Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Walter P. Temple built two movie theaters in the early 1920s, including his first building project, the Temple Theatre in Alhambra at the end of 1921 and the Rialto Theatre in El Monte the following year, and it was the era of the grand “movie palaces” in greater Los Angeles and elsewhere in the United States.
One of the more unusual theaters was the Carthay Circle, which opened on this day 91 years ago, in the west Los Angeles area off Wilshire Boulevard and San Vicente Boulevard. In 1926, the location was still pretty undeveloped, though that was quickly changing as the relentless move west along Wilshire was moving fast.
Built in an exuberant expression of the massively popular Mission Revival style and designed by A. Dwight Gibbs, the structure did feature a round auditorium (hence its name), though its use of “Cathay” [an old European name for China] was a bit odd given its pseudo-Spanish architecture.
More interesting, it was said in a Los Angeles Times article of that day to be “the only one on record built in commemoration of a state’s pioneers,” and featured painted murals of early California scenes by Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939), who was a specialist of Western themes and known by one recent art article as a “Master of Moonlight” for the dramatic use of the effect of moonlight on his scenes.
The film that was played at the opening was Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Volga Boatman,” adopted from a novel about the Russian Revolution. Sandwiched between his major biblical extravaganzas of “The Ten Commandments” (1923) and “King of Kings” (1927), the picture is not usually given much attention these days when it comes to the impresario’s oeuvre. though the Times’ Edwin Schallert, on a piece the next evening, the 19th, reviewed it favorably compared to DeMille’s last two pictures since “The Ten Commandments.”
Schallert, in fact, was so impressed by the building that he declared
The eyes of the motion-picture producer will henceforth have a new objective. Each and every film-maker who has a big feature to show will consider very seriously the possibility of presenting it at the Carthay Circle Theatre. This new home for entertainment, which opened Tuesday night at the western edge of the city, promises to prove an ideal setting for the premiere of first-run attractions. It is a gem of a theater, reflecting with an intimate glow the spell of the West, and providing a warmth and attractiveness that are rare even in the case of some of the finest picture palaces that have been built here.
Incidentally, Schallert, who was an actor in addition to being a film and theater critic, was the father of recently deceased character actor William Schallert (anyone remember “Admiral Hargrade” from the classic 60s spy spoof, Get Smart imploring Max, 99 or the Chief, “Will somebody give me a little push?” as well as his role as the father in “The Doris Duke Show”?)
The Homestead has several Carthay Circle-related artifacts in the collection, including a couple of photographs, three passes, and one of several programs that are listed here. As popular the movie house was in its early years, it barely made it past 40 years, when it was razed in 1969 and replaced by a more profitable office building.
The name, however, was revived in recent years when Disney’s California Adventure theme park opened and included a “Carthay Circle Restaurant” as part of its offerings. The distinctive tower and round auditorium, as well as many architectural details and features, were recreated and the eatery opened in May 2012 just about the time of the anniversary of the original’s grand opening.