06 Jun A walking tour of Downtown Los Angeles Part II
Spring Street, also known as “the Wall Street of the West”, is one of the most unsuspecting streets in the whole of Downtown Los Angeles.
Not only is it decorated with 20th century Art Deco buildings like that of Wall Street in NYC, but it’s also completely void of Southern California’s iconic palm trees. Where are the palms, you ask? They’ve been intentionally excluded from the street plan to keep Spring St. popular with film companies, because just by looking at it one would guess it’s anywhere but in Downtown Los Angeles.
Also, the first film that was shot in Los Angeles was shot on Spring Street in 1897. It captured the city’s teeming street life in all its Victorian hustle and bustle.
This is Downtown Los Angeles’ The Last Bookstore (453 S Spring Street). It’s situated on 22,000 sq. ft. and is the State’s largest bookstore. And, man, is it absolutely fascinating.
The downstairs features a vinyl record and rare books section that is overgrown with indoor plants and decorated with interesting art.
The upstairs features the famous book tunnel and book window that everyone has seen on Instagram at least once, as well as a color coded section and a vault with super frightening stories.
Next is the Broadway Theater District (300-849 S Broadway) with its 12 gilded theaters built between 1910 and 1930 and all stretched along six-blocks of bustling boulevard. The district remains the only large concentration of movie palaces in the United States.
One such beauty is the historic Los Angeles Theater that seats a whopping 2,000. It was built in 1930 by S. Charles Lee who was just 21 years old when he broke ground on the palaces’ construction. Apparently he was an extremely confident young man, which connected him to the right people during the right time, despite the fact that he was an incredibly inexperienced architect. Nonetheless, Lee definitely left his mark, adorning the palace with extravagant features, including: custom-made draperies and carpets in shades of royal blue, deep red and gold and stage draperies made of silk that depict a 3D scene of the life and events of the French King Louis XIV who reigned for 72 years and 110 days, making him the longest reigning monarch of a sovereign European State. It is said that these drapes are the most expensive ever made for a movie palace. Another feature of the theater is a crying box where mothers with their babes in arm could watch the performance from a glass box with its own speakers.
Believe it or not, the theater was built in less than six months with the help of Charlie Chaplin who invested his own money to finish the theater in time for his film’s premiere “City Lights”. In attendance were dignitaries, Albert Einstein and 25,000 people who thronged the streets. This extravagant opening night, however, did receive its criticisms as it was during the Great Depression and just across the street were wrapping bread lines manned by poor citizens.
I also learned that the private owners of the many historic Broadway theaters open their doors for just one night out of the year, the last Saturday in January, during a Cinespia event named “Night on Broadway”. I personally can’t wait to check that out!
The Orpheum Theater (843 S Broadway) was named after the God of music and poetry, Orpheus, who was said to move mountains with his music.
The theater opened in 1926 as a vaudeville theater (variety theater) and showed the likes of some of Hollywood’s most venerable names, including: the burlesque queen Sally Rand, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Little Stevie Wonder.
The Pantages Theater (401 W 7th Street) was built by millionaire Greek-born Alexander Pantages (1867-1936) who got his start in show business selling seats for readings of newspapers to Alaskan miners.
Pantages built his fortune in show business and eventually began investing in the development of various theaters throughout the United States.
In 1928, however, he would experience a series of scandals that would eventually put him out of business. Joseph P. Kennedy, businessman and politician, as well as father of American President JFK, was allegedly tied to one of these scandals.
Joseph Kennedy put together RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) in 1928 and started looking for additional theaters to expand his reach. He tried to purchase the Pantages circuit, but Pantages was unwilling to sell. Then Pantages was accused of raping a woman, which damaged his public image, despite he was found innocent. By this time, Pantages was strapped for cash and decided to sell to RKO for a revised price equal to chump change for such a fantastically built piece of architecture on prime real estate. Pantages accused Kennedy of setting him up, but Kennedy was found not guilty of the accusation. Pantages’ name eventually dissipated from the public eye, but Kennedy would go on to make BIG money that financed the political runnings of his children: JFK, Robert Kennedy & Ted Kennedy.
