Broadway, the street that gave birth to the Hollywood movie
by Nancy Nigrosh
Years ago when I was the head of a talent agency’s lit department and working in Beverly Hills, I made an unusual choice by buying an architectural gem in Central L.A.’s Lafayette Square. It was there I tasted the nectar of the neighborhood’s elegant past that once included W. C. Fields, Fatty Arbuckle and the Brown Bomber… Joe Louis. Strolling around my block, I could almost hear Allen Ginsburg poetically intoning, ‘He who digs Los Angeles, is Los Angeles.’ This was an L.A. I’d seen in movies and TV shows I’d loved growing up in Boston, unforgettably etched by Chandler, Hammett, Fante and Bukowski, re-imagined by studio set design.
In 2009, I was at a crossroads in my life and landed in a loft building in downtown L.A. just as the massive adaptive re-use initiative begun in 2006 had come to a complete halt, leaving 300 foot construction cranes eerily frozen in the sunny stillness. I was determined to explore the city whose cultural future has been tied to unprecedented restoration of its extraordinary past. Downtown was the ultimate classroom and I soon learned that our freeways were originally arranged around L.A.’s Broadway in a loop. Broadway was where the city went to play. Busily bisected by the red cars, the street was the best place to shop alongside its most impressive movie theaters. Think of them as nurseries where the film medium grew up, and you get the picture.
“The real Hollywood tour starts and ends on Broadway,” I am apt to say to my industry friends innocently asking me how I am. “… Just look at the resurrection of the United Artists Building’s flamboyant Spanish Gothic/Holy Land crusade motifs that allude to the indomitable spirit of filmmakers… ”
Housed inside this dramatic edifice is an 1800 seat theater, its screen paused to glow again. ”Sure,” they exhale with a loaded thud. I go on, “… wouldn’t it be amazing if studios released films where the red carpet was invented, the way they used to?”
This conversation fades… into an instant and absolute divide. I contest the perception that only seats of power still reside in downtown to facilitate bothersome civic duty, i.e. fight a parking ticket; serve on a jury; or locate an official document. There’s this testy gulf when it comes to downtown. The streets are confusing and maddeningly one-way. Plus, downtown is still considered a scary place, not so long ago utterly abandoned by decent folk. Except movie folk. They are here all the time.
Thousands of films have been shot in downtown L.A., many of them on Broadway – Blade Runner, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, and of course, Chinatown. Did you know that Maude Lebowski’s loft is above Broadway’s Palace Theater? Los Angeles doubles for virtually any city you can name, even Louisville for Justified. Downtown still plays itself rather well, most recently in House of Lies and Southland. Besides classic studio films from King Kong to Vertigo, The Artist, Zero Dark Thirty, Fight Club, Collateral, Inception, Drive, Heat and countless more films have all shot on Broadway. The spot attracted world-class performers from the time of vaudeville: Will Rogers, Duke Ellington, The Marx Brothers, Judy Garland. Maroon 5, Lou Reed, Lady Gaga, The Beach Boys, and so many others, have all performed on Broadway.
Great 19th century wealth from gold, railroads and petroleum once created an urban Eden, until a mysterious force drove away the entire residential population. By the 1940’s, our unique downtown became sealed off from the massive mushrooming sprawl that fanned all around it. For a time, the studios had built impressive office digs alongside the robber barons’ Edwardian high-rises on Broadway, but found they could just as easily take their show business to the west side and thrive.
While other great American cities, including San Francisco, proudly hail their history – without Hollywood to support ours, Broadway and L.A.’s downtown core fell into haunted ruins. If not for the Iranian expats in the 1970’s who purchased architectural masterpieces for pennies, the wrecking ball might not have spared these amazing jewels.
Since 2011, things turned around once again for downtown. A half dozen busy cranes dot the horizon of downtown. Most everyone has a dog. Some buildings have pools, gardens or dog parks on their rooftops. From mine I can see all the way to Ocean Avenue.
The real news is that the city’s heart – Broadway — is beating once again. This busy artery once pumped out a steady stream of cinema to a hungry worldwide film audience. Broadway’s movie theaters were ‘palaces’ that nourished the glamour we associate with the film première on a street so rich in show biz lore it fairly buckles from an excess of architectural magic, conjured by the wildly happy marriage of business and art. Once upon a time there were 80 theaters within a mere few miles radius from the city’s heart. Only 12 of these unique treasures are left.
I like what Vince Lombardi said about the real glory of being knocked to your knees is fully revealed when you get up and comeback. What might happen if Hollywood were to pick up on Broadway where it left off? Downtown is in full comeback mode. That’s a story just waiting to be told.Tags: Broadway (Los Angeles), Broadway Palace Theater, Downtown Los Angeles, Film and TV business, Film production in Los Angeles, Hollywood, Nancy Nigrosh, Rebirth of Downtown Los Angeles, United Artists