Yesterday's stars

Fully restored: The 1926 Orpheum Theatre.
Fully restored: The 1926 Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Tim Richards

Give my regards to Broadway, writes Tim Richards as he admires its architectural gems.

I'm standing in an extraordinary space. Above me are glittering chandeliers, heavy red curtains, painted columns, delicately curved iron lace and moulded plasterwork.

It looks like one of Europe's over-the-top baroque palaces. But it's an old cinema, in downtown Los Angeles.

"It's like it was modelled on the Palace of Versailles," I murmur, craning my head to take it all in. Later, I find out it was.

Statement of confidence: The old cinemas in downtown Los Angeles spoke of optimism and glamour.
Statement of confidence: The old cinemas in downtown Los Angeles spoke of optimism and glamour. Photo: Tim Richards

The Los Angeles Theatre (615 S. Broadway) was completed in 1931, hosting the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's latest flick, City Lights. Heavily patronised during World War II, when munitions workers would catch a movie as early as 6am after a shift, the glamorous interior was a statement of confidence in the future of the motion picture.

Hollywood prospered, but sadly the grand downtown cinemas fell by the wayside as the suburbs expanded. One by one, the picture palaces along Broadway fell into disrepair, populated by flea markets and tacky retail outlets. However, recent gentrification has seen the downtown on its way back. The Los Angeles Theatre now hosts film festivals, theatre and music gigs. Up and down Broadway other survivors from the early days of film are being restored. On Saturdays the Los Angeles Conservancy offers its Broadway Historic Theatre walking tour, but it's also fun to wander Broadway on your own, snapping architectural gems.

A block north from the Los Angeles Theatre I find the Roxie (518 S. Broadway), caught between past and present. Opened in 1931 as the last cinema to be built on Broadway, its dramatic art deco arcade soars above the cheap clothing store spilling out from its former foyer.

Nearby, the 1910 Cameo (528 S. Broadway) was one of the first dedicated cinemas in the US, with space for an orchestra to accompany silent films. Outside its humble low frontage, I find myself wishing I could step back a century to experience a movie here, when it was the newest entertainment on the block.

Further north is the Million Dollar Theatre (307 S. Broadway), an opulent 1918 cinema borrowing from a lavish Spanish baroque style. Statues along the facade depict actors, dancers, artists, writers, musicians and technicians, all of whom contributed to cinema. When Ben Hur premiered here in 1925, it ran for six months.

At the southern end of Broadway are more classic cinemas, including the restored 1926 Orpheum (842 S. Broadway) with its grand French-style interior, and the 1927 United Artists Theatre (933 S. Broadway) once owned by movie stars Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Not far away, Johnny Depp owns an apartment in the beautifully restored art deco Eastern Columbia Building (849 S. Broadway). It seems the stars are returning to the street where the buzz began more than 100 years ago.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Fiji Airways and the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.

FACT FILE

Fly Fiji Airways flies to Los Angeles from $1300 economy return ex Melbourne.

Tour The Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District Walking Tour starts at 10am each Saturday. Fee $10, bookings essential via laconservancy.org.

Stay Figueroa Hotel, 939 S. Figueroa St. Millennium Biltmore Hotel, 506 S. Grand Ave.

Eat Maccheroni Republic, 332 S. Broadway, +1 213 346 9725. Umami Broadway, 852 S. Broadway, +1213 413 8626.

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