Deco Theatre Has a Polished, and Tarnished, History

The Four Star Theatre on Wilshire Blvd  in 1957 for a movie opening included bleacher seating on the sidewalk for fans eager to see movie stars.
The Four Star Theatre on Wilshire Blvd in 1957 for a movie opening included bleacher seating on the sidewalk for fans eager to see movie stars.

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.

A 1938 premiere drew crowds even across busy Wilshire Blvd.
A 1938 premiere of “In Old Chicago” drew crowds even across busy Wilshire Blvd.

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.

This 1946 photograph of the block shows the series of small stores in the complex, to the east of the theatre.
This 1946 photograph of the block shows the series of small stores in the complex, to the east of the theatre.

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.

This 1956 shot of the Four Star shows its glory days with added neon lighting above the stylized geometric tower.
This 1956 shot of the Four Star shows its glory days with added neon lighting above the stylized geometric tower.

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Julie Grist

Julie co-founded the Larchmont Buzz with fellow buzzer Mary Hawley in 2011 and served as Editor, Publisher and writer for the hive for many years until the sale of the Buzz in August 2015. She is still circling the hive as an occasional writer.

2 thoughts on “Deco Theatre Has a Polished, and Tarnished, History

  1. Thanks for these articles on the Four Star, Julie! It was great seeing some vintage views I wasn’t familiar with along with some unfamiliar historical data. I’m sure the Mansfield will be fine, but it’s sad to lose another theatre. Despite that historical assessment, the theatre was relatively intact and could have been a fine community asset worked into a new project.

    1. The city should – immediately – consider finding a way for the development rights can be transferred from a historic building to another site – with guidelines to protect the neighborhood where the rights are being transferred. That way the building could be saved and the owner would still have the ability to use, trade or sell those new rights. And there would need to be very specific and appropriate protections to keep that right from being misused. But that would then guarantee the long term preservation of even the fully ‘protected’ buildings which can still be demolished.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *