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Sign of the Times IV: Sensation, Scandal and Salvation at Westlake Theater

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The area surrounding MacArthur Park in Westlake is a densely packed, teeming jumble. Everything feels disordered, and everyone seems to be hustling. There are street preachers giving sermons over loudspeakers, pointing to homeless men who ignore them as they rustle in filled garbage bins. Children eat food prepared by street vendors with one hand, while the other is grasped by parents who lead them to the bus stop or Metro station. Pigeons nibble at discarded crumbs, careful not to wake the numerous weary men and women who attempt to sleep in the park's green grass. Security guards, sweating in their uniforms, stand in front of every store, suspiciously eyeing all who walk past.

But the real commercial activity is not in the stores, but on the streets. Everywhere, there are tables set up with cell phones, appliances, bedding, posters, and shoes. The vendors chat with each other, haggle with customers, play music, and hand out leaflets. Nowhere is this non-traditional economy more evident than in front of the former Westlake Theater. Though the neon sign and the marquee still read "Westlake Theater," the words "SWAP MEET" are also stenciled onto the decaying building, along with paintings of watches, camcorders and happy families purchasing these products. The swap meet once held in the theater seems to be no more, and the building is sealed with roll-down metal gates.

This does not stop the vendors though -- they have simply set up in front of the theater, using the metal gates to display dresses and pants. Tables full of goods stretch all around into the parking lot on the side of the theater. Suddenly, a police car zooms up to the theater, its lights flashing. No police officer exits the vehicle. Vendors seem to know the drill and quickly begin to stuff wares into duffle bags and suitcases. They frantically pack up the tables and fold up their signs, as the police car turns off its light and turns calmly into the theater parking lot. There it sits, watching, as people just trying to make a living rush off into the crammed streets.

It is just like a scene from a movie.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Playboys and Preachers

Every effort will be made to maintain the highest theatrical caliber in motion pictures and presentations for audiences of the Westlake district.--Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1926 (1)

In 1926, the Westlake area was already a lively place. A environ of middle and upper class respectability, this centrally located neighborhood was populated with old money Angelenos and successful business people, including a large Jewish population. Silent movies were all the rage, and though the neighborhood already had theaters, West Coast Theaters Inc. was eager to capitalize on Westlake's unique locality and ample disposable income. In April, they announced the construction of a "grade-A" theater directly across the street from Westlake (now MacArthur) Park. On the evening of September 22, 1926, the terra-cotta and cast-stone fronted Westlake Theater, designed by Richard M. Bates, with florid murals by Anthony Heinsbergen, was "dedicated by its founders to the future enrichment of Los Angeles community life." 2

With the attendant crowds and blazing sun arcs of the typical Los Angeles premiere, the new West Coast Westlake Theater, at Alvarado and Sixth, had an auspicious opening last night. This latest unit of the ever-growing chain of West Coast neighborhood houses follows closely in treatment the Spanish-Moorish architecture of early California days. Its interior a pleasing symposium of golds and browns, and blue shading into deep purple, the Westlake Theater is one of the most charming of the new Southern California show houses. Reception rooms and promenades open into an upper loggia, overlooking the inner lobby below. Two thousand persons may be accommodated on the two floors of the house. (3)

Westlake Theater was filled with frenetic activity. First run movies, including Buster Keaton's "The Cameraman" and F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," played to packed houses. But movies were not the only thing on the bill. A typical showing often included a short, like "Our Gang," a Fox movietone news reel, and live music by acts like Dave Good and His Band, or Charlie Melson and His Playboys. Most thrilling of all were the live variety acts produced by the brother and sister production team of Fanchon and Marco.

Born Fanny and Michael Wolfe, the siblings started out as a cabaret act in their native Los Angeles. They soon branched out into producing short, Busby Berkeley-style revues that they called "Ideas." The "Ideas" featured beautiful show girls, singers, dancers, and comedians. These mini-productions were sent out, fully equipped, to theaters all over the country. They were a huge draw, "the standard by which stage shows [were] judged." 4

Another big draw was the previews the large theater would offer for brief engagements. The L.A. Times reported:

Will Rogers in "The Texas Steer," directed by Richard Wallace, marked the 179th preview at the Westlake Theater, breaking all previous West Coast records for previewing films to date. The majority of the films previewed at this theater have been feature productions from the output of major studios. Among the outstanding pictures that have been previewed in the last few weeks are Mary Pickford in "The Best Girl," Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer," Lillian Gish in " The Wind," John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in "Love," and Norma Talmadge in the "The Dove." 5

