Remembering the Warner Grand Theatre’s Elegant Beginnings
The Warner Grand Theatre will celebrate her 90th birthday in 2021. This is the first in a series of stories by the staff and volunteers of Grand Vision Foundation, the Theatre’s Friends Group, intended to bring the opening day and early years of the Theatre to life. We hope you enjoy it!
How It All Started The Warner Grand, originally called the Warner Bros’ San Pedro Theatre was developed as part of Warner Bros Pictures 1928 expansion plan to bring new “picture houses” to “suburban” Los Angeles neighborhoods. San Pedro, with its vibrant maritime economy, piqued the interest of the Warner Bros’ scouts who purchased the property on 6th Street near Pacific Avenue. This was an ideal location because it was the main bus thoroughfare for thousands of longshoremen, fishermen, cannery workers and shipbuilders who worked at the San Pedro waterfront and Terminal Island. The Theatre was designed by the prolific team of architect B. Marcus Priteca and designer Anthony Heinsbergen. Heinsbergen also designed murals and décor for the Wiltern theater, Los Angeles City Hall and much more. Completed in 1931 for just $500,000, the Theatre has indeed stood the test of time.
Ground Breaking On June 18, 1930, over 500 citizens gathered on 6th Street for a momentous ceremony. Jack L. Warner, one of the four Warner brothers, sent his son, Jack Warner, Jr, to break ground alongside stars of the day including Laura Lee, Claudia Dell and Grant Withers. Jack Jr. turned the first shovel and declared the theater “the castle of your dreams.” Some years ago, San Pedro resident Tom Politeo gave Grand Vision Foundation’s Executive Director Liz Johnson a digitized recording that included a voice-over narration of this event. It’s not in the best condition, but you can certainly get a sense of the excitement. Listen Here.
A Star-Studded Crowd Welcomes an Extraordinary Theatre Six months later, on January 20, 1931, thousands gathered for the highly anticipated Opening Day. Back-to-back shows were sold out – both emceed by actor Frank Fey and featuring Warner Bros’ new comedy, Goin’ Wild with Joe E. Brown. Brown was a big star of the day, though he’s probably best known in later years for Some Like it Hot when he played the batty millionaire who fell for a cross-dressing Jack Lemmon on a cruise. Stylish film stars were there including Barbara Stanwyk, Joan Blondell, and Loretta Young. Also on hand were dashing leading men Laurence Gray, Edward Woods, and Joe Donahue. These actors were under contract with Warner Brothers; part of what was called the studio’s “stable,” and appearances were part of the job. Uniformed military officers, Business leaders and Warner Bros execs also mingled with the enthusiastic crowd. At 6:00 pm, the doors swung open, revealing a red carpeted lobby with an elaborately decorated ceiling, elegant furnishings and a large tile water fountain, whose look is now lost to history.
Fun fact: In those days, theater lobbies didn’t have concession stands. Red carpeting extended through the lower and mezzanine level smoking lounges. Young men from town, trained as ushers, wore white uniforms, and used a fascinating “sign language” to communicate over the crowd as they guided ticket holders to open seats. There must have been a great hush as the first audience entered the vast 70-foot-high auditorium filled with 1,500 plush seats, a “modern” low slope balcony, giant chandeliers, a beautifully painted fire curtain and the sunburst ceiling that still awes audiences today. Warner’s new General Manager M.A. Silver took the stage, and proclaimed, “We now dedicate this new Warner Bros. San Pedro Theatre to you, our friends and neighbors for whom it was built . . a most hearty welcome!” And with that, the Warner Bros Theatre began her long life, experiencing the ups and downs of the 20th century movie theater, and surviving to become San Pedro and the South Bay’s last remaining historic movie palace and now, a beloved landmark and performing arts venue.
Grand Vision Foundation is busy planning virtual ways to bring Theatre fans together to mark this important milestone throughout 2021. For info on Warner Grand Theatre 90th Anniversary activities, see grandvision.org. This article first appeared in Palos Verdes Pulse Magazine.