By Aaron Blevins, 7/03/2014
Developers say they are mulling their options
Hollywood theatre supporters and historic preservation advocates are concerned about the future of the Warner Brothers Hollywood Theatre, a closed and now vacant theatre built in 1928 on Hollywood Boulevard, between Wilcox Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard.
No definitive plans are in place, but Robertson Properties Group is beginning to have conversations about the future of the site. Attempts to redevelop the property, though, have stalled or failed in years past.
Hillsman Wright, co-founder of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, said he would like to see the theatre restored. He said the theatre may need to be re-seated, but the work should be relatively minimal.
“It really has viability as a live performance venue,” Wright said, adding that the theatre has enough capacity and that there is room to expand the stage. “So in effect, it could become home for an event show.”
He said attempts to redevelop the property in the past have not moved forward, though he didn’t know why. Wright said he hopes any new project does not lead to the loss of the theatre’s auditorium.
“It would be a real shame,” he said. “All the way around, it’s a unique theatre in L.A.”
The theatre opened in the spring of 1928 as the Warner Brothers Hollywood. The architect was G. Albert Lansburgh, who also designed the Wiltern Theatre in Koreatown. A Warner Bros. radio station, KFWB, and Warner Bros. Theatres once had offices in the building.
According to information provided by the foundation, the theatre was built when Warner Bros. was “riding high,” having found success with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc process. The company wired its theatres for sound, and then released a series of “hit sound films” throughout the U.S. When the theatre opened, it had the largest seating capacity in Hollywood, with 2,756 seats.
Pacific Theatres took over the property in 1968, and renamed the theatre the Hollywood Pacific. It was renovated in 1978, but suffered damage during the Red Line construction (flooding) in the 1980s and during the Northridge earthquake in 1994. The theatre closed later that year.
From 2002 to 2006, the main floor of the structure served as the Entertainment Technology Center, where films were screened to display digital projection technology. A church leased space in the theatre until last summer.
“The Warner Brothers Hollywood Theatre is significant in a number of ways,” the foundation’s executive director, Escott Norton, said. “When looking at the National Register District, it fills an important gap on Hollywood Boulevard, and reopening the theatre would bring new life to that section. Historically, it is special because it has been converted to so many formats, from Vitaphone, Vitascope, to 3-strip Cinerama, 35mm and 70mm. …Architecturally, the Warner is special because it is the only surviving theatre I know of in Los Angeles that was built in an ‘atmospheric’ style, where the interior of the auditorium looks like it is under a night sky. Four cloud projectors were originally used to enhance the effect.”
Now, Hollywood Heritage, a historic preservation organization, has placed the theatre on its Hollywood’s Most Endangered 2014 list. Richard Adkins, chair of the Hollywood Heritage Museum Committee, said the theatre has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been honored by the city as a historic-cultural landmark. It also sits in the heart of the Hollywood Boulevard National Register Commercial District.
Adkins said Hollywood Heritage has been made aware that the potential developers of the property have begun to meet with neighborhood groups and city officials. Hollywood Heritage, however, has not been contacted, he said.
“It’s of major concern to us,” Adkins said about the future of the property.
He said Hollywood Heritage is the local agency in charge of the commercial district, and the organization serves as a liaison between the property and the state. Adkins said the California Office of Preservation would need to sign off on any major alterations to the theatre.
“It’s really an important property,” he said. “It’s the center of the boulevard.”
Adkins said the redevelopment plans would not be the first attempt at repurposing the property. He said the Hollywood Entertainment Museum once proposed placing a tower behind the building for offices and workspace.
“Their plans didn’t involve any changes in the theatre,” Adkins added.
He said he can understand why the property would be attractive to developers, but he too is concerned that the auditorium could be demolished. Adkins said he hopes Hollywood Heritage is consulted in the near future.
“We actually know very little for fact,” he said.
Wright said demolishing the auditorium would not only be a shame, it would be shortsighted. He said it is almost completely intact, and acoustic paneling has been placed over the murals.
“I don’t see any reason why they can’t redevelop that land and make provisions for keeping that theatre,” Wright added.
He said the orchestra pit has enough space for a Broadway orchestra — not for a big show like “The Lion King”, but perhaps smaller musicals, such as “The Book of Mormon”. Eventually, the owner could tear down the back wall, extend the stage and add support facilities, Wright said.
“Maybe the climate is suitable now for the financing to make it work,” he added. “It ought to happen in Hollywood.”
Wright said Hollywood would have a “real live theatre district” with the Pantages Theatre, Warner Brothers Theatre and the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. It would be only a couple subway stops from downtown Los Angeles, where the Broadway theatres are located, he said.
“There’s no reason why, at any given time, there shouldn’t be four or five Broadway shows playing in L.A.,” Wright said, citing the large amount of tourists who attend Broadway shows in Los Angeles and other major cities. “It’s just time.”
Robertson Properties Group is an affiliate of Pacific Theatres and its subsidiary, ArcLight Cinemas. In a statement, company representatives confirmed that they are evaluating their options for redeveloping the property.
“The company is beginning a dialogue with the community and is seeking input as it works to shape a development proposal,” the statement reads. “There currently is no specific development plan for this property. Conceptually, the size and location lends itself to a varied mix of uses that would enhance the district and serve the neighborhood. Robertson Properties’ discussions with stakeholders will continue over the next several months.”
Representatives of Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office said any redevelopment at the site will be done with the theatre’s historical status in mind.