Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dead French in L.A.: Henry De Roulet Opens the Wiltern and the Pellissier Building 1931

The Wiltern Theatre and adjacent 12-story Pellissier Building are Art Deco architectural landmarks located on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue in Los Angeles, California. French real estate businessman Henry De Roulet opened the building in 1931. Period photographs show his real estate company building on the future site of the Wiltern Theatre as well as his office inside the completed Pellissier Building.


The entire complex is commonly referred to as the Wiltern Center. Clad in a blue-green glazed architectural terra-cotta tile and situated on a diagonal to the street corner, the complex is considered one of the finest examples of Art Deco style architecture in the United States. The Wiltern building is owned privately and the Wiltern Theatre is operated by Live Nation's Los Angeles division.


The Wiltern Theatre is located at the western edge of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown, at the southeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. The Koreatown district is served by both of Los Angeles' major subway lines, the Red Line and the Purple Line; the Wiltern Theatre sits directly across from the westernmost station on the Purple Line (Wilshire/Western Station).


Named after Henry De Roulet's maternal grandfather Germain Pellissier, who owned the land upon which it was developed, the Pellissier Building is a 12-story steel-reinforced concrete office tower. Set upon a two story pedestal that contains ground floor retail and the theater entrance, the tower has narrow vertical windows that sweep the eye upward and create the illusion of a much taller building (buildings in Los Angeles were restricted from being higher than the city hall until the late 1950s).[2] The blue-green glazed architectural terra-cotta tile-covered tower is an example of French Zig-Zag Moderne styling.

The entrance to the Wiltern Theatre is flanked by large vertical neon signs while patrons approach the ticket booth set back among colorful terrazzo paving. The Wiltern Theatre's interior was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh and is renowned for its Art Deco design containing decorative plaster and tile work along with colorful murals painted by Anthony Heinsbergen. The most dramatic element of the design is the sunburst on the ceiling of the auditorium, with each ray its own Art Deco skyscraper—G. Albert Lansburgh's vision of the future of Wilshire Boulevard. When the Wiltern Theatre first opened it also housed the largest theater pipe organ in the western United States.

Both the Wiltern Theatre and the Pellissier Building have been named to the National Register of Historic Places and declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument by the City of Los Angeles.


Originally built in 1931, the Wiltern was designed by architect Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls and Clements, the city’s oldest architectural firm. The Wiltern Theatre was originally designed as a vaudeville theater and initially opened as the Warner Brothers Western Theater, the flagship for the theater chain. Quickly closing a year later, the theater reopened in the mid-1930s and was renamed the Wiltern Theatre for the major intersection which it faces (Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue).[3][4]

In 1956, the building and theater were sold to the Franklin Life Insurance Company of Springfield, Illinois. The Los Angeles chapter of the American Theater Organ Enthusiasts worked to restore the theater's 37-rank Kimball pipe organ—reputed to be the largest one in Los Angeles at the time—and held recitals there through the late 1960s and into the mid-1970s. However, the owners ignored the landmark building and by the late 1970s the Wiltern had fallen into thorough disarray. Only the intervention of a group of local preservationists saved the complex from being demolished on two occasions in the late 1970s when the owners filed for demolition permits. (The preservation of the Wiltern was one of the Los Angeles Conservancy's first victories in its fight to preserve the architectural heritage of the City.)

In 1981, the Wiltern was purchased by developer Wayne Ratkovich who worked with architect Brenda Levin to restore both the theater and the office building to their former glory. Previous successes with the Fine Arts Building and the Oviatt Building renovations in downtown Los Angeles and the refurbishing of the nearby Chapman Market complex on Sixth Street convinced many in the city that they were the right people for the job. The renovation of the office building was complete by 1983, but the Wiltern Theatre presented a much more difficult problem and took another two years to complete. The theater had been poorly maintained—many of the murals and plasterwork were damaged, many of the fixtures had been sold off or pillaged, and portions of the ceiling had crashed onto the ground floor seats. It had also been used as the primary location for the film Get Crazy, which caused further damage.[5] To restore the theater to its original state required some expert craftsmanship to repair what was there (including A.T. Heinsbergen, the son of the original painter) and some creativity to replace what had been lost (including salvaging vintage Art Deco seats from the soon to be renovated Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon). Further, while it was originally designed and run as a movie theater, Ratkovich wanted to convert the Wiltern into a performing arts center that could host live concerts and Broadway-level stage performances—which entailed opening up the rear wall and extending the stage and stage house of the theater back fifteen feet. After a four-year renovation the Wiltern Theatre finally opened again to the public on May 1, 1985 with performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company. The Bill Graham Presents company was retained to provide the oversight of the theater booking and operations. The Wiltern was operated as a producing theater, and hosted its own live performances and those sponsored by Avalon Attractions, Goldenvoice, Concerts West, Universal Concerts, Timeless Entertainment (among many others), and was used for many televised events, commercial filming and feature film locations.

The Wiltern Theatre originally seated 2,344. Subsequent modifications in 2002 removed the 1,200 permanent seats on the ground floor to allow for a variety of configurations from a standing room only crowd of 2300 to a more intimate seated arrangement holding 1850 people. The loge and mezzanine levels in the balcony continue to offer fixed theater seats. The venue remains one of the largest theaters in Los Angeles.

SFX obtained the lease for the operation of the Wiltern in July 2000, and its successor companies Clear Channel Entertainment and now Live Nation have continued to present a wide range of performances at the Wiltern. LG, a South Korea-based consumer electronics company, held the naming rights to the theater, which was then renamed the Wiltern LG from October 2003 until October 2006. Today, the theater is known familiarly as the Wiltern.


1.^ http://preservation.lacity.org/monuments 
 2.^ Ford, Larry R. (April 1992). "Reading the Skylines of American Cities". Geographical Review (American Geographical Society) 82 (2): 181. 
 3.^ http://events.la.com/los-angeles-ca/venues/show/9905-the-wiltern 
 4.^ [1] 
5.^ Thrawn, Alex D. "Malcolm McDowell Tribute: Get Crazy". MalcolmMcDowell.net.

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