Issue: Summer 2022

Live from Hollywood! How Live Theatre Shaped Hollywood Entertainment and Culture

The Roaring Twenties was in full swing, the height of lawlessness and entertainment when flappers challenged societal norms and the economy boomed. There was a thirst for culture, which led to the rise of live entertainment in Hollywood as theatres lined the streets of Tinseltown.

The Music Box theatre, located near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Gower Street, opened its doors to the public, the first of three live theatres that emerged in Hollywood between the years of 1926 and 1927. It was introduced to the public as a vaudeville revue, and stage and movie actor Carter DeHaven had grand plans to bring a sense of the Ziegfeld Follies to Hollywood. His stage manager, who had worked on the Ziegfeld Follies in New York, told a newspaper at the time, “Carter DeHaven has a production which will out-Ziegfeld Ziegfeld.”

While DeHaven’s run was short-lived, some of the biggest stars of the time graced the stage of the Music Box, including Clark Gable, who starred alongside Nancy Carroll in the West Coast premier of Chicago. “He was just really getting started,” explains Marry Mallory, well-respected author and motion picture archivist. “So many of the people in the 1930s or ‘40s that were stars actually started on the stage.”

Over the next several decades, as ownership changed, the Music Box went through many name changes, from Columbia Music Box in the 1930s, to the Guild Theatre in the 1940s. In 1985, the Nederlander Organization, in conjunction with Pacific Theatres, renovated the theatre and reopened it as the Henry Fonda Theatre. Mike Hume, who sits on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (LAHTF), explains why that was such a pivotal moment for Hollywood. “I think what we're seeing there is some early understanding that parts of old Hollywood were worth preserving. I think that's a really notable point in its history, because that's pretty early in terms of preservation becoming something that people cared about.”

Hume helped to clear up a persistent rumor that the theatre was named after Henry Fonda because he starred in a show there. “We confirmed that Henry Fonda had never been in a show at this theater before,” says Hume. “When they did the renovation, they managed to come to an agreement with a theatrical company called the Plumstead Theatre Society to lease the theatre. One of the founding members of the Plumstead Theatre Society was Henry Fonda, and he'd been in virtually all their early productions.”

Hume continues, “There was clearly some sort of a naming deal that went on there. The tenant said we'll sign on the line, but you've got to change the name of the theater to whatever we want. And in this case, they wanted it to be the Henry Fonda Theater.”

First opening its doors on January 19, 1927 as the Wilkes Vine Street Theatre, the namesake of its first lessees, the Wilkes brothers. Cecil B. DeMille, founder of the Hollywood motion-picture industry, lay down the original concept for the theatre, calling it “DeMille’s Playhouse” during the planning stages, according to Hume “The Wilkes Brothers over.” Seating 1,200 at the time, it was the first Broadway-style legitimate theatre in Los Angeles.

 Like the Henry Fonda Theatre, the theatre changed hands and concepts through the years. In 1931, it was converted to a movie theatre part of a chain run by Howard Hughes. CBS bought the theatre in the 1930s and converted it to a live performance radio auditorium and studio as the CBS Radio Playhouse, Ironically DeMille became involved as the host and producer of the CBS radio anthology series Lux Radio Theater.

In 1953, A&P heir and arts patron Huntington Hartford bought the theatre, modernized it with 970 seats. He named the theatre after himself and opened with What Every Woman Knows with Helen Hayes. Hartford ran the theatre successfully for 10 years. In 1964, the theatre was sold to James Doolittle, then operator of the Greek Theatre who renamed it after himself, running it for the next 20 years.

In the 1980s, UCLA and the Center Theatre Group took over the theatre while such long-running productions as Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. This collaboration and plays such as Fences with James Earl Jones, Donald Sutherland and Marlo Thomas in Six Degrees of Separation and Alan Alda in Art brought the regions theatre goers to Hollywood.

It would be an arrangement between Nosotros Theatre, the Ricardo Montaban Fountation and the Los Angeles Community Development Agency that created the Ricardo Montalban Theatre’s future bringing it into the 21st century.

Gil Smith, Chair and Executive Director of the Foundation for the past 15 years, credits the Montalban’s longevity to its evolution over time. “With different companies or different people owning it, there’s been a passion to keep it as a prominent theatre in Hollywood’s famed center, Hollywood & Vine. It’s unique that way."

The Hollywood Playhouse, originally built as a vaudeville type theatre, opened to the public on January 24, 1927, just five days after the Wilkes Vine Theatre’s opening night. Real estate developer Charles Toberman, who predicted that Hollywood could be the next big entertainment district in Los Angeles, bought the theatre in the 1940s; and Sid Grauman, who created some of the most recognizable landmarks in Hollywood, purchased a 50 percent share. The theatre’s name was changed to the El Capitan Theatre. Toberman and Grauman were also behind the original El Capitan, which was built in 1926 and had been leased to Paramount.

Hume explains, “Because they just leased the old El Capitan to Paramount, and Paramount put their name on it, they basically moved not just the name across to the Hollywood Playhouse, but they took all the staff and they even moved some of the stage equipment.”

The El Capitan was rebranded once again after NBC took over in the 1950s. “If you look at some of the shows that came out of there, particularly The Hollywood Palace, it's like theater moving with the ages, where they'd have Dean Martin hosting one night and there would be a circus act out in the parking lot,” says Hume. “There would be an opera singer. There'd be some comedy skits. This was all against the backdrop of scenery that changed from one glorious setting to another setting. It was really ahead of its time in terms of the production value.”\

Hume adds, “The Hollywood Playhouse is so important because it was home to live entertainment in America for so many American homes. It was event television that we don't really have any more.”

By the time John Lyons and Steve Adelman purchased the theatre in 2002, renaming it to the Avalon Hollywood, some of the most legendary musicians had performed at the theatre, including Prince, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, and The Beastie Boys, to name a few. Lyons, who helped build the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip, put a substantial amount of time in renovating the theatre, keeping all of the original architectural elements intact.

The Avalon remains a popular venue with events like School Night on Mondays, where artists take the stage, like Billie Eilish, who made her Los Angeles debut there. Even though a lot has changed over the decades, some things have remained the same. “In 1927, people would come to be entertained and to see a performance, a show, attend an event. And that really hasn't changed,” Lyons explains. “It's exactly what's happening with it now.”

While all so different, the Fonda Theatre, the Montalbán, and the Avalon Hollywood have one important thing in common —they all outlived so many theatres that didn’t make it throughout the years and remain open as Hollywood’s oldest live theatres. Even more than relics of the Roaring Twenties, these theatres evolved through countless transformations and name changes to remain just as important to Hollywood today as they were in the 1920s. 

“They didn't go out of business within a year or two, so we know that there must have been enough money to keep them open and for people to keep attending the theatres,” says Hume. “Therefore, you're raising the cultural bar of the Hollywood area. I have no doubt that they contributed to the advancement of Hollywood and the bigger theatrical picture in Los Angeles.” DH