rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,

Street Scene

Here is another one of those old photographs of a vanished scene from downtown Los Angeles. It was taken on a July day in 1928, and the abbreviated shadows indicate that it must have been very close to noon. The original picture was of a larger area, but I cropped it to zero in on the ornate facade of Bard's College Theatre, at 439 S. Hill Street. At various times, there have been at least nine theatres along Hill Street between 4th and 11th Streets, Bard's College being one of the smaller of those houses, but its fanciful facade made it one of the most ebullient, in an ebullient time. The intricate terra cotta and plaster ornamentation was studded with light bulbs, which must have made it quite eye catching by night. The decoration was most likely polychrome, as was the common practice in early movie theatres, but I've never seen a color picture of the place. In fact, this is the only picture of it that I've ever found.

I'm not sure when the College Theatre was built. I've seen photographs of this part of Hill Street dated as late as 1907 in which its site is occupied by a Victorian house of modest size, already surrounded by larger commercial and institutional buildings. But Main Street and Broadway were the Rialtos of Los Angeles, both of these streets having numerous theatres by 1910, so it is unlikely that Bard's was in operation before that year, despite its art nouveau appearance which would seem to indicate a fairly early construction date, and that it was most likely the first of the theatres to be built on Hill Street.

The College was named for the Los Angeles branch of the California State Normal School, the system of teacher's colleges which was the ancestor of todays California State College and University System. The theatre was just north of 5th Street, and the Normal School occupied a massive Victorian pile located two blocks west, rising on an outcrop of Bunker Hill which blocked the westward extension of 5th Street. The theatre's location was probably chosen to intercept the students walking east toward the competitors along Broadway and Main Street.

I like to picture the future schoolteachers of the era going off to see the scandalous silent movies of the jazz age-- Joan Crawford kicking up her heels, Theda Bara vamping a succession of heavily made-up matinee idols, Valentino flaring his nostrils at a succession of doe-eyed screen virgins, and a whole parade of frequently shirtless Don Juans and often scantily clad starlets-- the properly Victorian College Deans must have been horrified. I wonder if any of the prim, elderly lady teachers who still presided over many classrooms when I was in elementary school were among those girls who, in the dark of a 1920's movie theatre, were titillated by the sight of Ramon Navarro, nearly naked, rowing a Roman galley in Ben Hur?

1928 must have been a year as ebullient as the facade of this theatre. I wonder how many members of the crowd in this picture thought so? There aren't many faces here. Most of the passersby are headed away from the camera. Two of those standing in the street (actually in what used to be called a "safety zone" (surely a misnomer) which was where passengers entered and de-boarded streetcars) look as though they might be aware of the camera. The straw-hatted boy on the left, and the rather matronly woman on the right. Everyone else seems oblivious, busy with their lives, on their way to or from the newsstand, the shoeshine parlor, the lunch room, the Subway Public Market, or the Pacific Electric's Subway Terminal itself, up the block, from which frequent trains fanned out to Glendale, the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

The people on the safety island may be waiting either for other Pacific Electric interurban trains, which ran along Hill Street on their way to and from Venice and Santa Monica by a southern route, as well as to the beach towns along the southern section of Santa Monica Bay, or for one of the local cars of the Los Angeles Railway which rolled along the miles of streets stretching out from downtown through all the neighborhoods of aging Victorian cottages, craftsman bungalows, Spanish stuccoes, faux-Tudor and Norman houses which had, in a mere four decades, been spread across tens of thousands of acres of former grasslands where Mexican grandees had pastured their cattle but sixty years before this July afternoon.

Had any of the passing throng thought on those decades, they might have taken the fate of that vanished civilization as a warning. In the building just south of the College Theatre, the fabulously well-to-do among Los Angeles businessmen were probably sitting down to lunch in the spacious and lavish quarters of the California Club. They were sufficiently confident that they were already planning a newer, more lavish clubhouse, which was soon built a few blocks west on Flower Street, on land just vacated by the Normal School, which was moving to a larger campus on Vermont Avenue. Another part of the land, south of where 5th Street was to at last be cut through the chopped hill, would be the location of the new central Public Library.

Looking out the windows on the south side of their current clubhouse, the movers and shakers of the era could have observed an array of splendid, large buildings surrounding Pershing Square-- Philharmonic Auditorium, The new Biltmore Hotel, the massive Metropolitan Theatre, and several modern office towers. That July noon must have seemed like the dawn of a new age to them. It is unlikely that either the businessmen in the California Club or the ordinary citizens paying their dime to see the double bill of movies with Only Big Stars at the College Theatre next door had any idea what was to come. They were caught up in the moment.

Just as I'm not sure when the College Theatre was built, I don't know when it was demolished. It was gone before I ever saw it, I know. I think it may have been taken down at about the same time as the old California Club, which was replaced in 1930 by an art deco office tower which was itself one of the last gasps of the prosperity of the 1920's. Other relics of that era outlasted the theatre. The Metropolitan, later the Paramount, met the wrecking ball in 1963 (and bankrupted the wrecking company that got the demolition contract, so solid was it), the same year the last streetcar rolled through Los Angeles. Hill Street lost its streetcars even earlier, and the 1920's era subway was shut down even earlier. Philharmonic Auditorium reverted to a church in 1963, and was demolished in the mid 1980's. The Biltmore survives, as do most of the office buildings on the square. But Los Angeles is a very different city from the place captured in this old photograph.

I look at the gray images of those passing pedestrians revealed by vanished light, and their facelessness is expressive. There they are in their world, not knowing how it is about to change, not knowing that I will ever be sitting here looking at their digital shades. And I look at the boy in the safety island wearing the straw hat. He appears to have been young enough then to still be around now, an old man. In a moment I will click on the "Update Journal" button, and send his visible form out into the virtual world, from which I acquired it to begin with. However unlikely, it's nevertheless entirely possible that he will see it. It occurs to me that the virtual world is strange, but no stranger than any other part of reality. With all that has happened, we somehow manage to perpetuate these bits and pieces, but still have no idea what is ultimately to become of them. We'll look at them, I guess, while they last, and wonder. That's what I do, at least.

College Theatre
College Theatre

The College Theatre, 439 S. Hill Street, Los Angeles, in July 1928.


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