Wednesday, November 5, 2008

No. 196 - Variety Arts Center Building

Variety Arts Center Building

Variety Arts Center Building
1924 – Allison & Allison
940 South Figueroa Street – map
Declared: 8/9/78

This poor building. Just a year or so ago, it was probably all jazzed to become an integral part of South Park’s revitalized entertainment area, what with all the Nokias and this-and-that Live (does anyone else find these names confusing?). But now, it’s kind of loitering, vacant, feeling gypped, watching the parade pass by, seeing its neighboring lots get all the love, and humiliatingly trying to rent itself out for location shoots. Hardly fair, considering its eighty-four-year history.

I know the building was finished in 1924, but let’s jump back to the era of the Reconstruction to get this history rolling.

Variety Arts Center Building

A contemporary of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffragist and abolitionist Caroline Severance moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1875 (click here to see a picture of their estate, El Nido, at 806 West Adams Boulevard – or the trees and shrubs there, anyway; it was demolished in the early 1950s). By the time she arrived in Our Fair City, Severance had already compiled an impressive resume, having co-founded in 1868 the first women’s club in the United States, a Boston organization called the New England Woman’s Club. The next year, she co-founded the American Woman Suffrage Association. No sooner had she landed in L.A. she started California’s – and one on the country’s – first kindergartens, at First and Hill Streets. She and her husband, Theodoric, founded the city’s first Unitarian congregation, Unity Church. At the age of 91, she became the first woman to vote in California (this last item reeks of apocryphality, if you ask me). In 1891, Severance founded the Friday Morning Club, L.A.’s first women’s political club, with eighty-seven members (its membership eventually peaked at 3,800).

Variety Arts Center Building

The Friday Morning Club soon formed a corporation which, with money made from issuing stock, bought a chunk of land on Figueroa between Ninth and Tenth for a clubhouse it would in turn lease back to the club. This was in 1899, after holding its meetings for the last five years in space in the Owens Block downtown.

The gals laid the cornerstone of the club’s new $13,000, two-story Mission-style headquarters on September 14, 1899, and took possession of the building four months later, on January 19, 1900. An opening reception was held four days after that.

Below are four images: a head-shot of Caroline Severance; ground-breaking of the first Friday Morning Club clubhouse (watch out for those troublemakers on the roof!); said clubhouse (pretty sweet, no?); and a piece of a 1906 Sanborn map showing its location at 940 South Figueroa (I don’t know it that Church of Unity shown is home to the Unitarian Church started up by Caroline and Theodric years earlier).

Madame Caroline Severance
Laying of the Friday Morning Club Cornerstone
Friday Morning Club
Friday Morning Club

In April 1922, the Friday Morning Club announced preliminary plans by brothers in architecture, James & David Allison (whom we’ve already met here and here), for a brand new, five-story, Italian Renaissance clubhouse had been submitted and were approved. The first floor would contain the club’s executive offices, the second would hold lounges and a library, the third would house the auditorium, the fourth would contain the assembly room and a dining room for 500 people, and the fifth would be devoted to an art gallery and two small clubrooms. (At this time, the cost was estimated at about $400,000; ten months later, officials were saying the new building’s pricetag had ballooned to between $750,000 to $800,000.) The bad news is the new headquarters would replace the 1900 building, and demolition on the latter began almost immediately.

Next to the front entrance, you’ll find a memorial tablet dedicated to Caroline Severance. The words, taken from a speech given by Severance on her 71st birthday, had earlier been carved in bronze and were placed on the old clubhouse. Unveiled on January 12, 1923, on what would’ve been Severance’s 103rd birthday (she died at the age of 94 in 1914), the new tablet was later incorporated into the current building’s façade.

Variety Arts Center Building

You can read the Friday Morning Club’s motto carved into the Figueroa Street front: “In essentials unity – in nonessentials liberty – and in all things charity”.

Variety Arts Center Building

Housewarming for the new Friday Morning Club headquarters was planned for April 16, 1924, with the clubhouse’s first speaker, Rebecca West, scheduled for April 18.

