In Memoriam

By Nick Bradshaw

The derelict cinemas of Los Angeles are inspiring a new documentary essay on these unique spaces of the filmic imaginary

"Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real… Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby." – The Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit

Yes, this was the coalface of the virtual revolution. Los Angeles grew up with the movies, before it learnt to sprawl; as its downtown arteries swelled with migrants and dream-seekers in the late nineteenth century, they were also colonised by showmen, beginning a four-decade flowering of vaudeville houses, penny arcades, nickelodeons, movie theatres (as the Americans like to call them) and movie palaces. Even before film producers came for the raw California landscape and sunshine, exhibitors were building Babel-towers of spectacle along Broadway.

The city’s first Orpheum vaudeville theatre was just a year and a half old when it hosted the city’s first film screening in 1896. ‘Any novelty will take well in Los Angeles’, the Los Angeles Herald diagnosed, and by 1931 a half-mile stretch of Broadway and its adjacent streets sat 20,000 filmgoers – the densest concentration in the United States. The movies had learnt to talk, stages had turned to screens, and enterprising fleapits had consolidated into flagships of corporate chains.

But the new grows old, and the restive must move on. In other cities the Great Depression put a pause on theatre-building; in downtown Los Angeles it put a death hex, as fashion again moved west, while the core was ceded to waves of new, poorer immigrants, and left to grow old. Like Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, the screens of Broadway have seen things you wouldn’t believe:

FILM THEATRE MANAGER DIES IN BOX OFFICE (Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1943)
A customer stepped up to the box office of the Roxie Theatre, 518 S. Broadway. “One ticket, please,” he said. There was no response. The man in the glass enclosure, Harry R. Metzger, 37, manager, seemed coldly unconcerned. His eyes stared straight ahead. The customer called attendants. Metzger, they found, was dead, apparently of heart disease.

The Belasco Theatre, scene of many a dramatic triumph in the boom days just before talking pictures arrived, was sold yesterday to be converted into a church. Down will come the signs of the last motion-picture double bill: French Nudists and Girls for Sale.

George Rae, 38, was held in City Jail yesterday on a charge that he robbed the Warner’s Downtown Theatre, where he once was employed as a doorman. Rae was caught walking out of the theatre shortly after he pointed a gun at Lou Schirmeister, 45, theatre manager, and demanded some money.

The only clues to the identity of a woman who slashed her wrists and died early yesterday between a row of seats in a downtown all-night theatre were a Canadian dollar bill and a telephone number written on a cafe receipt, homicide detectives reported. The body was found by a patron, Claude R. Williams, 2108 S Maple St., when the house lights went up at 5 a.m. yesterday after the last show in the Roxie Theatre.

Another step in the revitalisation of the downtown Los Angeles area will get under way April 1 with the demolition of a famous Los Angeles landmark, the RKO Hillstreet Theatre building.

An argument between rival gang members led to gunfire that wounded two bystanders in the lobby of a downtown theatre showing a horror movie, Los Angeles police said Sunday. The shooting started shortly before A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 – the Dream Master was due to end at 6:45 p.m. Saturday.

Downtown’s last full-time projector dimmed its beam for the last time in 2000, at the city’s fourth Orpheum theatre. You can now dance, or pray, or purchase a cheap TV, at several of the streets’ dozen remaining tumbledown theatres and movie palaces; at several others you can just hang with the ghosts. The Orpheum and the Million Dollar Theatre have even been refurbished for stage shows – but in all of them, the movies have packed up and left.

‘Los Angeles used to be the city of the future; now it’s a future that’s come and gone,’ Thom Andersen told me when I interviewed him for this magazine four years ago. His video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself showed the myriad ways in which Hollywood had misrepresented the city – its buildings, its people, but most of all its history – and it championed alternative portraits of Los Angelinos by such unsung neo-realists as Kent McKenzie, Haile Gerime, Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry. I asked him something along the lines of, ‘should films always be realist?’ But later I decided that a better question would have been: Why are they so often not?

I subsequently followed Andersen back to the California Institute of the Arts, to study film- and video-making with the likes of him and James Benning, the structuralist filmmaker. Benning’s minimalist landscape studies like 13 Lakes and 10 Skies insist, inter alia, on the weight of the world, the obduracy of nature, and he tackles the thorny problem of trying to teach artistry by taking his students out into a variety of landscapes and asking them to pay attention. He calls the class ‘Listening and Seeing’, and it’s tantamount to the process of making one of his films. For Andersen and Benning, the closely observed world is fuller of surprises than any person’s imagination.


