That’s a Wrap: The Opening of the Carthay Circle Theatre, Los Angeles, 18 May 1926

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.

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Built partially as a nod to “California pioneers,” including murals inside painted by noted Western artist Frank Tenney Johnson, the Carthay Circle Theater at Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards near the border of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, also had a nearby Gold Rush-themed bronze statue and vignette.  All artifacts shown here are from the Homestead’s collection.

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.

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This snapshot of the Carthay Circle Theater dates to October 1928 when it hosted the world premiere of the World War I epic, Lilac Time, starring Colleen Moore and a new star, Gary Cooper.  Note the faux crashed plane at the left which referenced the film.

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.

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This trio of Carthay Circle passes date to 1928 (for the film Interference, which starred Evelyn Brent and William Powell) and 1929 (The Divine Lady, featuring Corinne Griffith and H.B. Warner.)

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.”

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This program from the theatre dates to September 1926, about four months after the movie palace opened.

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”?)

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In addition to live performances, the main feature was King Vidor’s period piece from 17th century France, Bardelys the Magnificent, starring John Gilbert.  A young actor making an uncredited appearance as a guard in only his second film was 23-year old John Wayne, fresh from attending U.S.C.

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.

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Film tie-ins may be almost too much these days, but they go back to the early days of cinema.  Check out director King Vidor in a deluxe Lincoln LeBaron (Chrysler later revived the LeBaron model) “three-window” sedan.

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.

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