Tower Theatre

802 S. Broadway,
Los Angeles, CA 90014

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Tower Theatre 1983

Viewing: Photo | Street View

This was the first of around 400 theatres designed by architect Simeon Charles Lee, who was only 28 years old at the time. The Tower Theatre was opened on October 12, 1927 with George Arthur and Lois Wilson in “The Gingham Girl”. The theatre was equipped with a Wurlitzer 2 manual 10 rank theatre organ. Interior decorations were by Edwards Spout.

Built by H.L. Gumbier on a plot of land measuring only 150 feet long and 50 feet wide, it had previously been the site of the 1911 built, 900-seat Hyman Theatre, later renamed Garrick Theatre, a single story building, which was demolished. There was a row of small shop units which ran along the base of the building on 8th Street, and above them is a highly decorated exterior side-wall which is punctuated with false windows and Classical style surrounds. On each of the window ledges is an Indian head-dress sculpture, and atop each window, two nude figures recline, a discreetly draped masculine director with a camera & megaphone, and a scantily clad starlet with beads and a mirror. Soaring above the corner of the building is a decorative high tower which has a four-sided clock, while on the main South Broadway facade above the marquee is a huge stained glass arched window depicting a fleur-de-lis pattern, across which is draped a coil of film strip, complete with the purple stripe found on early sound film stock.

The interior of the theatre is in a French Renaissance style and the tiny lobby is loosely based on the Paris Opera House. Inside the auditorium, side slips from the balcony serve as exits running down the sidewalls. The proscenium opening is narrow, because of the site limitations and has a coffered anti-proscenium which contains two boxes. A large dome in the ceiling has a coffered surround and there are many fine decorative details on the walls.

The Tower Theatre was the first movie theatre in Los Angeles to be built specifically for ‘talkies’, although the main feature on opening night was a silent film, it was supported by a Vitaphone short featuring Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. Just after opening in October 1927, the Tower Theatre held the West Coast Premiere of Warner Bros. “The Jazz Singer”, due to the fact that their Warner’s Hollywood Theatre was not ready to open. It was also the first theatre in the city to have refrigerated air conditioning, and patrons were invited to look through a window on the balcony stairs to watch the ‘mechanics’ of this working. Under the theatre was a spacious waiting room, which also doubled as a ballroom. The Wurlitzer organ was removed from the Tower Theatre to the Los Angeles Theatre when that opened in 1931.

The Tower Theatre had several operators over the years, including Fox West Coast Theatres who ran it in the 1930’s as the Newsreel Theatre. In the late-1930’s Sol Lesser’s Principal Theatres Corp. of America operated it as a general run theatre under the name Music Hall Downtown. In 1965, it was acquired by H.L. Gumbier’s daughter, and it was renamed Tower Theatre, reopening on 25th October 1965 having undergone a complete renovation, and operated under lease to Metropolitan Theatres. The actual ‘tower’ on the corner of the building suffered extensive damage in the 1971 earthquake and was shortened considerably for seismic safety reasons.

One of the wonderful movie theatres still intact in downtown Los Angeles, the Tower Theatre has been closed for movies since April 1987. It has since been converted for use as a nightclub, when a level wooden floor was placed in the orchestra seating area, but the nightclub never opened. The theatre became a swap-meet market area for a while. For most of the 1990’s it lay empty and unused, apart from location film shoots where it can be viewed in the movies: “The Omega Man”, “Last Action Hero”, “The 6th Day”, “Fight Club”, “Coyote Ugly”, “Twilight of the Golds”, “End of Days” and “The Mambo Kings”. In 2000 it was taken over by the Brazilian based UCKG church serving English speaking congregations (they operate Spanish language services in the former State Theatre opposite). It also hosted special events and continued as a film location venue. In late-2008, it reopened as a rock concert venue, but this was later closed.

It was announced in October 2012, that it will reopen in 2014 as a concert venue and bar.

The Tower Theatre is designated a Historic-Cultural Landmark. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Contributed by Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 145 comments)

DonSolosan on October 22, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Still available as a filming location.

Larc on October 30, 2010 at 5:23 pm

A Wurlitzer model 216 pipe organ (2/10) was installed in the Tower Theatre when it opened. There has been some confusion about this Opus 1620 Wurlitzer since it is reported to have been shipped to the Garrick Theatre on Apr 23, 1927. But the Garrick had already been demolished by then to make way for the Tower. The organ remained in the Tower for only a couple of years before being moved to the Los Angeles Theatre for its opening in Jan 1931. It has subsequently gone into private hands.

drb on January 8, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Newsreel & Rialto Theatres, 1953:
View link

DavidT on April 3, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Mar/Apr 2011, interior seen in a Nikon commercial. Looks like a latin night club.

LuisV on September 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Passed by this theater and it too looks abandoned form the outside though its exterior is in excellent condition. The marquee was advertising a “purim party”. Yikes! Not very exciting stuff. But at least it is still there.

DonSolosan on September 6, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Again, not abandoned. It’s used as a filming location and for special events.

davidfhale on November 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I lived in LA in the early 1980s. I seem to remember that Pacific Theatres operated a small theatre at the back of the Tower called the Cameo. Can’t find any references to that. Anybody?

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on November 11, 2011 at 9:19 pm

The only downtown theater called the Cameo that I remember was this one, the former Clune’s Broadway, north of Sixth Street, between the Arcade and the Roxie. It was open through at least part of the 1980s, showing Spanish language movies.

In the 1960s, when the Tower was still operating as the Newsreel Theatre, there was a television theater on the lower level, occupying the former lounge. It presented closed-circuit programs on a fairly large (for that time) projection screen. I don’t think they ever gave the television theater its own name, though.

vimegogta on October 25, 2012 at 11:42 pm

The Tower theater in downtown L.A., long a filming location, will be transformed into a concert venue. Final behind-the-scenes tours of the building are scheduled for Saturday, October 27, 2012.,0,7443518.story?track=rss

Dramatrauma on May 11, 2013 at 2:03 am

Even for the period this place is just…insane! So rococo and over the top, gothic and renaissance with some deco sprinkled on top. I love it. Its like William Randolph Hearst took a break from the Castle and decided to build a theater.

I cant imagine how anyone was supposed to keep that much maintained short of Hearst’s money and staffing. I doubt the concert venue owners can do more with that clock than just take the broken pieces out and cover where the faces were. Assuming that even the 1971 remodel brings it up to today’s seismic requirements.

Does anyone have pics of the Indian headdress fixtures and the director/actress statues? Its what telephoto lenses were made for if they havent been covered.

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