bumper at the curb. Running down the center of the street is a streetcar. None of this looked like a theater.

Finally, in “Career”, I noticed that the name of the theater is on the entrance foyer next to the sidewalk. This foyer is wide enough for 5 people to stumble out shoulder to shoulder with room to spare. Unfortunately, I because the camera was to the right of the entrance the name was furthest away. I could read the word “theater” but I could not make out the name after several viewings. It appeared to be 5 letters which would fit with Optic but the last letter looks more like an “e” than a “c”. The age of this film doesn’t help nor does the fact that there is someone standing on those letters almost all the time. The wall of the foyer containing the poster case appears to be marble or faux marble.

One last item: In the foyer there is a balding man with a thick moustache who is greeting customers. He is much more subdued than anyone else in the film. Perhaps a cameo by Woodley himself?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 31, 2004 at 7:15 am

I’ve never seen a picture of Mr. Woodley (Frank Erwin Woodley was his full name, I believe, and he was born in 1865, so he would have been the right age to be balding), but I can easily imagine any exhibitor of the day jumping at the chance to be in a movie. Think of the talk it would generate among the theatre’s patrons, and their friends and acquaintances, and the consequent increase in business!

It’s undoubtedly difficult to spot specific locations of the city in old movies, not only because of the way the movie scenes were shot out of sequence, but because so many places in Los Angeles looked so much like so many other places in Los Angeles. So much of the city was built over such a short time that all the buildings ended up being in designed in the same few styles.

Maybe someday you’ll run across an identified interior photograph of that theatre in “Career” and recognize it.

vokoban on December 7, 2005 at 4:59 am

Maybe there are two Woodley’s. Every instance I find of him states his name as R.W. Woodley and owning the Woodley Theater, Woodley’s Optic, and also a different location for the Optic. In his wife’s obituary, it lists his name as Robert W. Woodley. Has anyone heard of Charles or Charley Alphin?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 7, 2005 at 12:36 pm

There were probably quite a few Woodleys in Los Angeles in those days. I’ve found that Frank Woodley was the real estate developer after whom Woodley Avenue in the San Fernando Valley was named. He also spent some time as a Los Angeles County supervisor and in the state legislature. He’s also mentioned in some early histories of Hollywood, though I don’t have access to the sources themselves, only references to them, so I don’t know the nature of his activity there. Real estate development seems likely. It’s possible that he and Robert Woodley were related, but I’ve been unable to find any information about R.W. online.

vokoban on December 7, 2005 at 1:40 pm

R.W. Woodley owned the two Optic theaters and the Woodley Theater according to the newspaper articles at the time. I wonder if the other Woodley owned theaters also.

talphin on March 7, 2006 at 12:43 pm

Charley was my grandfather. He owned the olympic until 1923. Itwas theater where Lon Chaney and Blossem Seeley got their starts.

talphin on March 7, 2006 at 12:48 pm

Sorry for the typos. Charley “Alphin” was my grandfather. He came to Los Angeles around 1908. A prolific song writer, much of what he wrote was sold to Eddie Foy, Irving Berlin and others. He started in Colorado (Colorado Springs, Cripple Creek), where he hired Lon Chaney as a stage hand. He produced, composed and directed Ski-Hi at Madison Square Garden in NY around 1906 and other musicals. When Chaney hit hard times around 1911, my grandfather hired him to work full time at the Olympic. Subsequent to that, Chaney’s film career took off.

I have a telegram from Blossom Seeley asking my grandfather for a quick loan so she could come out to Olympic. These was live theater, seated about 1000. I have pictures.

Hope this interests you.

Toni Alphin-Nicotera

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on March 7, 2006 at 7:08 pm

Toni: According to this page at the Internet Broadway Database, Charles Alphin’s “Ski-Hi” was the final production mounted at Hoyt’s Theatre on 24th Street (between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue) in June and July of 1908. Charles Alphin’s IBDB page doesn’t list any other works yet. Many of the pages at the IBDB site are incomplete.

There is also a writer named Charles Alphin listed at the Internet Movie Database, with four movies in his filmography, all from 1926. Is this also your grandfather? At least one of the movies on his list, a Charley Chase short called “Bromo and Juliet” is available on DVD— in two different collections, in fact: The Charley Chase Collection, Vol.2, and The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy, Vol.3 (Oliver Hardy had a small part in the movie.)

Also, I think that your grandfather’s Olympic Theatre is listed here at Cinema Treasures under one of its later names, The Gaiety (though the head of the page gives the wrong address for it. It should say 523 South Main Street.)

I’d like to see photos of the Olympic Theatre. If you have a picture of the exterior, we might be able to confirm that it was the same building seen at the lower left in this ca1917 photo, when it was called the Omar Theatre.

nickb on February 19, 2008 at 6:23 pm

I made some screen caps of Sennett’s ‘A Movie Star’, on the off chance someone might be able to identify the theatre in it. Admittedly the film doesn’t show very much of the outside…

I guess it’s too much to hope anyone knows of any other Los Angeles nickelodeons featured in movies?

nickelodeon on October 3, 2010 at 4:13 pm

A few more things on the Optic and Woodley: The Optic was originally on S. B'way, a new theatre was built in Jan. 1911. It was located at 533 S. Main (Los Angeles). R. W. Woodley was the owner and manager. It was stated as a first class house, and it also ran vaudeville. It had an electric sign that read “Vaudeville”. The Woodley Theater was on S. B'way (the street number was given as 833 or 838 by different trade journals). Seating capacity was 900. Admission price n the mid teens as 10-15-25¢. They were projecting advertisements from the roof onto other buildings at that time as well!

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