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Downtown Decoded: Variety Arts Theater




Welcome to the inaugural entry of our brand new blog series, “Downtown Decoded: The Amazing History of our beloved DTLA Theater District”. With The Variety Arts Theater celebrating its birthday this month, it is apropos to kick off our series with a walk down  memory lane, to a lovely Spring day 100 years ago…


“The Playhouse in the Friday Morning Club Building”


An image of a pre-opening annoucement of the Playhouse in the Friday Morning Club building in the Los Angeles Times

The Variety Arts Theater opened on May 5, 1924, in the facilities of the famous Friday Morning Association, a political and social organization for women formed in 1891. Will Rogers served as toastmaster at the opening, with attendees including Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin and a parade of East coast theater luminaries. Doris Keane starred in the popular play 'Romance' as the opening act, with her full name and title displayed on the marquee. A glowing pre-opening advertisement was advertised in the city’s newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.  


Clark Gable would go on to make his stage debut here in 'Romeo & Juliet' in1925, while silent cinema and early talkie performers such as Mae Busch, Lionel Barrymore, Dwight Frye, Pauline Frederick, and Dorothy Mackaye performed here throughout the 1920s. In 1929, popular drama ‘The Bad Babies’ caused a bit of a stir, leading to a raid and the arrests of stage management, cast, and the playwright. The drama was deemed 'indecent', and the cast and crew members were fined $300 for their involvement in the show. 


By 1930, the Playhouse was having trouble booking new plays.  Theatrical manager Victor Neuhaus secured a five year lease, ultimately renaming the theater after himself. Its inaugural performance was Luigi Pirandello's 'Living Mask,' starring Arnold Korff. Critics praised the drama, but the Great Depression's economic turmoil and the rise of talking movies made it challenging for a professional theater to survive as such.


Starting in 1934, the theater became known as the Figueroa Theater Arts Center, helmed by drama veteran Crown J.L. as the executive manager. At the time, the theater was utilized by CBS for the popular "Allen and Burns Show", as well as transmissions by Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and, allegedly, a great speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt. 


By 1940, restyled as The Times Theatre, it became the first movie theater in the city, with fewer stage acts and lectures. Its transition to a movie house continued to the early 70’s, during which time it went on to show Spanish language dramas and even double bills from China, simply known as “The Playhouse”.





Transforming into Variety Arts Theatre 


The Variety Arts Theater was formally established in 1977, when the group responsible for the preservation of the playhouse, led by Milt Larsen (Magic Castle) purchased the facility from the Friday Morning Club. The theater's programming featured a combination of acts that paid homage to vaudeville and variety performers. Throughout Larsen's tenure, many portions of the structure were utilized as bars, display spaces, and performance venues, along with a vaudeville-themed library.  


On August 9, 1978, the city of L.A. designated the structure as a landmark, after which it also earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. 


Art, Architecture and Construction


An image of an architectural elevation drawing of the theater's front design

The original, Italian Renaissance-inspired structure of the Variety Arts theater was designed by Allison & Allison, who were also known for their work on the CalEdison building and Royce Hall. The five story structure featured a variety of spaces including executive offices on the ground level; lounges and a library on the second level. A 500-person assembly room and eating area on the fourth level, with an art gallery and two modest clubrooms on the fifth level.  



The Variety Arts Theater today


Today the Variety Arts Theatre building is currently on offer to lease or purchase, following years on the market and a variety of organizations leasing it at various times since the 2010’s. In pop culture, the theater has made a few appearances on the big screen, including Scream 2, 'The Dewey Cox Story: Walk Hard' and 'Vanished'. 



 


Want to be part of the movement to bring your DTLA theater district, including the Variety Arts Theater back to life? Check out our master plans to learn about how you can help restore DTLA to a vibrant district, uplifting theater and invigorating our local economy by 2028!

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