Genealogies of Film's Ruination: The Cinemas of Los Angeles' Broadway

By Stephen Barber


Film's end begins with a glorious scar on the face of the city. Once the end of film has been located, the eye can travel in any direction, backwards in time, forwards in time, or more profoundly into a moment of immediacy, and into the transformative space and corporeality of filmic ruination. Film's end is a matter for the human eye, for memory, and oblivion.

The Broadway avenue of Downtown Los Angeles holds the greatest concentration worldwide of abandoned, but intact, cinemas, whose histories encompass almost the entirety of the existence of film, together with its obsessions, caprices and mutations. That procession of once-lavish and luxurious cinemas, the zenith of technological innovation in their respective moments of construction, along the Broadway avenue, forms a geographically linear graveyard to experience film's end, running directly north to south, parallel to westerly avenues that carry high-rise banking-towers and vast corporate image-screens, and to easterly avenues that contain century-old skid-row hotels and now-illegible tea-painted billboards.

Filmic history can now only exist in fragments, since its amalgamation with the digital has irreparably scrambled its resolution, but also because film itself was never a medium to be incorporated and defused within the linear, the historical, the categorical, and always wielded an integral capacity for aberrance, for the arbitrary, and for the shattering of time. Even in their geographical existence, the cinemas contained in the linear north-south avenue of Broadway possess contradictory histories, multiple origins and ends, as well as disparate architectures, facades and interiors.

In most cities worldwide, a collection of grandiose cinemas such as those of Broadway, once obsolete and emptied-out, would have been demolished, as happened in many cities, such as San Francisco, Tokyo and London, so that such cinemas' presence, and its deep embedding in the lives and visions of those cities' populations, would have to be conjured or hallucinated back into existence, or substantiated with photographic and memory-based evidence, in order for that once-seminal aura of cinema to even subsist in the contemporary moment. By contrast, in Los Angeles' Broadway - in large part through the power of indifference and oblivion itself, exercised in what, for decades, was a near-forgotten and neglected zone of the city - the abandoned cinemas perversely survived, as they did in the avenues of other cities, such as Lisbon and Riga, thereby tangibly embodying, in their contrary dereliction and endurance, the living end of film.

The twelve cinemas of Broadway were constructed between 1910 and 1931, with the first and last cinemas positioned alongside one another in the avenue. During those two decades of the cinemas' pre-eminence, Los Angeles' film-premieres and first-runs of major films often took place in Broadway, and the night-time avenues became saturated with crowds awaiting the arrival of searchlight-illuminated film-stars. That interval of two decades, its origin only fifteen years on from the first-ever public film-screenings, by the Skladanowsky Brothers in Berlin, in December 1895, is a moment stranded within competing film histories; those histories left the Broadway cinemas marooned within the city's space, once the onrush of Los Angeles' film-industry had transplanted its axis westwards, towards Hollywood, at the beginning of the 1930s (extending a trajectory that had already propelled that axis from a transitory origin two avenues eastwards, in Main Street, site of Los Angeles' ramshackle and soon-vanished nickelodeons). As a result, the cinemas of Broadway remained within their own cracked fragment of history, and their own scorched-earth urban terrain.

The facades and interiors of the Broadway cinemas were designed to transmit infinite luxury and maximal expense to the eyes of their audiences; that excessive expense could even serve to name the cinemas, as with the avenue's northernmost cinema, the Million Dollar Theatre. In many cases, shopping arcades and office-complexes were incorporated into the architectural design, either surrounding the cinema's auditorium or else extending several storeys above it. The cinemas' exterior design relentlessly vacuumed their audience's eyes into the interiors, beginning with the vividly-coloured solar mosaics embedded into the public sidewalks in front of the foyers. The facades, often constructed with premium-quality stone imported from Italian quarries, and intricately carved and decorated with figures drawn from European or Mayan mythologies, both exclaimed the titles of current films on colossal marquees and hoardings, and also intimated that the film-going experience was to be a lavish, cultured one.


Each foyer accentuated that ocular extravagance, with opulent decoration replicating Versailles palace-interiors or Gothic infernos, and leading to marbled restrooms, restaurants, walnut-panelled smoking-lounges, and sound-proofed areas in which to exile wailing children. The projection-box contained the latest image-technology, and the entire building demonstrated technological innovations, including systems to transmit the film-image onto miniaturised screens for the socialising audience seated in the lounge-areas. Inside the auditorium itself, often able to seat several thousand spectators in multiple tiers, balconies, and side-boxes, the audience first saw the spectacular fire-curtain, emblazoned with sunbursts or planetary constellations, before the vast screen was revealed and the film began.

The cinemas had been constructed so that their own eventual disintegration and ruination would form an equally compelling ocular and sensorial spectacle to their originating moment of glory. In some cases, the moments of their completion and redundancy were near-simultaneous; the Los Angeles Theater, constructed as the venue for the premiere of Chaplin's City Lights in 1931 (Chaplin arrived in Broadway with Albert Einstein, in front of Depression-era crowds forming hostile bread-queues rather than an entranced audience), had gone bankrupt by the end of the same year. New cinemas, such as the Chinese Theatre and the El Capitan Theatre, had already been built on Hollywood Boulevard, and now supplanted those on Broadway as the film-industry's preferred venues.

Each of the twelve Broadway cinemas passed through the following five decades in different ways, with some cinemas packed beyond capacity, twenty-four hours a day, during the war-years of 1941-5, for cut-price screenings of B-movies and newsreels. The avenue's department-stores, which had formed another point of attraction for its cinemas' audiences, declined over the post war decades, leaving empty buildings, and a huge influx of Mexican and El Salvadoran street-traders led to many cinemas specialising in South American films, before spiralling downwards into an array of martial-arts and exploitation genres. By the 1970s, Broadway had become a forbidding part of the city at night, with few people remaining in the streets after dark other than the mad, desperate and homeless; at times, otherwise-homeless people literally lived in the never-closing cinemas. All-night screenings for riotous audiences of cult-film die-hards left the cinemas' original screens indented by thrown missiles, torn and stained. Several cinemas were closed-down since their construction no longer met earthquake regulations, but in most cases, the cinemas ended in pornography, with depleted audiences transfixed by images of pornography-stars spraying semen on the already-stained screens. By the early 1990s, all had ceased showing films, and took on their new status as abandoned cinemas.

The transformation of the Broadway cinemas by their abandonment reveals how those ghost-spaces retain the aura of film and accentuate it into a vital ocular matter of memory and destruction, and how those spaces enable the prising-apart of filmic obsession, to show both its seminal power and the power of its disintegration. The posthumous mutation of those cinemas since their closures - into cultist churches, nightclubs, sex-venues, experimental art-spaces, shop-storerooms for plasma-televisions and digital artefacts, or simply into petrified spaces of accumulated ruination - also illuminates how film, with its ongoing, hybrid mutations, even after its ostensible 'death', remains the pivotal medium for human experience and for its new forms of vision.

This is an extract from Stephen Barber's book Abandoned Images, forthcoming from Reaktion. Stephen Barber is a writer on cities and experimental art. Thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation and CalArts.