Downtown Los Angeles, like many cities, presents a sort of odd juxtaposition of the old and new urban setting. Walking down S. Broadway, dubbed “Theater Row,” one can still see the old marquees of the grand movie palaces, vaudeville houses and nickelodeons of the early decades of the 1900s mixed in with the newer shops and restaurants. Movie-going in the early years was meant to be an event worth going out on the town for, and the lavish palaces that were built during the 1920s and early 30s reflected that. However, the move to the suburbs post-WWII and the rise of the multiplex relegated these downtown movie houses obsolete. Many are gone now, while others remain in various states of use. While some hint at their magnificent interiors by the art deco architecture outside, most blend in with the rest of the street. Some are still used for live concerts and theater, while others remain vacant or have been converted into large shopping venues or churches.
The LA Conservancy opens up several of these grand venues for movie screenings during its annual Last Remaining Seats series in June. I was able to head down on Wednesday night for a screening of Footlight Parade at the Orpheum Theater. Opened in 1926, the theater was built as part of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit in Los Angeles. The interior is decorated in a French Renaissance theme, featuring white marble and gold leaf details throughout, as well as some impressive woodwork and chandeliers in the foyer and theater itself. The theater also boasts the last Mighty Wurlitzer organ on Broadway, which was played by Robert Salisbury for the night’s pre-show entertainment.
The evening opened with a special floorshow featuring Maxwell DeMille and Dean Mora and his Orchestra playing songs from Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who penned some of the songs in Footlight Parade and many others for Warner Brothers. It was a fun surprise to see Geoff Nudell, an awesome reeds player who is in the LA Winds with me, playing in the orchestra. The pre-show also included a stage presentation of several classic film costume gowns from designers like Irene and Edith Head from Greg Schreiner’s Hollywood Revisited show. While all gorgeous, one that stood out in my mind was the super sparkly mink backed gown that Ginger Rogers wore in Lady in the Dark.
If there was one slight bummer to this experience, it was the print of the film itself, which had several jumps and red marks. Having seen the film several times, it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me, and the times the print was clear, it was a treat to see this in 35mm. While not a full sell-out, the house was mostly packed, and it was an enthusiastic audience. There were plenty of laughs for Joan Blondell’s pre-Code wisecracks and lots of applause.
I love Footlight Parade, even while it presents some pretty problematic material, mostly with the “Shanghai Lil” number. That being said, I think the “By a Waterfall” sequence may be the most impressive Busby Berkeley number I’ve seen, and to watch James Cagney dance is one of my favorite things in the world. I was also able to briefly meet Meredith, who was visiting LA with her family. We have known each other for a few years on twitter, so it was just another lovely opportunity to finally meet another classic film friend in person.
Last Remaining Seats was something I hadn’t even heard about until this year, but will definitely circle on my calendar for the future. There are still tickets remaining for the last two screenings next week: Luis Buenel’s El gran calavera, and two screenings of Citizen Kane. Information can be found here. The LA Conservancy also offers walking tours throughout the year of the downtown area which also offers an opportunity to see inside some of these old theaters and buildings. Overall, it’s a great event that offers the chance to see a classic film in a historic venue.