History of the Tower Theatre

Historic Photo of the Tower Theatre

The Tower Theater opened in 1927 at 802 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. It was the first theater designed by renowned architect S. Charles Lee as well as the first movie palace in downtown to be wired for sound films. The theater, at the southeast corner of Broadway & 8th Street, was also the original sneak preview location for the famed Warner Brothers movie The Jazz Singer (1927).

The Tower was designed in the French Renaissance motif with Spanish, Romanesque and Moorish influences. It has had an illustrious history for a smaller scale theater that mainly showed movies.

The Tower originally had a style 216 Wurlitzer pipe organ that was installed to accompany silent movies, but when the theater's original owner, H. L. Gumbiner, decided to commission architect Lee to design his even grander Los Angeles Theater two blocks north, the original pipe organ was eventually moved to that location in 1931. Contrary to popular rumor, the Tower never hosted vaudeville shows because it did not have a deep enough stage or backstage. Due to the limited configuration of the property, it was designed mainly for movie presentation.

The Tower had been independently operated for the first several decades of its existence. In the 1940's and early 1950's it ran newsreel films (prior to the popularity of television news coverage). In its later years, however, it was operated consecutively by the Pacific Theaters and Metropolitan Theaters Corporation chains.

Over the years, The Tower Theater was known by two other marquee namesmdash;the Newsreel and Music Hall—but returned to the Tower name after the theater underwent a major renovation in the early 1960's. According to limited historic documentation, the renovation included the repainting of the theater's interior which covered up much of the original ornate decorative painting by A.T. Heinsbergen & Co. as well as permanently removing the famous canvas ceiling dome murals (which featured clouds, angels and classic nude ladies). Around this time a much wider faux-proscenium was installed of elaborate red-velvet curtain fabric which allowed the projection of popular wide screen films.

Tower Theatre Opening Night

Fast forward to 1988 when the theater closed its doors due to waning downtown movie audiences and its main floor seats were removed in anticipation of the building being converted to an indoor swap meet. Thankfully that use never materialized and the location remained dormant until 1991 when Warner Brothers was persuaded to temporarily convert the venue to Miami’s ‘Empire Ballroom’ as a key movie set for Mambo Kings (1992) which also marked the American movie debut of actor Antonio Banderas. That film's art department took advantage of the Tower's missing main floor seats and installed a semi-permanent floating wood dance floor which remains today. The Tower's original small wooden stage and organ chamber were preserved and protected with a newer vintage-style 'horseshoe'-style stage which was carefully built over it for this particular movie. Following this shoot came a large volume of location filming uses for countless music videos, TV commercials and occasional feature films.

In 2001 with the decline of local location filming business due to strikes and runaway production, the Tower’s use as a movie location was shuttered and the site became converted to a downtown store front church until mid-2003 when the church vacated and the theater was returned to filming use. Although the City of Los Angeles will allow filming use with proper permits, special event use is only granted on a very limited case-by-case basis since the theater no longer possesses a public occupancy permit. Similarly, there is no projection equipment and the building's HVAC systems have been dormant for many years. Over the past decade the only public use has involved launch parties for the Los Angeles Conservancy‘s Last Remaining Seats classic film series and occasional VIP architectural tours. (the Tower is not included in their regular weekly Saturday morning historic theaters tour.)

Aside from film location use, the Tower has potential for future, longer-term use as a multi-purpose entertainment venue (nightclub, film screenings, auctions, weddings, corporate meetings, stand up comedy, jazz club, coffee house, etc.).

If you would like to find out more about the Tower Theater's illustrious history for research or school projects we recommend that you read the recently published book on its architect S. Charles Lee entitled The Show Starts On The Sidewalk written by Maggie Valentine. It can be ordered through most major bookstores or online at amazon.com Unfortunately, the Tower does not have the staff to respond to general historical inquiries, but you can find out more about the Tower and other historic theaters through the Los Angeles Conservancy, the National Theater Historical Society and the League of Historic American Theaters.

Please note that the archives for architect S. Charles Lee were donated to the UCLA Research Library where they now remain and can be accessed by appointment. Historic pictures may also be available for viewing by appointment through the Los Angeles Central Library's historic photograph collection. Additional pictures are available in the Bhend & Kaufman photo collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Research Center in Beverly Hills.