Charlie Chaplin had a problem: he needed a suitable place to premiere his 1931 film City Lights. And with the studio system firmly in place, he needed an independent theater to host the premiere. An independent film exhibitor had commissioned an elaborate French Baroque theater from S. Charles Lee and Samuel Tilden Norton. But could it be ready for the premiere in January?
It was indeed. Chaplin pitched in financially, and the building was constructed in less than six months by casting most of the pieces offsite and then assembling them into place between two existing buildings. City Lights did premiere as planned.
The theater’s lavish interior was allegedly inspired by the Palace of Versailles. It’s not hard to make the connection—the movie palace features heavy trimmed drapes, a huge central staircase with a crystal-laden fountain on the landing, a seemingly endless number of mirrors, massive chandeliers, more red carpet than a Hollywood premiere, intricate lacy balconies, lots of gilding, and parquet floors in the basement lounge. Even the terrazzo flooring at the theater’s front doors resembles an antique French carpet.
And, in addition to all these lavish features, the Los Angeles Theatre can make one claim no other location can: it houses the most luxurious restroom in the city (if not in all of Southern California). The enormous basement ladies’ room has an outer lounge with a circle of mirrored vanity tables for primping (no jostling for space at a lone mirror here!), along with a full-length triple mirror. As for the actual facilities…the walls of each restroom stall are lined with a different, contrasting marble. No expense was spared.
But its extravagance came with a cost. The Los Angeles Theatre, by far the most ornate movie palace in a city synonymous with movies and glamour, was too costly to maintain. The original owner was bankrupt within a year. William Fox (of the Fox Theatre chain) acquired the building, and the Los Angeles Theatre ran second-run movies until it closed in 1994.
The Los Angeles Theatre is primarily used for location shooting (most recently, NCIS: Los Angeles shot two episodes in and around the space). However, it is often used for some of the LA Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats screenings, and the Conservancy’s Broadway Historic Theatre District walking tour sometimes visits the theater.