One of these previews aided in the disintegration of a marriage. On July 27, 1927, Frances Langdon and some friends went to Westlake Theater to catch a preview of her husband's (the comedian Harry Langdon) new picture. Who did she see there but Harry himself, cozily attending the same screening with another woman. Frances used this episode as leverage in their divorce proceedings. But love could blossom at the theater as well, and in 1930, a young couple was married on the stage as a promotional stunt. Even in quiet moments, drama unfolded in the theater's rooms. In the early morning hours of April 9, 1928, assistant theater manager F.D. McMahan walked in on an "amateur burglar" attempting to crack the safe in the business office.

He ordered McMahan to open the safe. The theater man insisted he did not know the combination, whereupon the intruder commanded him to lie flat on the floor to be bound and gagged. Robert Smith, 18 years of age, another employee, entered as the binding was in progress, and he was also told to open the safe. He too, refused, whereupon he was bound and ordered to take a place on the floor alongside of McMahan. The bandit then set to work to try his hand as a cracksman, but gave up the job after ten minutes tampering with the combo. After he had departed the two captives struggled free from their bonds and notified the police. (6)

Westlake Theater was also used for purposes other than entertainment. On most Sunday mornings and evenings, it became a church, serving as a temporary home to different non-denominational congregations. All Souls Church occupied the theater for a while, broadcasting sermons live at the theater, complete with soloists and harpists. In 1929, the Reverend Frank Dyer and his youthful church moved into the theater. According to Dyer, "all regular members will be under 35 years of age." A typical sermon was "If I were 21...", and the congregation was devoted to "preaching and fellowship, not to politics." 7. A year later, public health officials and social workers crowded the theater for a special showing of "Fools of Passion, or What Price Ignorance," a film that attempted "to depict truthfully the dangers of sex relations and the results of sex disease." 8

Westlake Theater, ca. 1940 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Westlake Theater, ca. 1940 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Jim Jones

"It was the sunglasses that caused me to finally make the connection. Even that night when I arrested him, he was wearing sunglasses in the movie. When I finally made the connection, I damn near fell off the couch."--Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1979 (9)

In 1935, the theater closed for two weeks for extensive Art Deco inspired renovations, designed by the architect S. Charles Lee. After it reopened, Westlake Theater continued as a first run theater. Although the depression and talkies shrunk the number of live shows and spectacles, the theater was still used for a variety of public events. During the war, the American Jewish Congress hosted a War Bond rally at the theater, where buyers were rewarded with the "opportunity to meet war heroes and motion-picture stars and see a preview." 10

Over 900 women came to a three day driving class at the theater in 1950. Sponsored by the Automobile Club of Southern California, a professional model helped demonstrate the correct way to drive on the increasingly congested streets. An Angeleno who patronized the theater as a child in the '40s and '50s remembered, "[It's] where I saw my favorite film noir. A large, comfortable movie house, big balcony. Quite lavish interior. Big lobby, loaded with every goodie imaginable." 11 By the mid-50s, the freeways and changing demographics had dramatically altered the make-up of Westlake. Over the next few decades, the area became an increasingly working class area.

In the late afternoon, on December 13, 1973, a man in sunglasses made "several advances inside the theater" toward an undercover policeman named Arthur Kagele. Later in the men's room, "the defendant turned toward the officer...(while) masturbating and showing his penis to the officer." 12 The man was summarily arrested, and it was not until he was being booked at the nearby Rampart Station that the man mentioned he was a preacher. He was Jim Jones, the head of the popular [supposedly] progressive People's Temple in San Francisco. The preacher was charged with lewd conduct.