From the get-go, the 1,200–seat auditorium was busy. Leased as The Playhouse, with the husband and wife team of Louis O. Macloon and Lillian Albertson producing, the theater’s first performance was on May 5, with Doris Keane starring in Romance. Albertson directed the show, and Will Rogers emceed.

The Playhouse Opening Ad
The Figueroa Playhouse, c. 1925
Figueroa Playhouse Lobby, c. 1925

The Playhouse – sometimes referred to as the Figueroa Playhouse – became a major stop on the vaudeville circuit. Clearly not an ornate palace like the theaters on Broadway, the serviceable Playhouse was said to sport great acoustics. The day’s top stars, from Laurel & Hardy to Lionel Barrymore, trod the boards here. Clark Gable made his acting debut at the Playhouse in May 1925 in Romeo and Juliet.

Figueroa Playhouse Auditorium, c. 1925
Figueroa Playhouse Dressing Room, c. 1925

CBS Radio Playhouse broadcast The Burns and Allen Show from the theater from 1932 to 1938. By 1940, the Playhouse was out and the Times Theater was in. Live shows continued, but you could also catch movies here, too.

Times Theater Ad
10th and Figueroa, Looking North, 1941

Variety Arts Center Building, 1977

The Friday Morning Club sold the building to Milt Larsen’s non-profit Society for the Preservation for Variety Arts (in 1984, an annual membership to the organization would set you back $90). Besides offering live performances in the vaudeville tradition, Larsen, the owner of Hollywood’s Magic Castle, also set up a small museum dedicated to the artform. Luckily, Larsen’s 1982 plan to take apart the theater – now known as the Variety Arts Center – and reassemble it into a slick, modern shell that would’ve encompassed the entire block never materialized.

Variety Arts Center Building
The lobby, photographed through a crusty window.

Variety Arts Center Building
J. Eric Lynxwiler says the Center's neon signs out front are “the only re-arrangeable neon letters left in the city.” Had I know that, I would've stolen them.

In 1984, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency lent Larsen’s Society half a million bucks to seed a multi-million dollar rehabilitation for sixty-year-old building. Things looked promising, but that Thanksgiving the CRA was forced to scramble to come up with a $1.7 million bail-out package to block an IRS auction of the landmark (seems someone owed $130,000 in back taxes). Larsen was forced to close the Variety Arts Center on New Year’s Eve, 1988.

Now, while I didn’t get inside the Variety Arts Center, Rita in the Office of Historic Resources was a hero in providing these twenty-year-old photos of the building’s interior. Thanks, Rita!

Variety Arts Center Building, 1988
Variety Arts Center Building, 1988
Variety Arts Center Building, 1988
Variety Arts Center Building Lobby Ceiling, 1988

J.S. Sehdeva was running the landmark as a club by the early 1990s. Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre’s film, Murder Was the Case, premiered here on November 3, 1994. And here’s a link to the Butthole Surfers’ gig here on November 7, 1987 (and, if you squint your ears real hard, you can hear Doris Keane spinning in her grave).

Variety Arts Center Building Dressing Room, 1988
Variety Arts Center Building, 1988
Variety Arts Center Building, 1988

AEG – the Anschutz Entertainment Group, in case you didn’t know – purchased the Variety Arts Center for around $8 million in 2004, with the intention of developing it as part of the L.A. Live area a few blocks to the south. Guess what never happened.

In late 2006, David Houk, former owner of the Pasadena Playhouse, bought the building from AEG for an undisclosed amount. However, Houk, whose Houk Development Company is also (not) working on the Park Fifth high-rise project, is now looking for a buyer or a partner of the Variety Arts Center.

Variety Arts Center Building

I hope – and suspect – there’s a good amount of life left in the old Playhouse. I enjoy real well the thought of the landmark again becoming a home to some sort of alternative theater, especially in the context of an area that’s becoming increasingly super-slick and corporately branded (although I sure do like the Figueroa Hotel directly opposite).

The non-original photos here are from all the usual sources: the L.A. Public Library, the CA State Library, and USC’s Digital Archive.

