Variety Arts Theatre

940 S. Figueroa St.    | map |

Los Angeles, CA 90015

The News: In late 2015 a church group, Hill Song LA, signed a fifteen year lease on the building. They also have two five year options beyond that.  The group has been holding their services at the nearby Belasco Theatre and occasionally at other downtown theatres. 

They will move into the building in early 2017 after some renovations are completed.  See the January 2016 Eddie Kim story in the L.A. Downtown News for more about the church group.

Special Event Inquiries: For rental of the Variety Arts for filming or special event use, talk to Rebecca Reynoso at Cap Equity Locations, (323) 375-4192. Check out their web page on the Variety Arts for 259 photos of the property.

Opened: May 5, 1924 as the Friday Morning Club, a social and political group for women that had been founded in 1891.  Will Rogers was the toastmaster at the opening and guests included Charlie Chaplin and C.B. DeMille. 

Architects: Allison and Allison designed the 6 story building. The firm's work got an article in the February 1923 issue of  The Building Review. This building was being planned -- the article includes some preliminary sketches. There are also several additional drawings later in the issue.

The October 1924 issue of Architect and Engineer gave the building a big spread including 12 photos in an article entitled "A New Club Building in Southern California."

Seating: The main theatre (on the ground floor) seats 1,100 and the smaller theatre (on the third floor) seats 250.  The building also has a ballroom, lounges and many other public spaces.

History: The idea was that the main theatre, known as The Playhouse, would generate revenue to support the building. The first production was "Romance" with Doris Keane.  Speakers included Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Parker. Live radio shows from the building included performers such as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor.

Initially The Playhouse was operated by Louis Macloon's Los Angeles Playhouse, Inc.  His opening ad noted that he had:

"...the honor to announce the opening of the new and beautiful 'PLAYHOUSE,' erected and furnished at a cost of over $750,000 for the exclusive presentation of legitimate stage attractions with celebrated New York and London stars. The Playhouse is located on Figueroa at Ninth Street in the new Friday Morning Club Building -- the most ideal theatrical location in theentire city -- accessible to leading car lines and with ample automobile parking within one block radius."

An ad for a 1926 Pauline Frederick production at
The Playhouse -- where she did a number of shows.
It's in a program for "The Butter and Egg Man" at
the Mason Theatre.  Click on it for a larger view.

 It's from the collection of Danni
Bayles-Yeager. On her site: full program

The cover for the November 1926 program of
"The Cradle Snatchers" at The Playhouse.
Click on it for a larger view

 It's from the collection of Danni
Bayles-Yeager. On her site: full program

Visit Danni's website:
 Bayles/Yeager Online Archive of the Performing Arts

| Danni's Playhouse Theatre page |

A program cover for the Los Angeles Repertory Theatre's
 first production at the Playhouse, "The Beggar's Opera."  The
 company's 2nd production was to be Molnar's "The Guardsman."
full size view

Thanks to Brady Westwater for finding the program.

In the 1936 city directory, the main theatre was listed as the Major Theatre. By 1941 the main theatre was running films and called the Times Theatre. It has also been known as the Figueroa Playhouse and the Figueroa 9th St.

William Larsen, of Magic Castle fame,  bought and renamed the building the Variety Arts Center in 1977 and and operated the building until 1989 with programming as a tribute to variety and vaudeville entertainers. 

Under Larson, many different areas of the building were used as bars, exhibit areas and performance spaces. Mark Barrett reports that they had a roof theatre operation going called the Roof Garden Theatre. He worked on a roof show called the "Variety Vanities of 1938" in 1982.

After one additional owner, it ended up in the hands of Anschutz Entertainment Group, developer of Staples Center, just to the south of the Variety Arts Building. After they couldn't come up with a viable plan the building was sold in late 2006 to David Houk, who formerly owned the Pasadena Playhouse.

Houk intended to produce original shows in the main theatre but the project was later put on hold awaiting more financing or another partner, neither of which materialized.