The next day, Jones supporters, including Timothy Stoen, the deputy D.A. for Mendocino County and a member of People's Temple, began pushing LAPD officials to dismiss the charge. Dr. Alex Finkle, a San Francisco urologist who claimed to be treating Jones, wrote to the powers that be:

Jones has an obstruction of the outlet of the urinary bladder due to strategic enlargement of the prostate gland. Moreover there is chronic inflammation of the prostate ... and these conditions cause urinary frequency ... Even prior to seeing me, Reverend Jones had learned that jogging or jumping in place afforded improved initiation of urination. I encouraged his continuing that technique ... I am stunned to learn of the preposterous allegations (about) Reverend Jones! (13)

The case was soon dismissed by Judge Clarence A. Stromwall, and it did not make the papers. According to the L.A. Times, Jones and other officials from the Temple soon "showed up" at the Ramparts police station and spoke with two high ranking officers. One remembered that Jones "offered a $5,000 contribution to the station." 14 The offer was considered some sort of bribe, and Jones and his acolytes were "promptly escorted ... out of the station." Jones then turned up at the Police Department's records and identification division and asked for his record to be sealed. Time passed, and it seemed Jones had not gotten his way. But on February 1, Judge Stromwall ordered all records of the case amended, sealed and destroyed.

If the Reverend Jones was just an ordinary inappropriate preacher, this sordid little story probably never would have been brought up again. But history had other plans. On November 18, 1978, after ordering the killing of Congressman Leo Ryan and his aides on a nearby airstrip, Jones and 908 of his followers committed "revolutionary suicide" at Jonestown, their settlement in Guyana.

A journalist for the Los Angeles Times discovered the arrest while investigating Jones and began to make inquiries. This led to a partial investigation into the unusual dismissal and sealing of the charge. The report from the district attorney's office found no wrong doing on the part of any involved. Gilbert Garcetti, head of the D.A.'s Special Investigation Division, granted: "there are some questions left unanswered, and some of what Judge Stromwall did looks peculiar, but I decided launching a complete investigation would not bear sufficient fruit to warrant it." 15

It has been reported that handwritten notes referring to the 1973 arrest were found in the suitcase of the slain Congressman Ryan on that bloodstained tarmac in Guyana. Whether or not Ryan and Jones discussed the incident will never be known.

Westlake Theatre, 1978 | Marlene Laskey Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Westlake Theatre, 1978 | Marlene Laskey Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

A Different Kind of Hustle

Street life is thriving, particularly on Alvarado. Although much of its interior has been stripped away -- the city intervened in the 1990s to stop further damage -- some of its history remains. The ticket booth is a tiny locksmith shop. The painted ceiling is still there. And, if you walk all the way to the back of the swap meet and turn around, there's the projection booth and the balcony, without seats.--Los Angeles Times (16)

The fortunes of Westlake continued to shift, and the area became dangerous and transient, notorious for its drug deals and violent gangs. The now run-down Westlake Theater, which one patron claimed smelled "of dead rats," 17 was sold to Metropolitan Theater Corp. and changed into a Spanish language movie house. In 1986, the famous red and blue neon sign, which had been dark for decades, was relit as part of the MacArthur Park Public Art Program. In 1991, Mayer Separzadeh bought the theater, and it was converted into a swap meet. The city was concerned with the switch, and in September 1991, the building was declared a L.A. Historical Cultural Monument, to protect it from further change.

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Swap meet inside the theater, 2009 | Photo: Steve & Michelle Gerdes/Flickr/Creative Commons

A community of small vendors, mostly recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, sold all sorts of goods inside the converted theater. Here they were somewhat protected from the mean streets outside, where gang members hustled them for "rent" money. Some worked there 60 hours a week, in the dim and stuffy theater, under the watchful eyes of pampered but peeling goddesses painted on the ceiling.

In 2008, the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles bought the theater. According to a Westlake Theater website, there are plans to turn the space into a multi-use performance venue. It seems progress has been slow, and that the once vibrant interiors of the Westlake Theater are now silent. But all around it, there is life.

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Westlake Theatre Sign  | Photo: Jake Kozak/Flickr/Creative Commons

_____

1 "Westlake opens with brilliance," Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1926
2 "West Coast will open" LA Times, Sept 18, 1926, )
3 "Westlake opens with brilliance," Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1926
4 Variety Magazine
5 "Westlake holds preview record" Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1927
6 "Amateur burglar quits job" Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1928
7 "First public meeting" Los Angeles Times, November 23, 1929
8 "Social evil" Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1929
9 "'73 court file of Rev. Jones" Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1979
10 "War bond to buy theater" Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1944
11 cinematreasures.org
12 "'73 court file of Rev. Jones" Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1979
13 Ibid.
14 "Probe on dismissal" Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1980
15 "Probe on dismissal" Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1980
16 "Local government" Los Angeles Times, Jan 2007
17 cinematreasures.org
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