One morning Benning met us at the train station at the back of school – CalArts is two valleys north of Los Angeles proper, and most students have cars – and sent us downtown, to wander the wrong side of the tracks, from the [penitentiary] to the city’s vast skid row, which could double for the aftermath of a war zone (and in class terms, surely is one). The neglect is flagrant: Norman Klein, another CalArts professor, called his book of Los Angeles excavations The History of Forgetting, and the city is nothing if not a testament to the power of distraction. Europeans know how to sweep their dirt under the carpet; in Los Angeles you can trust most people to look the other way, perhaps at the big billboard in the sky. At any rate, three blocks up from the near-apocalypse, I walked past one blank marquee and shutters. Then another, and another.

Now, I’m not the only one to fall for the poetry, or the paradox, of a derelict cinema. The movies have long sung keens for their own death, from The Last Picture Show to Goodbye Dragon Inn. And documentary filmmakers are now joining the act: Jim Fields’ Preserve Me a Seat was originally a short (since expanded to feature length) about the last Cineramadome in the US, Omaha’s Indian Hills Theatre. John Pappas and Michael Bisberg made a worthwhile student short about Chicago’s jilted Uptown Theatre, Uptown: Portrait of a Palace, and Christian Bruno is currently finishing Strand: A Natural History of Cinema, an account of San Francisco’s repertory cinemas.

But derelict cinemas in Los Angeles carry obvious extra resonance. The Los Angeles Conservancy does a tidy business touring sight-seers along the ‘Historic Theatre core’, and every summer it re-opens those cinemas it can for a season of nostalgic re-enactments called Last Remaining Seats – a title Anne Conser and Robert Berger borrowed for their loving book of photographs of these former houses of spectacle, now become spectacles themselves. William Gibson takes a ride down Broadway in No Maps for These Territories, a documentary travelogue through his outlook on the post-territorial West – it’s a cinch he’d be stirred by these early, abandoned gateways to the screen world.


Film may be dead, or it may simply have moved into Phase Two: we’re ever more surrounded by screens and their plastic images, covering ever more of the old world. ‘We are the animal that represents,’ Gibson mused in his performance piece Memory Palace. ‘We’ve always been on our way to this new place, that is no place really, but it is real.’

Hollywood, certainly, remembers its Broadway heritage. Call it rape or reverence, but the dream factory’s cameras are regularly milking the sights of Downtown, shooting its built-up streets for New York (cf 48 Hrs, Conspiracy Theory, The Last Action Hero; New York remains, in Hollywood cliché, the American ur-city), ducking inside the old theatres for a shot of a stage show (Funny Girl, Gypsy, Dreamgirls), or just ogling the decadence of their tumbledown marquees (Strange Days, Fight Club, Transformers). The Los Angeles Theatre plays Carnegie Hall in Man on the Moon, an old London theatre in The Prestige, a Paris ballroom in Rush Hour 3, the Vatican in End of Days, and the Gotham Excelsior Grand Casino in Batman Forever. The movies take care of their own, after a fashion. As public, organic spaces, Broadway’s cinemas may now be fossilised, but they live on, transfigured, in the realms of the ideal.

Is a movie theatre more ‘real’ when it’s dead – when its stones and drapes no longer serve to seduce and sell you spectacle, to lure you on, but stand bare for themselves? What is a movie theatre when it’s shuttered and empty, its screen unlit and unseen? Bishop George Berkeley, the fount of philosophical immaterialism, taught us that esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. Subjectivity is all. The notion of an unperceived cinema, he would have counselled, is nonsense; a movie theatre is only its spectacle. The auditorium of Broadway’s Tower Theatre now exists only as a night club in The Mambo Kings, or as the magic theatre in Mulholland Dr.

Berkeley might be the patron saint of California – he gave his name to the college town, and pinned his hopes for human progress on the virgin continent. His poem On the Prospects of Planting Arts and Learning in America (1726) gave the title to one of the great painterly expositions of the frontier doctrine of Manifest Destiny and American expansionism, Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes it Way:

The Muse, disgusted at an Age and Clime,
Barren of every glorious Theme,
In distant Lands now waits a better Time,
Producing Subjects worthy Fame:
In happy Climes, where from the genial Sun
And virgin Earth such Scenes ensue,
The Force of Art by Nature seems outdone,
And fancied Beauties by the true:
In happy Climes the Seat of Innocence,
Where Nature guides and Virtue rules,
Where Men shall not impose for Truth and Sense,
The Pedantry of Courts and Schools:
There shall be sung another golden Age,
The rise of Empire and of Arts,
The Good and Great inspiring epic Rage,
The wisest Heads and noblest Hearts.
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay;
Such as she bred when fresh and young,
When heav’nly Flame did animate her Clay,
By future Poets shall be sung.
Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way;
The four first Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the Day;
Time’s noblest Offspring is the last.

Then again, he might just be the patron saint of postmodernism and privatisation. Westward Ho?

Nick Bradshaw is a filmmaker and critic, currently working on Night for Day, a feature documentary essay about the old cinemas of downtown Los Angeles. Send money! Interested sponsors can contact him at From the sun to the stars…