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Movie Palaces Come Alive Again

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin July 2, 2010 at 4:00AM

There is no thrill to compare with seeing a classic movie in a great movie theater. For twenty-four years, the Los Angeles Conservancy has hosted a month-long series called Last Remaining Seats, showing vintage films in the city’s great movie palaces, most of which are located on Broadway downtown. This year’s wide-ranging bill of fare included Strangers on a Train, American Graffiti, The Graduate, the 1943 Mexican classic Flor Silvestre, and the silent version of Peter Pan. (The evening I’m really sorry I missed featured How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with its stars Robert Morse and Michele Lee in person, interviewed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who features Morse on his show.) I don’t know of another major city with more surviving theaters from the glory days than ours. Alas, this part of Broadway—which used to be a Mecca for Southland shopping and entertainment—is now just a business district during the day and something of a ghost town at night. Post-World War Two suburban sprawl and the destruction of Los Angeles’ much-loved Red Car light-rail system saw to that.
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There is no thrill to compare with seeing a classic movie in a great movie theater. For twenty-four years, the Los Angeles Conservancy has hosted a month-long series called Last Remaining Seats, showing vintage films in the city’s great movie palaces, most of which are located on Broadway downtown. This year’s wide-ranging bill of fare included Strangers on a Train, American Graffiti, The Graduate, the 1943 Mexican classic Flor Silvestre, and the silent version of Peter Pan. (The evening I’m really sorry I missed featured How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with its stars Robert Morse and Michele Lee in person, interviewed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who features Morse on his show.) I don’t know of another major city with more surviving theaters from the glory days than ours. Alas, this part of Broadway—which used to be a Mecca for Southland shopping and entertainment—is now just a business district during the day and something of a ghost town at night. Post-World War Two suburban sprawl and the destruction of Los Angeles’ much-loved Red Car light-rail system saw to that.

But every June, the Conservancy proves that Angelenos will still travel downtown at night if—

—there’s something to draw them there. Some theaters, like the Los Angeles (the newest and most ornate of the bunch, completed in 1931) seat 2,200 people, and the series usually sells out as soon as it’s announced. Other locations include Sid Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater (the first one he built in L.A.) and the Palace, built in 1911.

I’ve hosted Last Remaining Seats events for many years and it’s always a treat, not the least because they draw such a diverse crowd. It’s not just the same film buffs who attend revival screenings year-round: this takes on the air of An Event, and attracts a broad cross-section of people. Over the decades I’ve interviewed such guests on stage as Jane Wyatt, Ronald Colman’s leading lady in Lost Horizon, David Raksin, composer of Laura, and several youthful cast members of Rebel Without a Cause. But returning to the Orpheum on Wednesday night sent my mind reeling back to a memorable evening about eighteen years ago when I spoke to Buster Keaton’s widow Eleanor, before a sell-out crowd.

What’s more, the great theater organist Gaylord Carter, who began his career at the Million Dollar Theater in 1926, played for a Keaton two-reeler that night. (He was having back trouble by then and couldn’t make it through a feature film. Stan Kann played for The General and did a great job.)

Robert Israel at the organ, the Darlings' nursery onscreen from Peter Pan.

This year it was my pleasure to introduce the silent version of Peter Pan (1924), with Robert Israel at the Mighty Wurlitzer—the same instrument that has resided at the Orpheum since 1928. It was preceded by the Walt Disney cartoon Alice’s Wonderland, and a display of period theater curtains collected by Steve Markham.

A detail from the underside of the balcony at the Orpheum. You don't find figures like this at the local multiplex!

Unlike the Los Angeles or the Million Dollar Theater, the Orpheum opened as a vaudeville house in 1926; in fact, it was the fourth theater built by the powerful chain in L.A. (The theater we now know as the Palace was originally named The Orpheum, until it was superseded by this much larger house.) Thank goodness its owner, Steve Needleman, is passionate about his theater, which underwent a beautiful rehabilitation in 2001, and supports the Los Angeles Conservancy so generously.

If you’ve never been to these great movie palaces and plan to visit Los Angeles any time soon, you should sign up for the Conservancy’s Saturday morning walking tour. Or mark your calendars for next June and join the fun. For more information, go to www.laconservancy.org.

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