MONUMENTS IN TIME: The Tower Theater

tower theater building 1927

The year is 1927. Downtown Los Angeles is booming with life and consumerism. After a multi-racial migration consisting of almost every ethnic group between 1922-1927 doubles our population, Angelenos flock to Downtown for ultimate experiences in shopping, entrainment and nightlife. 

The Wonder Market spanning from Broadway to Hill Street, offers fresh produce, while street artisans and sidewalk performers and trash bins fail to block newsstands filled with the LA Times and fresh copies of LA Opinion. Angel’s Flight, just across the road, elevates passengers up the steep slope to Bunker Hill.

Model T Fords and electric streetcars share the road, while Charles Lindbergh flies high above the city, preparing his twin-engine “Spirit of Saint Louis” for the first transatlantic Flight in history. 

On his way back, he’ll find a very personalized finished touch at the top of the newly constructed LA City Hall, a beacon of light placed in his honor to help guide him and other pilots through the darkest of city nights. 

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Prohibition is the law of the land, but that doesn’t stop the steady stream of flappers, social elites and cigar smoking gents from enjoying the underground nightclubs, silent films and Vaudeville, the chosen form of entertainment of the day. 

Silent film star Rudolph Valentino is on his death bed, reserving his immortal stay at the Hotel Alexandra. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith prepare to complete their rebellious split from the constraints of Hollywood in the form of a delightful monstrosity, modeled after the Segovia Cathedral in Spain, soon to open on 9th and Broadway, known as the United Artists Theater. 

This is just one of many theaters that line the neon corridor on Broadway from 3rd to 9th streets fashioned out of fine velvets, glass, brass, and terracotta, where Art Deco, Beaux-Arts collide within Spanish Baroque designed by the day’s most prominent architects, Howard Crane, Anthony B. Heinsbergen and G. Albert Lansburgh.

Inside these enormous wonders exist the ultimate social experience, where people welcome the chance to be wowed by their favorite entertainers. Live performances where almost anything goes, burlesque, comedy, minstrels, trained animals and circus acts, this is the time of Vaudeville, the most popular entertainment show in the world. 

Yet, on this day in 1927, almost every star in Hollywood and who’s who of Los Angeles is standing outside on the corner of 8th and Broadway awaiting the grand opening of Downtown’s newest theater house, the Tower Theater. Amongst them is a small yet immaculately dressed backgammon enthusiast and famed architect, Charles Lee.

Architect Charles Lee

Along with his interior design team, Lee has already built over 70 theater houses across the country, including the Los Angeles Theater and the Fox Wiltern, and is, on this day, adding the grand opening of the Tower Theater to his repository. 

As the crowds grow outside, beam lights shoot high above the new theater, exposing a giant clock as it strikes ten. The magic hour as the star-studded mass enters through the brass doors into the theater’s main lobby of lavish decor, marble, gold leaf, silk damask wall coverings, walnut paneling, and a crystal and marble fountain located in the upper hall. 

The high 50-foot ceiling swings crystal chandeliers while a grand staircase of the main lobby offers a choice between balcony seating, smoking and children’s room or basement lounges all hidden within a maze of opulent French Baroque interiors reportedly modeled after the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. 

A cherished musician plays the theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer pipe wind organ drowning out the steady hum while ushers allow the 2000-seat theater to fill to capacity. 

The mighty pipe winds stop blowing, lights dim, the audience goes silent. It is the moment history has been waiting for, The Tower Theater’s Grand Opening. Months later, Warner Bros would release a film entitled the Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. The first-ever “talkie,” synched to film by the newly invented Vitaphone system, marked the end of silent films forever, amplifying the tearing voice of Jolson, then the most celebrated entertainer of his time. 

Unfortunately, The Tower Theater only continued showing talkies until shortly after World War II. After this time many Broadway movie palaces became venues for Spanish-language movies and variety shows. 

By 1988, the Los Angeles Times notes that, without the Hispanic community, “Broadway would be dead.”

The grandeur that once was the Tower Theater and others, despite preservation efforts, have been replaced by flea markets, movie sets and churches. Tower Theater finally closed its doors this same year.

During the 1990s, Downtown is largely perceived as dangerous at night, and the cost of maintaining the aging facilities fails to produce the new owners to deliver even the tiniest spark. 

In 2008, the City of Los Angeles, led by then Council-member Jose Huizar, launched a $40-million campaign supporting the Broadway Theater Group and the LA Conservatory to revitalize the Broadway district, known as the “Bringing Back Broadway” campaign. This would become a double-edged sword, as the Broadway Corridor would indeed shine brightly once again but eventually lead to the displacement of dozens of Latino merchants.

Flash forward, over a decade later, The Tower Theater inks a long time lease with the world’s most valuable tech company, Apple Inc. Apple then takes on the job of fully revitalizing the theater as the world waited patiently for the grand reopening now scheduled for Thursday, June 26, when the clock strikes midnight. 

apple tower

Teams of reservationists worked alongside Apple’s design team and a literal task force of local artisans and craftspeople. Using innovative 3D laser scans and forensic paint studies, special attention was given when replicating the original colors and textures found in the old theatre. 

tower theater dtla

Gone forever is the theater’s seating, along with the cherub-filled ceiling mural now replaced by a minimalist clear blue-cloud compilation high above rows of display centers, yet the brass railing and the grandiose staircase remains. Elsewhere, plush leather seating makes it comfortable wait as biers remanence thanks to old photographs that stand testimony to this monument in time. Apple also through in a seismic upgrade to help make the Tower Theater more earthquake-proof.

“One of Apple’s most significant restoration projects to date, Apple Tower Theatre aims to inspire even more creativity in the heart of Downtown. Apple will also launch Today at Apple Creative Studios, a global initiative that will provide hands-on experience and mentorship to young creatives, kicking off with the opening of the new store in Los Angeles.” Spokesperson, Apple Inc. 

Author: Keri Freeman

Military mom and proud parent, artist, writer, musician and film maker. Cocktail connoisseur. Publisher of DTLA Weekly.