In 1929, RKO decided they didn’t need the Pantages house at 7th & Hill as they had two other large theatres nearby, the Orpheum on Broadway and the Hillstreet at 8th & Hill, thus this one ended up with the Warner Bros who eventually changed the original Pantages marquee into their iconic WB.
This is Downtown Los Angeles’ Jewelry District (with vendors on Hill Street, Olive Street, and Broadway between 5th and 8th Streets), which is the second largest jewelry district in the world; the first is in Hong Kong, China.
7th Street is Downtown Los Angeles’ Main Street, because it connects all of the city’s districts.
This is Clifton’s Cafeteria (648 S Broadway) and it was built in 1931 by Clifford Clinton, during the height of the Great Depression.
Clifton’s Cafeteria is a relic of California’s Golden Age of Cafeterias. During Clinton’s ownership, he never turned anyone away, even if they had no money. It is said that during one 90-day period, 10,000 people ate free before Clinton opened an emergency “Penny Caveteria” in a basement a few blocks away that fed 2 million patrons during the next two years.
This cafeteria takes patrons on a journey through the Redwoods with a 40 ft. redwood tree smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant. It’s named “The Monarch”, which pays tribute to California’s last wild grizzly bear.
It is also said that Walt Disney was a BIG fan of Clifton’s and frequented the place in order to admire the taxidermy displays consisting of a 70-90 years old bison, a 70-90 years old black bear, foxes and a lion. Legend has it that Disney used Clifton’s as inspiration in his creation of Disneyland.
The gothic bar is also a delight and features a real 250 lb. meteorite that was found in Venezuela.
This is St. Vincent’s Court, which was the site of Southern California’s first institution of higher learning from 1868 to 1887 (now, Loyola University) and was founded by the Vincentian Fathers.
The Vincentian Family comprises of organizations inspired by the life and work of St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century priest from France.
The court was once a busy space comprising of delicious European cafes and restaurants. Now, it is comprised of Middle Eastern cuisine.
This is Downtown Los Angeles’ Central Park (6th St). In the 1930’s it was an intercity jungle of luscious green palms, grass and subtropical flowers.
Also, residing there were squatting gypsies until the city decided to build the area into a park, during which the gypsies packed up and moved out. It isn’t the most beautiful city park I’ve seen and is in need of a facelift, especially on account that its fountain no longer works due to State drought laws.
This is the Millennium Biltmore Hotel built in 1923.
It’s adorned with Neo-gothic details, such as gargoyles with engorged human breasts and plump cherubs. There is also a fascinating zodiac clock atop the double staircase in the main hall that part of me wants to believe was put in place by the secret Rosicrucian society. If I find out more about this, I’ll surely write about it here.
There is also a small picture museum on the second floor with photos of Ronald Raegan during his acting years and a young Judy Garland, among other famous people.
Most fascinatingly, JFK won his presidential nomination at the Biltmore, as well as The Beatles had to be airdropped by helicopter on the rooftop for their 1960’s tour, because fans clogged the streets anticipating their arrival.
Lastly, here is a remnant air raid siren from the Cold War era (which, in my opinion, the era never ended).
This now neglected old civil defense siren was once supposed to warn the populace of an incoming nuclear attack. According to some folks who lived before and through WWII, they remember the sirens being tested at 10 am on the last Friday of every month. They were put up to warn city residents of Japanese attacks. About 75 percent are still around, but are occasionally torn down during construction projects. The sirens were last used during a test in 1985.
I am very pleased with this walking tour of Downtown Los Angeles. Neel was a fantastic storyteller and his love for this city and history really made the experience a wonderful one. He gave us ample time to explore each site and I never felt like I was being rushed through the experience, as well as he always elaborated on our questions to ensure we all understood the context of the information he was providing us. Furthermore, $20 for two hours is a super competitive tour price, in my opinion, because most tour companies will charge about $50 and up for the same amount of time and type of tour. In sum, I highly recommend this fantastic experience for all ages.