Million Dollar Theatre | Los Angeles Conservancy
Photo by Stephen Russo

Million Dollar Theatre

Created for theatre impresario Sid Grauman as his first Los Angeles venue, the Million Dollar was one of the earliest and largest movie palaces in the country, boasting 2,345 seats.

The theatre opened February 1, 1918 with the premiere of The Silent Man accompanied by a thirty-piece orchestra. Guests included Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin.

The twelve-story building was designed by Albert C. Martin, Sr., one of the most important architects in Los Angeles at the time and founder of one of the city’s most prominent architectural firms. The exterior of the building exemplifies the elaborate Churrigueresque (chur-rig-ur-esk) style, named after the eighteenth-century Spanish church architect and sculptor Jose de Churriguera, whose designs favored this type of architectural embellishment.

Joseph Mora, son of the famous Spanish sculptor Domingo Mora, designed the theatre’s façade, which includes bison heads, longhorn steer skulls, allegorical figures representing the arts, and even girls perched on ledges strumming stringed instruments as their legs dangle above the street. The large, scalloped arch over the entrance once framed a stained-glass window, now plastered over.

Noted theatre architect William Lee Woollett designed the theatre itself. Many of the interior appointments were designed around the 1841 English fairy tale titled King of the Golden River by John Ruskin. The organ grilles, in particular, showcase images lifted from the book, including the evil brothers, the Golden Tankard, the South West Wind, and even the dog cited in the tale.

Hanging from the coffered dome ceiling is a chandelier that once hung in the lobby of the Woollett-designed Metropolitan Theatre (now demolished) on Sixth and Hill Streets.

The massive, 110-foot-wide balcony in the auditorium was a feat of engineering. It was supported by the world’s first reinforced concrete girder, developed because of a shortage of structural steel during World War I. Permits were withheld pending a stress test of this new engineering technique. With 1.5 million pounds of sandbags piled across the span, the girder passed the test.

In the 1940s, the theatre hosted jazz and big band stars such as Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, and Lionel Hampton. In the 1950s, the Million Dollar became the first theatre on Broadway to feature Spanish-language variety shows (variedades), including headline acts from Mexico City and Latin America. The theatre served as a leading Latinx entertainment venue for decades, featuring variedades and Mexican film premieres.

The lobby has been dramatically altered; the ceiling was lowered, and its walls were covered. Yet much of the lobby’s original ceiling and murals (also depicting the King of the Golden River fairy tale) remain intact behind the drop ceiling and walls.

After serving as a church, the Million Dollar was closed to the public. It reopened for performances and special events in 2008, after a year-long refurbishment, and now serves as an event and filming location.

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