The history of the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre not only highlights its many incarnations over its 90-year life, but it also provides a special window into the entire entertainment business and the performing arts in Los Angeles during the 20th cenutry, No other building and very little else in Los Angeles can tell this sort of story.
Built in 1926, the theatre’s architect was Myron Hunt, whose work included the Rose Bowl, CalTech, the Ambassador Hotel, and many other Southern California landmarks. Named The Wilkes Brothers Vine Street Theatre in honor of its builders, it was the first legitimate Broadway-style theatre in Hollywood. Its inaugural presentation in 1927 was an acclaimed production of Theodore Dreiser’s “an American Tragedy.”
By the early 1930s, Howard Hughes, already famous for his aviation projects, was producing movies and building a movie chain; he acquired the Vine Street Theatre to convert it into the first fully-automated cinema, renamed it the Mirror, and added it to his Hughes-Franklin circuit.
Hughes got out of the movie theater business after only a few years and sold the theatre in 1935 to CBS Radio which needed a home for its local station KNX and its long-running Lux Radio Theatre. Wildly popular, this anthology series featured radio adaptations of stage plays and film scripts performed by well-known actors in front of a live audience. The legendary producer/director Cecil B. DeMille was for many years both its producer and host.
Television eclipsed radio in the 1950s and CBS, wanting to consolidate its operations at Columbia Square at Sunset and Gower, sold the theatre to Huntington Hartford, the heir to the A&P grocery store fortune. He spent $750,000 remodeling and restoring it to the first class legitimate stage venue it was intended to be. The premiere presentation was “What Every Woman Knows,” written by James Barrie of “Peter Pan” fame, and starring Helen Hayes, In a very short time, the Huntington Hartford Theatre became synonymous with the high profile production featuring the biggest stares of the era.
One of them, Cary Grant, wanted to buy the theatre in 1964, but James Doolittle, who was already running the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, beat him to it. Over the next 20 years, Doolittle became the theatre’s most successful owner, and his smart productions with Hollywood and Broadway stars added luster to the 970-seat venue’s already enviable reputation for fine acoustics and sightlines.
When the Doolittle era came to an end, UCLA took over, but, after several years, the theatre went dark until Ricardo Montalbán stepped in. He envisioned having a physical presence in Hollywood that would provide inspiration and training for emerging artists in the Hispanic community and thus enable them to mainstream into the performing arts and the broader entertainment industry. The theatre was a perfect home base for implementing that vision, and the Hispanic community, which respected his talent, success and his inclusive politics, mobilized to support the acquisition of the theatre.
In 1999 a generous and anonymous donation enabled the Ricardo Montalbán Foundation to buy the building, and the Foundation reopened the theatre in May 2004 as The Montalbán. We are in the process of another restoration and are soon beginning a capital campaign for a proposed expansion of the below-stage and upstairs areas. We thank Nike for its installation of the rooftop sports court and its support over the last four years. We are looking forward to our partnership continuing through the 13/14 season with new programming by The Montalbán being added to the mix.