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Tower Theatre

Tower Theatre

Architect: S. Charles Lee

First Opened: 12th October 1927 (93 years ago)

Reopened: 13th October 1965

Former Names: Music Hall, Newsreel Theatre

Status: Closed; undergoing renovation

Website: www.btgla.com Open website in new window

Telephone: (213) 629-2939 Call (213) 629-2939

Address: 802 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90014 Show address in Google Maps (new window)


The Tower Theatre was the first theatre designed by architect S. Charles Lee, who would go on to become one of the most prolific and distinguished theatre architects of his time on the U.S. West Coast. Lee’s design for The Tower replaced the 650-seat Garrick Theatre and is notable for fitting a 900-seat auditorium, plus street-level retail stores, onto a lot measuring just 50ft wide and 150ft deep.

Featured Photos

Detailed Information

Garrick Theatre in 1925
Garrick Theatre in 1925

The Tower Theatre opened on 12th October 1927 as the first Los Angeles movie theatre wired for sound. Some sources credit the Tower as being the first theatre in Los Angeles to feature air cooling, however Grauman’s Metropolitan (later known as the Paramount) a few blocks up the street opened with an air cooling system in 1922, and the State Theatre was advertising their new retro-fitted “refrigeration plant” in the summer of 1927. That said, the Tower Theatre definitely capitalized on their state-of-the-art air cooling technology by providing windows in the stairway down to the basement lounges where patrons could gaze upon the new and mystical chilling equipment.

Tower Theatre Auditorium
Tower Theatre Auditorium

The exterior is a warm cream terracotta with features such as false ornamental window frames in a complementary beige with small highlights in burnt orange. The three-story clock tower was the eye-catching piece of the exterior, clearly intended to differentiate from the other downtown buildings of the time and to ensure the theatre was recognizable from several blocks away.

The architectural style is is French Baroque Revival with the auditorium styled after the Paris Opera House and including some Renaissance touches such as delicate murals in the ceiling domes. The theatre originally housed a 2-manual, 10-rank Wurlitzer organ (Opus 1620) with organ chambers cleverly hidden on either side of the upper section of the proscenium arch. The organ was mounted upon a hydraulic lift at the center front of the Stage. The organ was moved to the Los Angeles Theatre for its opening in January 1931.

A magnificent stained glass window above the theatre’s entrance is dedicated to the art of movie making with, among other items, a roll of film unspooling.

Lobby Stained Glass Window
Lobby Stained Glass Window

The theatre is said to be the location of a sneak preview of Warner Bros’ revolutionary part-talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) Link opens in new window. Several sources say that on 5th October 1927 – the night before the movie’s official premiere at Warners’ Theatre in New York – the movie had a sneak preview at the Tower Theatre in Los Angeles. While this sounds entirely credible, especially given the Tower Theatre was wired for both Movietone and Vitaphone sound systems from the outset, no evidence of this fabled industry premiere has been found thus far – and in 1927 much industry gossip was regularly reported in the newspapers.

The original Vitaphone speaker horn mounted behind the screen was too big to be accommodated within the 7ft (2.1m) deep stage, so a hole was cut in the rear wall to allow the equipment to poke out into the alley behind the theatre, enclosed by a containing box. If you look at the outside of the theatre’s rear wall you can still see the patched-up hole.

By 1935 Metropolitan Theatres were involved in running the theatre, then in 1946 Metropolitan sub-leased the theatre and it was renamed the Music Hall, then renamed the Newsreel in 1949 when Metropolitan moved their newsreel operation to the theatre from the Globe Theatre. After Metropolitan’s lease ended the theatre was remodeled in 1965 at the instruction of a daughter of Gumbiner, Vilius Randall, to be re-opened as the Tower Theatre. The bright color scheme sadly destroyed many of the original stencil and mural details including the elaborate decoration of the central elliptical dome. A new marquee and vertical sign were added. The theatre’s gala opening took place on 13th October 1965 showing The Sandpiper (1965) Link opens in new window and Wild Seed (1965) Link opens in new window.

The flattened Orchestra floor
The flattened Orchestra floor

The Tower ceased showing movies in 1988. The main floor, originally raked, had its seats removed and the floor leveled with a “temporary” structure in anticipation of the space being used for a swap meet, however the plans never came to fruition. The stage was re-floored and extended forward in 1991 for filming of the movie The Mambo Kings (1992) Link opens in new window. The original stage and footlights still survive underneath.

Apple Store Rendering, 2018
Apple Store Rendering, 2018

The theatre has not been in regular use since 1988 although it has been used for occasional special events programming. It was a popular filming location for television and movie shoots with highlights including Last Action Hero (1993), Transformers (2007), The Prestige (2006), Coyote Ugly (2000), End Of Days (1999), The Professionals (1977 TV series), and Twin Peaks (2017 TV series).

The Tower is owned by The Broadway Theatre Group who also own the Palace, the Los Angeles, and State theatres, all on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles.

Rumors surfaced in May 2016 that Apple Inc. was going to long-term lease the Tower for a Downtown L.A. Apple Store. In August 2018 the Los Angeles Times broke the story Link opens in new window that Apple would be bringing an Apple Store to Downtown L.A. housed in the Tower Theatre. Timelines for the project are currently unknown, however in Fall 2020 scaffolding started being removed from the renovated building exterior.

Movie, TV & Music Video Appearances

Movies

Television

Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the Tower Theatre?

The Tower is currently undergoing conversion into a flagship Apple Store. As of early 2020 no opening date has been set.

Further Reading

Online

Books

Historic Photos & Documents

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Photos of the Tower Theatre

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium
  2. Lobby
  3. Other Public Areas
  4. Projection Booth
  5. Exterior
Auditorium

Most of the photos here are taken under high pressure sodium light. To see a faithful color rendition of the auditorium look for the “True Color” photos.

Lobby

The double height lobby features a grand staircase ascending to balcony level and the upper wraparound level of the lobby. A large chandelier hangs in the center of the domed ceiling, which was originally patterned. A magnificent stained glass window above the theatre’s entrance is dedicated to the art of movie making with, among other items, a roll of film unspooling.

Other Public Areas

On the stairs leading down to the Basement Lounge is a large landing. This landing originally had windows for patrons to gaze upon the wondrous air cooling technology installed at the theatre!

Projection Booth

The projection booth is only accessible from the rear of the auditorium balcony, apart from an exit through the clock tower to the roof.

Behind the projection booth and with windows facing out onto Broadway is a small screening room. There is a small room adjacent used for projection into the screening room. These facilities were for management to preview movies.

Exterior

Architect S. Charles Lee’s design for the theatre was notable in fitting a 900-seat theatre plus retail at street level onto a lot just 50ft wide and 150ft deep (15.2m by 45.7m). The theatre which preceded it (the Garrick Theatre) had 650 seats.

The top of the clock tower originally featured a cast stone cap however it was damaged in the Sylmar / San Fernando Earthquake (magnitude 6.5) on 9th February 1971. In May 1971 the tower cap was removed. A replica cap was commissioned as part of the project to convert the theatre into a flagship Apple Store and was fitted to the top of the clock tower in August 2020.



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