During the past few months the 1927 Wilkes Vine Street Theater, half a block south of Hollywood Boulevard, has come out of a stucco cocoon. A cocoon of various designs has covered the landmark theater structure since 1954 so as to give it a “modern” look. New owners, Nosotros, and its chairman, legendary actor, humanitarian, and community leader, Ricardo Montalban, have restored the façade after 50 years of hiding as phase 1 of their plans for the Richardo Montalban Theater’s restoration and renovation.
Mr. Montalban had organized the purchase of the theater in 1999 for Nostros raising the funds to purchase it from UCLA who had kept the theater mostly shuttered after Center Theater Group had left a few years before. Various plans for the theater were floated until earlier this year when plans were submitted to the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for approval, owing to the structure’s historic status.
At that point, Hollywood Heritage was asked to review plans for the façade. These included substantially retaining the stucco coverings as Nosotros had been told that nothing historic remained underneath. I had seen sections of the original façade during UCLA’s resurfacing in 1991 when it was exposed for one day. The approval to recover it had already been given, so I waited until the next opportunity.
Discussions with the CRA’s Kip Rudd, Hollywood Heritage board member and historic architect Bill Roschen, and the theater’s architect stressed removing the stucco and metal coverings and restoring the façade. Kip Rudd agreed and had the owners strip away the stucco where I had viewed parts of the original façade in 1991, and, as remembered, the original façade was evident, much to the surprise and delight of the architects and owners.
The CRA gave an arts / historic building loan of $400,000 to help with the additional costs of restoration, much of it planned from photos supplied by longtime Hollywood Heritage supporter and Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. Mr. Rudd commented on Hollywood Heritage’s help by stating, “We really appreciate that Hollywood Heritage was able to inform us of the theater’s surviving hidden architecture and their push to restore it. They helped to make this a great preservation project for an important building that is now, once again, a community asset.”
Hollywood Heritage has talked with project director Jerry Velasco about helping to locate photos or drawings of the original interior so that phase 2 of the theater’s restoration can start early next year. We are also talking about displaying items from our museum archive on the theater’s display from the 1920s to the 1970s. Mr. Velasco has spoken to us about their strong commitment to the theater’s history and how Mr. Montalban wants to see it preserved and promoted.
The theater has several events upcoming in July and August including special programs of Latino stand-up comics, and will later feature plays, concerts, and currently has Salsa lessons Sunday at 2:00 (Nosotros also has various acting classes, seminars, and workshops), as the theater becomes a true cultural center for everyone. Visit their web site at www.ricardomontalbantheatre.org or call (323) 466-8566 for schedules or rental information. It should be also noted that the theater will present a broad range of multicultural programming, produced in house or through rentals (phase 3 will expand offices and backstage production space to benefit all users) and almost all programs are in English.
Nosotros was founded in 1970 by Mr. Montalban and other Latin entertainment leaders (Desi Arnaz, Fernando Lamas, etc.) leading to the creation of the Ricardo Montalban Foundation in 1998 and the purchase of the theater. Their mission there is “to produce, present, and support outstanding, meaningful, and inclusive world-class theater that examines issues of common and universal concern for all people, as seen through a prism of the Latino experience.”
The Wilkes Vine Street Theater has been a landmark for the entertainment industry for over 75 years, a tradition that Mr. Montalban is continuing on into the next century. Early on, shows were produced here by theater and movie star Edward Everett Horton. By the mid 1930s the theater was hurting and movies were shown here, and finally CBS Radio took over. The Milton Berle, Burns and Allen, and other radio shows were broadcast from here, but it was best known for the Lux Radio Theater program broadcast from here every Monday night. From January 1936 until 1945, when he was banned form radio until a labor dispute, the show was hosted by Cecil B. DeMille. Stars did live 1-hour versions of their recent movie releases with every major and minor star appearing until the show moved to NBC in 1954, ending in 1955.
It was then remodeled and became the Huntington Hartford Theater where live theater returned with such stars as Buster Keaton, Vivien Leigh, and Helen Hayes. In 1964 the theater closed and looked doomed until a group led by Los Angeles theater producer Jimmy A. Doolittle took over. In the next 5 years over 2 million people attended plays here, with every major and minor star of that era entertaining into the 1970s. Stars included Henry Fonda, Carol Burnett, Gloria Swanson, Zero Mostel, Anthony Perkins, Myrna Loy, Eli Wallich, Jason Robards, Carroll Baker, Eartha Kitt, Richard Dreyfus, Dick Van Dyke, Charles Aznavour, Tammy Grimes, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Miriam Makeba, and many more. Directors such as Tony Richardson, Arthur Penn, Gene Saks, Burgess Meredith, Mike Nichols, John Gielgud, Peter Hall, George Abbott, and John Houseman created magic there. In 1985 the theater was renamed the James A. Doolittle Theater, used by various groups until 1999’s sale.
In this great tradition of live entertainment, Hollywood Heritage welcomes Ricardo Montalban and his revived theater project to Hollywood as a restored landmark and as a return of great theater. We also thank Kip Rudd, the CRA, Councilman Eric Garcetti, and his planning deputy Allison Becker, for pursuing our efforts to restore the theater and their loan to help make it a reality.