Once a star-studded venue for premiere screenings, then a low-life venue for adult films and later home of the Oasis Church, the art deco theatre complex at 5100 Wilshire Boulevard in Sycamore Square will soon see the wrecking ball.
Due to extensive alterations over the years on both exterior and interior elements of the building, the once classic art deco Four Star Theatre did not receive historic designation from the City of Los Angeles, and will soon be the home to a 132 unit residential apartment complex called The Mansfield.
A Historic Resource Assessment was conducted in May of 2013 and the report sheds some light on the property and its history. The property was constructed between 1931 and 1933 by architects Walker & Eisen, one of the top architectural firms in Los Angeles for decades, and known for a plethora of buildings including the Fine Arts (Signal Oil Building), the Texas Company Building/United Artists Theater, Taft Building (Hollywood), and the California Lutheran Hospital, among many others. They collaborated on the theatre and retail property at 5100 Wilshire with Clifford A. Balch, who was known for designing at least 16 theaters across Southern California. According to a Los Angeles Times story at the time, the Four Star Theatre was designed not as an elaborate, showy theatre common to the era, but rather as a venue that fits into the surrounding residential community:
There will be none of the gaudy, glittery trappings usually associated with the screening of great pictures. The Four Star Theatre will be a haven where picture lovers, whether they be glamorous celebrities or obscure nonentities, may relax and amid simple settings [and] enjoy the entertainment they came to see.
Nevertheless, the location eventually did become a mecca for elaborate movie premieres with bleachers erected on the sidewalks to accommodate the crowds hoping to view stars attending the premieres of great films, such as the 1940 pic “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Ford who won and Academy Award that year. The Los Angeles Times revised its description of the theatre in 1940:
Lights… glamour… color… beautiful ladies gowned in the latest finery with escorts in evening attire… a crowd of 7500 fans, many of them hanging over billboards… wild cheers for the famous stars from a rooting section that resembled a college event… applause as well as cheers… jammed traffic… popping camera bulbs. All these were combined last night at the Four Star Theatre for the Los Angeles premiere of 20th Century-Fox’s production of John Steinbeck’s much-discussed novel.
The theater originally was owned by Albert Lee Stephens, Sr. (1874-1965) a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and his family who leased the theater to United Artists Theaters. In the family’s last years of ownership, from 1973 to 1976, the theatre was sub-leased to the Mitchell Brothers, infamously known for their production of adult films that were considered pornographic (no doubt to the chagrin of the local community.) Through the ’80s and ’90s the theater, under new ownership, showed independent and second-run films until it was sold in 1997 to the Oasis Church.
Many of the original buildings along Wilshire Boulevard were designed in the Art Deco Style – with Zig Zag Moderne most popular in the 1920s with its “vertical massing, towers, polychromatic terra cotta, metal, and neon-lighting.” Streamline Moderne, which was more prevalent in the 1930s, featured curved corners, undecorated flat surfaces, horizontal lines and more use of glass. Sadly, the theater maintained its integrity of setting, but lost its integrity of materials as the building was modified over the years.
Larchmont Buzz: Goodbye Deco Theatre Hello Apartments