Thespians had few acting opportunities during Los Angeles’s early years. Few plays were performed between 1781, when the first settlers arrived, and 1846, the end of the Mexican era. Plays that were performed were religious, featured the Christmas story and starred the local Franciscan missionaries. Stagings took place on the pueblo’s streets – without benefit of a stage.
L.A.’s first, semi-permanent stage wasn’t built until 1848. Initially, American soldiers used it to perform plays that included Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the Gothic, dramatic romance, “The Castle Spectre.” When the California Gold Rush began the soldiers abandoned their posts, headed for the gold fields and left the open-air, proscenium arched platform to others.
In contrast to Sacramento and San Francisco, Los Angeles lacked a real theater until 1859 when John Temple built his Market House, a two-story, brick building with an auditorium on the second floor. The seating was reportedly comfortable but the ventilation poor.
Los Angeles’s first deluxe, legitimate theater did not open until New Year’s Day 1870. The Merced Theatre was built next to the Pico House by cabinet maker/undertaker William Abbot. Located on the second floor of a three-story “high rise,” the theater had a stage 35 feet wide and 25 feet deep; a classical Italian mural hand painted on red velvet curtains; and four felt-lined loges that connected with the Pico House bar. William Abbot, his wife Mercedes and their nine children lived on the third floor and could be heard during performances. The building’s basement was a mortuary and the ground floor was a furniture store.
The 1,800-seat Grand Opera House opened fourteen years after the Merced’s first production. Built by horticulturalist and real estate developer Ozro Childs, the Pacific Coast’s second largest theater had unupholstered seats so patrons could stay cooler by not having to sit on horsehair and fabric. To counteract hot summer weather, ice water was passed around in crystal pitchers. Box seats cost $15; loges $1.50 and general admission was $1.
From the turn of the century until America’s entry into World War I a dozen playhouses operated profitably in Los Angeles. Local theaters had a plentiful pool of local talent and no longer had to rely on visiting theater groups and actors. Then, during World War I most Los Angeles theater companies failed.
The end of World War I brought an invigorated theater scene with a strong infusion of talent from the startup movie industry. Continuing its roller coaster ride, the number of theaters plummeted during The Great Depression. Since World War II, with a few periodic exceptions, Los Angeles has had a steady increase in the number of theaters.
A research librarian at the Los Angeles Central Library tells me that today there are 305 live theaters in the greater Los Angeles area. Scattered throughout the region, with some clustered in Culver City, Hollywood, North Hollywood and Santa Monica, they range in size from large, multi-seat theaters seating thousands to holes-in-the-wall where the audience sits on folding chairs and it’s sometimes difficult to tell where the stage ends and the audience begins.
The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theater along with Hollywood’s Pantages Theater are perhaps L.A.’s best-known theatrical venues. (For purposes of this blog I am only considering theaters where stage productions take place.) However, there are many additional places to view quality performances, often within an intimate atmosphere at reasonable, sometimes embarrassingly cheap, prices.
Here are a few alternate live theaters you may want to visit:
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard
Unable to find work because of being blacklisted during the 1950s McCarthy era, actor Will Geer established an outdoor theater on his own property in the heart of the Santa Monica Mountains. Located in a natural amphitheater in Topanga Canyon, Theatricum Botanicum has a stage that incorporates oak trees and other natural fauna.
Many of its productions are Shakespearian but each summer brings enough variety to satisfy most. Some people picnic on the grounds before a performance - sort of Hollywood Bowl style but more intimate and much less expensive. This is perhaps my favorite Los Angeles theater venue, located only two miles from one of my favorite Los Angeles restaurants – Inn of the Seventh Ray.
5060 Fountain Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029
One of L.A.’s most successful smaller theaters, the Fountain includes a year-round season of new and established plays. It is located within close driving distance of the Los Feliz and Hollywood dining spots. The Fountain Theatre is also one of L.A.’s premier Flamenco presenters. As with many of L.A.’s smaller and medium sized theaters, there are no bad seats.
Open Fist Theatre Co.
6209 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Artist members operate the Open Fist Theatre Company. Established in 1990 its self-produced productions are often more innovative and thoughtful than concurrently running Music Center shows. It seats less than 100 people and therefor falls within the Actors Equity Association “equity-waiver rule” meaning that professional actors may work together with amateurs without being paid union scale wages. As with the Fountain Theatre, it is located close to the Hollywood, Los Feliz nightlife and restaurants.
at the Attic
5429 W. Washington Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90016
The Chromolume is located within the walls of the Attic Theater and Film Center. It is easy to miss. Its productions are often new, thought provoking and connect intimately with the audience. The theater is small (about a 50-seat capacity) but comfortable except it lacks air-conditioning – an objective of their most recent fund raising effort. The last time I was there each attendee set his or her own ticket price.
Bergamot Station Arts Center, Building T1
2525 Michigan Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Bergamot Station is an artistic campus where the city of Santa Monica is landlord and numerous artistic endeavors are tenants. This includes City Garage, an intimate, no frills theater that stages new, exciting productions with a distinctive, strongly physical, highly visual, multi-disciplinary style that larger theaters are often unwilling to risk.
And Many More…
Our local universities also present quality productions and I haven’t even mentioned venues such as the Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse and the Kirk Douglas Theater to say nothing of Rogue Machine Theatre, Bram Goldsmith Theater, Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Whitefire Theatre and the Actors Circle Theatre. The list is still very incomplete and changes constantly. To keep track of the L.A. theater scene check the listings in LA Weekly and the Arts & Books section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times. Also, check the reviews in theatreinla.com and stageraw.com.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 A definitive history of live theater in Los Angeles does not exist. Marshall L. Wright’s Before There Was a Hollywood: An Early History of Entertainment in Los Angeles published in 1998 as a “preview edition in unfinished form” provides an excellent timeline but lacks historical rigor. Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z: An encyclopedia of the city and county provides a five-page summary of L.A.’s theater history that differs here-and-there from Wright’s work. I have selectively relied on both in preparing my historical synopsis.