Variety Arts Center Building
1924 – Allison & Allison
940 South Figueroa Street – map
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.
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).
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).
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.
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”.
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 – 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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
“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