Status: Sold in 2012 to Robhana Management, Inc., a unit of Robert Hanasab's Partners Capital,  213-684-4800.  Crystal Ogle at Robhana Management, 213-683-8000 extension 114 was acting as the property manager for the firm.

Future plans for the building are unknown. It's evidently still available for film shoots and special events. It had been on the market for several years with an asking price just under $10 million.

Variety Arts Theatre in the Movies:

The Variety Arts is used for the auditorium of Windsor College,

the site of much of the action late in Wes Craven's "Scream 2"
 with Neve Campbell (Dimension Films, 1997).
larger view

A proscenium view in "Scream 2."
larger view

Neve Campbell going chopping backstage in "Scream 2."
larger view

A view from the stage out into the house in "Scream 2."
The dangerous man with the gun is Leiv Schreiber.
larger view

"Scream 2" opens with lots of action
at the Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena.

John C. Reilly onstage at the Variety Arts. The main theatre
was the scene for one his big concerts in "Walk Hard:
The Dewey Cox Story"
(Columbia, 2007).
 larger view  |  facing the stage  | sidewall view

The Variety Arts also appears in "Plush"
(Alliance Films, 2013) and "Vanished" (2013).

More on the Variety Arts: See the Cinema Treasures page on the Variety Arts Center.  Danni Bayles-Yeager has a page on the Playhouse as part of her Performing Arts Archive. 

BifRayRock's Noirish Los Angeles post #9393 includes a number of photos as well as the opening advertisement.

More history of the building:
A 2011 post on the Facebook page Bizarre Los Angeles included the following history
by J. Craig Owens based on his research of various Los Angeles Times articles:

"Wealthy suffragist and abolitionist Caroline Severance had already established the New England Woman’s Club and the American Woman Suffrage Association back East before moving her family to Los Angeles in 1875. As soon as she settled into her estate on West Adams Street, she and her husband, Theodoric, founded the city’s first Unitarian congregation, Unity Church and established the first kindergarten in Los Angeles.

In 1891, at the age of 71, she founded the Friday Morning Club, Los Angeles’ first women’s political club and is credited as being the first woman to register and vote in the State of California. In 1899, Severence formed a corporation and issued stock to its membership of the Friday Morning Club. The money raised from the stock, made it possible to purchase a parcel of land on Figueroa between Ninth and Tenth to build a clubhouse, which would eventually be leased back to the club.

On September 14, 1899, the cornerstone for the clubhouse was laid. On January 19, 1900, four months later, a $13,000, two-story Mission revival structure was completed and opened for meetings. Severence died in 1914 at the age of 94; however, the club that she stared continued to prosper and grow its membership.

In April of 1922, the Friday Morning Club hired architects James & David Allison to design and build a brand new five-story, Italian Renaissance clubhouse on the site of the original building. At a cost of $750,000, the old clubhouse was razed and the new clubhouse was built. The new building, completed in 1924, offered the following:

First floor: the club’s executive offices. Second floor: lounges and a library. Third floor: a 1200-seat auditorium. Fourth floor: an assembly room and dining area for 500 people. Fifth floor: an art gallery and two small clubrooms.

The auditorium, originally called The Playhouse, was immediately leased to producers Louis O. Macloon and his co-producer-director-wife, Lillian Albertson. The first staged play was 'Romance,' starring Doris Keane and emceed by Will Rogers, which opened on May 5, 1924. Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille attended the premiere.

The Playhouse, later referred to as the Figueroa Playhouse – became a vaudeville house as well as a venue for original plays (usually written by Hollywood studio scribes) and a mix of classics and Broadway favorites. According to biographer David Bret, Clark Gable made his acting debut in May of 1925 in a production of 'Romeo & Juliet.'

Many silent film and early talkie actors appeared in staged productions throughout the 1920s, including Pauline Frederick, Lionel Barrymore, Patsy Ruth Miller, Dorothy Mackaye, Mae Busch and Dwight Frye.

In 1929, the stage manager, author and cast members were arrested by 19 detectives in a raid following the final curtain for a controversial juvenile crime drama, 'Bad Babies.' Silent film star Jobyna Ralston was among those arrested. In 1930, the play was ruled 'indecent' and the cast members were required to pay a $300 fine for their participation in the production.

