Broadway's historic theaters adapt to ensure the show goes on
The Palace Theatre on Broadway was recently renovated.
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — The teenagers and 20-somethings who watch concerts at the Orpheum look shocked when they walk in.
“Their jaws just drop and they say, ‘Wow, we get to see the show in this place?’” said theater manager Ed Kelsey. “The theater does get to be a part of the experience and really enhances the experience for them.”
Many of Broadway’s theaters, including the Orpheum, were built in the early decades of the 1920s, meant mostly for use as vaudeville or single-screen movie halls.
The theaters have kept much of their architectural beauty over the past century, but have had to adapt to changing technology and demographics, explained Kelsey, who is also a historian and has been working in DTLA theaters for 25 years.
The theaters reached their prime in the 1940s during World War II, when people worked in the wartime factories and frequented Broadway often, Kelsey explained.
But they had to compete with television in the 1950s and later adapt to widescreen and stereo advancements. Then they began catering to the growing Latino audience by playing Spanish-language films or American movies with English subtitles, until the Spanish-speaking audience moved to the suburbs.
“They sort of limped along for a while,” said Annie Laskey, program manager for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “Broadway has not been an important theater street since the 1970s.”
Many of the historic buildings that once contributed to Broadway’s robust entertainment sector now host storefronts, while the theaters themselves lie empty or serve as storage units. The State Theatre operates as a church.
The functioning theaters still screen movies on occasion – the conservancy hosts Last Remaining Seats every summer, selling $16-20 tickets for people to watch old movies in the theaters. It’s a successful event because of its 25-year history and good marketing, Laskey said.
Other attempts to use the theaters for their original purposes haven’t been as successful. The Million Dollar Theater had a six-month partnership with UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, showing classics from the 1950s and 60s every Wednesday.
In a theater that seats 1,400, the average turnout was about 100 people per showing, said theater manager Robert Voskan.
“Turnout was ok but it wasn’t great,” Voskan said. “(It) was more for the community … bringing people together on a Wednesday night.”
The Million Dollar Theater makes much of its profits from film and television tapings, Voskan said -- it's made appearances in Fox’s "Glee," and the 2009 movie "500 Days of Summer."
The Orpheum is arguably the most successful Broadway theater currently, because of a $3.5 million renovation in 2001 that updated features of the space ranging from electronics and lighting to the seats and bathrooms, Kelsey said.
It took about five years to start turning a profit, but the wait has been worth it, Kelsey said. Now the theater sees around 150 events a year - about half of those are live events like plays, press conferences or concerts, and the other half are film and television production, he added. The theater hosts the Los Angeles auditions for the Fox show "So You Think You Can Dance," as well as concerts.
Combining live events with film and television tapings is a strategy that many of the theaters are using to stay afloat. It means that less people get to enjoy the theater than in their heyday, but they’re able to make money.
“(A theater) is always best when it’s full of people. That’s when the theater really comes alive,” Kelsey said. “But looking at it as a business, everything is good.”
Downtown has been on an upward swing for the past decade or so, with a population jumping from about 15,000 to 50,000, and new bars and restaurants popping up what seems like every day.
But Broadway was late to jump on the revitalization train.
“Five or six years ago Broadway was sort of the hole in the donut,” said Jessica McLean, executive director for LA City Councilmember Jose Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway initiative.
The office started the initiative in 2008 to return Broadway to its former glory as one of LA’s entertainment and commercial centers, McLean said.
At the time, the Orpheum was the only operating theater on Broadway, she said. Now there are a few others that have been renovated to meet the needs of modern live shows, and there are plans for more, like the Ace Hotel’s purchase of the United Artists theater earlier this year.
The city is also planning construction projects to install a streetcar in Downtown that would run through Broadway, and a streetscape to widen Broadway’s sidewalks, McLean said.
For Kelsey, seeing younger generations enjoy the Orpheum’s architecture means there’s hope for Broadway.
“That says these theaters are something special,” Kelsey said. “They have a special place even for modern audiences that don’t remember them from the old days.”