The Orpheum vaudeville circuit began on June 30, 1887, when it opened its first theater in San Francisco.(1) Under the leadership of Martin Beck, the Orpheum became the most important vaudeville circuit on the West Coast. Its performers were paid better than average salaries and they stayed in first-class hotels on the road.(2) The circuit was particularly known for its orchestras that played classical overtures prior to performances.(3)
After purchasing the Grand Opera House on Main Street in 1895, the Orpheum started permanent operations in Los Angeles. In 1903, the circuit moved its performances to a theater it purchased on Spring Street. Rather than purchase yet another theater in Los Angeles, in 1910 the Orpheum commissioned G. Albert Landsburgh, a prominent theater architect, to design a 2000 seat house on Broadway.(4)
The new Orpheum, combined with the opening of the Pantages in 1910, anchored the theater district in Los Angeles on Broadway. During the following two decades, a large number of theaters were constructed facing the street. These theaters strengthened and reinforced Broadway as the region's premiere retail shopping area.(5) Mixing entertainment and shopping was particularly popular with women, who often combined a visit to the stores and shops with a matinee at either a vaudeville or movie theater.
Though the products now being sold are different and the style and customs of the customers have changed, the fundamental texture of Broadway can still be seen. The formula that began with the construction of the Orpheum and Pantages--juxtaposing theaters and stores--is as valid today as it was a century ago for creating lively pedestrian-oriented streets. Recently this principle was successfully applied in restoring both Old Town in Pasadena, and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.
In 1926, the Orpheum was renamed the Palace after the last theater built by the Orpheum chain opened at 9th and Broadway. Two years later, the Palace was converted into a movie theater.(6)
The opulence of the Palace began a trend in Los Angeles that reached its apotheosis at the end of World War I when movies became more of a middle-class activity.(7) Richly decorated in a variety of themes, the picture palaces on Broadway now make up the first nationally recognized historic theater district.
Four rectangular panels in the Venetian Renaissance facade of the Palace contain the oldest existing architectural sculpture in Los Angeles. These figures, constructed of rose, pale-green and beige semi-glazed faience from Gladding, McBean--California's foremost manufacturer of architectural terra cotta--are also the first public sculpture in the city incorporating color.
Each life-size statue represents one of the muses of Vaudeville. From the viewer's left to right, the side view of a jester symbolizes Comedy, the woman on point expresses Dance, the lavishly gowned female singer represents Song, and the male holding a Renaissance stringed instrument symbolizes Music. These four statues, executed by Domingo Mora, and completed after his death by his son Joseph J. Mora, were originally joined by a Beaux Arts styled sculptural group, long since removed, on the marquis. Domingo Mora's other son, F.L. Mora, painted ceiling panels in the theater.(8)
Footnotes:1 "Orpheum Circuit," The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, by Anthony Slide, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, c. 1994, pp. 381-383.
2 Vaudeville USA, by John E. DiMeglio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, c. 1973, p. 25.
3 Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonk to the Palace, by Joe Laurie, jr., Henry Holt and Company, New York, c. 1953, p. 63.
4 "The Orpheum Theater of Los Angeles," by Stan Singer, Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 72:4, 1990, pp. 339-372.
5 See City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, by Richard Longstreth, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., c. 1997, pp. 24-34 for the development of Broadway as the region's most important retail shopping area.
6 Broadway Historic Theater District: A Walking tour sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy, by Mark Irwin, John Miller and Susan Richey, c. 1986.
7 Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America, by Steven J. Ross, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, c. 1998, p. 20.
8 "The New Orpheum Theater Building; Los Angeles," by William Hamilton Cline, The Architect and Engineer of California, September, 1911, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, pp. 34-50. See also "The Development of Architectural Terra Cotta on the Pacific Coast," by Oswald Speir, The Architect and Engineer of California, September, 1912, Vol. XXX, No. 2, pp. 55-56.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, June 1998.
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