By 1930, the Playhouse was struggling to book new plays. After going dark for months, theatrical producer Victor Neuhaus of the locally renown German National Theater signed a five year lease in August of 1931, where he attempted to produce 'English, French and Spanish playwrights of the world.'

The theater was renamed the Neuhaus World Theater and its first production was 'The Living Mask' by Luigi Pirandello, starring Arnold Korff, reprising his role as 'Henry VI' from the Broadway version of the same play. The play received critical acclaim, however, the economic slump brought on by the Great Depression and the rising popularity of talking pictures made it difficult for a serious minded theater to exist.

From 1932 to 1938, CBS Radio Playhouse used the auditorium to broadcast 'The Burns and Allen Show' as well as radio broadcasts by Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. Even Eleanor Roosevelt allegedly spoke there.

In 1940, the auditorium was renamed the Times Theater, which tried to fill its calendar with stage shows, lectures and an occasional movie screening. However, the theater began losing its luster. After reverting the theater back to its original name, The Playhouse, the building was granted landmark status on August 9, 1978.

The Friday Morning Club sold their headquarters in 1984 to a non-profit organization called the Society for the Preservation of the Variety Arts headed by Milt Larsen. Larsen, who owned the Magic Castle at the time, continued to use the building for live performances and opened a small museum dedicated to the vaudeville and the theatrical history of the building. The building was renamed the Variety Arts Center.

In 1988, the Variety Arts Center closed due to Larsen’s failure to pay back taxes. Los Angeles’ Community Redevelopment Agency, who had initially loaned the Society for the Preservation of Variety Arts a half a million dollars for restoration purposes had to raise an addition $1.7 million to prevent the IRS from auctioning the landmark. Paul Sehdeva purchased the building in 1989 and operated a nightclub there for a short time.

In 2004, The Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) bought the Variety Arts Center for around $8 million, but was unsuccessful in their attempt to incorporate the property as part of their L.A. Live area. Originally, AEG had eyed the strip of land between Staples Center and the Variety Arts Center for the a $2.5 billion L.A. Live sports and entertainment district, featuring big-name restaurants, retail shops, a theater, movie complex, ESPN broadcast center, housing and a hotel. The proposed development was later abandoned.

In late 2006, David Houk, former owner of the Pasadena Playhouse, bought the building from AEG for an undisclosed amount. However, in 2008, Houck told The Los Angeles Times that he was 'unable to secure the federal tax credits he had hoped would help fund restoration and operation…so now he must sell it or find a new partner willing to buy into his dream of bringing the old stage back to life.' In the meantime, the building is occasionally rented out for film and television productions, photo shoots and fashion shows."

Thanks for all the research Craig!

     Curbed LA

Curbed LA's story by Adrian Glick Kudler about the 2012
use of the building for a haunted house extravaganza features
 a wonderful 25 photo set by Elizabeth Daniels. Here we get
 a nice view upward looking at facade details.

A look at the lobby by Ms. Daniels.

A great photo of the rear of the main theatre.

Looking across the main theatre.

Looking toward the stage of the
smaller 3rd floor theatre.

See the story for larger views of the full 25 photo set:
"Touring South Park's fake haunted 1924 Variety Arts Theatre."

   Library of Congress    

Historic Los Angeles Theatres  -- The Variety Arts

A look at the building in 1963 as part of the
Historic American Buildings Survey. 
full size view

A 1963 facade detail. 
full size view

| HABS index page | data pages - 10 page pdf |

     The Location Portal

A view looking toward the stage of the main
 theatre on the Variety Arts Center page of the
site The Location Portal.
full size view

A look at the rear of the auditorium. 
full size view

A look down toward the stage of the 250 seat
third floor theatre from the mezzanine level
between 3rd & 4th floors.
 full size view

A view toward the rear of the third floor theatre. 
full size view

The former 4th floor ballroom, refitted as a club. 
full size view

The Location Portal's Variety Arts page has
72 views of the building to browse!