Variety Arts Center Building


“Women’s Clubhouse.” The Los Angeles Times; Sep 11, 1899, p. 10

“Corner-stone Laid.” The Los Angeles Times; Sep 15, 1899, p. 14

“Clubs of Women.” The Los Angeles Times; Jan 20, 1900, p. I12

“Building Plan Completed” The Los Angeles Times; Apr 9, 1922, p. V1

Nye, Myra “Founder of Club Honored” The Los Angeles Times; Jan 13, 1923, p. II1

“Excavating Gives Club Merriment” The Los Angeles Times; Jan 13, 1924, p. 26

“Clubs of Women.” The Los Angeles Times; Jan 24, 1900, p. I5

“Clubhouse Gets Last Work Soon” The Los Angeles Times; Feb 3, 1924, p. 25

“Dues Increase Finishes Work” The Los Angeles Times; Feb 10, 1924, p. 26

“Introducing Doris Keane” The Los Angeles Times; May 4, 1924, p. B21

Drake, Sylvia “New Look for Variety Arts Center” The Los Angeles Times; Jan 21, 1982, p. I1

Drake, Sylvia, “Stage Watch” The Los Angeles Times; Apr 26, 1984, p. K2

Connell, Rich “Historic Arts Center Spared From the IRS Auction Block" The Los Angeles Times; Nov 27, 1984

Rasmussen, Cecilia “L.A.’s Leading, Now Forgotten, Suffragette” The Los Angeles Times, Jun 7, 1998, p. 3

Vincent, Roger “Revival Falters for Variety Arts Center in Downtown Los Angeles” The Los Angeles Times; Oct 4, 2008

Bret, David Clark Gable: Tormented Star, Carroll & Graf, 2007, New York

Up next: Britt Mansion and Formal Gardens


Tash said...

Beauty of a building.
Interesting that I should come across it tonight as I've just been posting Malaga Cove School also by Allison & Allison.

Diallo said...

Let's really hope the current owner doesn't get desperate in this economy and sell it.

It really deserves to be a modern-day theatre place.

Miss Havisham said...

White lace balconies like that of a suffragette's bloomers.

And, The Pantry is just right there on the corner.

Let's buy it.

Floyd B. Bariscale said...

This is about #9 on the list of the monuments I'd buy of the first 196.

Anonymous said...

Oh no....this is one of my all time favorite buildings in Los Angeles. Do you know how many time I saw Siouxse and the Banshees here? And yes, the acoustics are fantastic.
As an aside, the after party for many movie premieres were held in this building including the "Women of Brewster Place", where Oprah mingled with Mike Tyson, his ex wife Robin and others.
Someone MUST restore this place and open it as a small theater/music venue.

Floyd B. Bariscale said...

Namechecking Siouxsie and Robin Givens in the same post? Nice work. I agree, anon. I'd enjoy seeing this theater operational again (not that I ever attended an event here).

Robert J. Reed said...

Hello Floyd -- This was one of my favorite haunts when I worked downtown in the 1980’s. I love the Italian Renaissance-style architecture of this “funky” building. There used to be a lunchtime buffet in the room behind the upper balcony. One could walk out on the balconies in those days. The room may also have been used as a ballroom. We’d do “happy hour” in the main bar room. There were a couple bar rooms as I recall. There used to be a scale model of some ship that looked like the Queen Mary on the roof. I believe it was an old movie prop. It was long and narrow and took up one-half of the roof. One could access the roof to see it in those days also. One could see the ship from the street if a couple blocks away. There was a good view of the bow like the Titanic from the Pantry Café. I don’t know the details, but the ship was moved some where some years ago. The building was a vaudeville club for “the Society of the Preservation of the Arts” when I went there, and had just undergone a restoration. Happily, the building is closed for renovation again now, but I don‘t know when it’s scheduled to re-open. You take such great photos, too bad those construction cones spoiled the shots. They recently finished a huge apartment building next door where once a long standing parking lot used to be. The contemporary architecture of this building is pretty cool too. Nice to see they are building upon the parking lots these days and not leveling the buildings instead to make them (the parking lots). As you know, but maybe not your readers, the Variety Arts Center is just a block away from the Staples Center and new Nokia complex. But there are still some parking lots to see across the street. Thanks -- Robert

Floyd B. Bariscale said...