     Variety Arts Center website   

Here we're looking at a view of the main theatre
 at the Variety Arts Center from the balcony-- a view
that used to be on on the Variety Arts Center's
 now-defunct website, varietyarts

A view of the 250 seat theatre.

You can click on these two
images for larger views.

     You Are Here 

A view of the entrance by Martin on his
terrific site.
Note the changeable neon
letters in the photo.

 full size view

A wonderful view toward the rear
of the main theatre. 
full size view

A view of the Variety Arts Building.

photo: Bill Counter - 2010

[ click on the images for a larger view ]

The building shrouded for exterior restoration work.

photo: Bill Counter - January 2016

A facade detail.

photo: Bill Counter - 2010

The newly painted up street level of the facade.

photo: Hunter Kerhart - 2012

More views by Hunter Kerhart:
facade view - fall 2013 |  dedication plaque - 2013  |
looking up at entrance arches - 2013  |  facade view - 2013  |

Keep up with Hunter's explorations:
on Faceboook | | on Flickr
South On Spring photography blog

A look at the north side of the building in 2010.
The light patterns are reflections from
the new building to the north.

photo: Bill Counter

Changeable neon letters - perhaps
 the last in use in Los Angeles.

photo: Bill Counter - 2010

The Variety Arts lobby.

photo: Cap Equity Locations

Cap Equity Locations brokers deals between various building
owners and those seeking spaces for filming or other purposes.
See their Variety Arts web page for 259 photos of the building.

A look toward the stage from the balcony of the
main theatre in the Variety Arts building.

photo: Cap Equity Locations

The view toward the rear of the auditorium
along the house left balcony arcade.

photo: Cap Equity Locations

The rear of the main theatre in the Variety Arts Building.

photo: Cap Equity Locations

[ click on any of these to enlarge  ]

A ceiling detail.

photo: Cap Equity Locations

A view along the house left wall from the stage.

photo: Cap Equity Locations

The small theatre up on the 3rd
floor -- a capacity of about 250.

photo: Cap Equity Locations

This smaller space was originally
called the Lecture Hall.

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     Big Orange Landmarks 

Floyd B. Bariscale has compiled an extraordinary spread
on the
Variety Arts Center. Here's a view of the 1900 version
of the Friday Morning Club. It was demolished to make way for
the present building. 
   The photo is from the USC Archives.
full size view

A 1977 look at the present building. The photo is from
the Los Angeles Department of City Planning.
 full size view

Floyd has included a number of his own recent photos as well
as many historic images of the building in his article. And
there's even more on his Variety Arts photo set on Flickr.

     California State Library

Here's a look at the lobby. The Library
has 13 photos of the 
building c. 1925 in
their Mott Studio collection. 

  full size view

Another shot of the lobby.
full size view

 Here we're looking at the proscenium
 in the main theatre.
      full size view

Another look toward the left
side of the auditorium. 
full size view

A view of the house right wall in
the main Variety Arts Theatre.  
full size view

An early exterior view with the Playhouse
 featuring one of their regular attractions, Pauline
Frederick in the play "Spring Cleaning."

More from the California State Library:

The Mott Studio photos shown above and six
additional ones are cataloged as set  001384324.

And the Library has another facade view from
across the street cataloged as set  001384378.

   L.A. Public Library Collection 

Here's a view in 1926 from the Library's collection. 
On the marquee: "Coming Pauline Frederick."
 full size view

The facade in a c.1930 photo. 
full size view

A crowd for "Abie's Irish Rose" in the 30s.

Also in the Library Collection:
the earlier clubhouse on the site - c.1900  |
| 1925 exterior   | another 1925 exterior  |
| 1925 entrance detail  |
 | another 1930s view - "Abie's Irish Rose" |  

     USC Archives

A 1941 view looking north on Figueroa from the
USC Archives
. The main auditorium at the time was
called the Times Theatre.
The photo is from the
Automobile Club of
Southern California.    
full size view

A detail from the image above.

A view looking south in 1941 from the USC
 Archives. Note that the side of the building still
 has signage as "The Playhouse." 
full size view