Hi, Robert. Thanks for the comment. The ship was Milt Larsen's. It was a model made for the 1948 MGM movie Luxury Liner starring George Brent and Jane Powell. Larsen - who called the 52-foot long, 8-foot tall ship the Queen Minnie - bought it for $900 in an MGM backlot auction in 1971.

sunny said...

What became of the library and the “the Society of the Preservation of the Arts”? The collection of theater memorabilia was fantastic!

LAkompany said...

In the mid-1980s, I spent a lot of time at the Ed Wynn Comedy Lounge while I was managing comedians. Great place. I also attended a couple of functions at the rooftop gardens restaurant. Fantastic. I hope some day to see the interiors again.

jagsound said...

I worked at this great old theater back in the early 80's as a stage hand. My boss was a great old guy named Noris,he had a limp ,didn't remember much but he was a great guy.
Exploring all the halls and tunnels was amazing and always an adventure.
I was friends with the Shimada family who would preform there from time to time with the "It's Magic shows".
Anyway just wanted to leave a post here.

Unknown said...

Great background and leg work on all your parts.

Just an amazing building harking back to era bygone.

Floyd B. Bariscale said...

Thanks, Unknown.

Anonymous said...

David Houk operates with a bit of a scorched earth policy. About two years ago, he held a garage sale in the lobby, and was selling the original bench seats that can be seen in your black & white lobby picture. Pretty lame.

Kathryn Bassett said...

Sunny wanted to know what became of the library and the SPVA collection of theater memorabilia. They merged in with the library of The Magic Castle.

Glad to see this blog post and all the wonderful pictures. Sure brings back memories as I was a charter year member. We were married in Tin Pan Alley!

Laura Hudson said...

So nice to know that the developers weren't able to have their way with this gem! Thanks for taking the time to dig up the history of this fantastic building! With any luck, it will be around for a very long time!

LifeSailor said...

I was so delighted to see this thread. IN the early 80s, as a member of SPVA, I attended a function at this grand, magnificent place. A friend led me up the winding metal staricase to the roo=f. Once there, he threw the switch and "Sha-zam!" - he lit up the Queen Mini. It was a night of double-breasted black jacket and my girlfriend n college.

I also saw jazz, and theater, and radio reenactments there.

Does anyone know if one can enter the building? Is it available for events, or tours? Is it in the sights of any preservation group in L.A.

Thank you.

Sandi Hemmerlein said...

I got to go in as an attendee of The Blumhouse of Horrors Halloween attraction last month, which takes you on a guided tour into the lobby, down into the basement through the dressing rooms, all the way upstairs into the 2nd (smaller) theater and some kind of parlor or something, and finally down the side aisle into the house of the main theater, and ONTO the stage. (Also onto the mezzanine that overlooks the lobby.) Much of it was dark and spooky given the event, but lots of glimpses at some very cool stuff.

Floyd B. Bariscale said...

That would've been a blast, Sandi. I'm disappointed I missed it.

Anonymous said...

I saw the Alison Moyet concert here in March of '93. GREAT venue with great sound. Walked past it the other night (11/12/13) to Alison Moyet again at the club nokia. Fond memories. :)

Anonymous said...

It gives me great joy to read all the comments of our "hope" to be new home. We are intending to bring back this gem to her glory soon. She will be filled with amazing concerts and theatre productions on a full scale. We are connected with a very special person that is a historic theatre expert who is guiding us along the detailed path to show us how to restore her properly. I am a native Anglian and withstanding all obstacles I will join my team in making this dream come true. In a perfect world we will open July 2015. Please keep good thoughts and positive energy our way. We look forward to the day to welcome you all back with open arms and much needed celebration. Blessings to you all.

Hunter Smit said...

hello there! Im excited to hear that this theatre has brought much joy to the community.

I'm working on a crowd-funding campaign that will help restore the theatre. Our goal is to have the Variety Arts Center back to life by summer of next year.

Throughout this campaign, I am trying to connect the past with the present. If you had visited, or been a part of the theatre during it's operating condition, I would love to hear from you!!!

Please contact me at my e-mail and tell me your story, and I look forward to bring this center back to lief!!!

Hunter Smit