If the ghost of Mary Pickford still haunts the former United Artists Theatre at Ninth and Broadway downtown, she is no doubt loving the scene unfolding in her old digs.
Just weeks ago, the building above the theater became an Ace hotel, a lovingly restored, Spanish-inspired, stone structure that includes Ace's signature mash-up of bohemian-chic flourishes, understated glamour and hipster-cool graphics. Plus there are the characteristic meticulous details: hand-penciled doodles on the lobby walls, woven felt tapestries, a crowded rooftop bar that's all but inaccessible any night after 10, and an acoustic guitar in nearly every room.
But there's something new here, which sets L.A.'s Ace apart from the others (Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Palm Springs; New York; London; Panama City) in a chain of hotels that prides itself on its un-chaininess. In L.A., Ace will take on the role as host and manager for the renovated United Artists Theatre in the building's ground floor. And it has booked an intriguing new tenant: the artist collective L.A. Dance Project, founded in 2012 by dancer-choreographer Benjamin Millepied.
The collaboration between Ace and LADP — which will perform its winter and spring seasons there — is in line with Ace's core concept of distilling specific aspects of a local culture within the packaging of its hotel brand. But it has never attempted anything on this scale.
"It's very different than a DJ in the lobby," says Kelly Sawdon, executive vice president of the Ace Hotel Group. "But our clientele are culturally curious people. We can have Q-Tip playing a DJ set, and we can also have dance."
Built in 1927 exclusively to screen films by the United Artists independent film studio (co-founded by Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin), the storied UA movie palace showed a greater attention to detail than even the most ornate theaters downtown at the time. Pickford was fond of Spanish and Gothic castles of Europe and insisted the foyer at the street entrance be able to accommodate more than 1,500 people without crowding, and glow from above with lofty, 40-foot-high ceilings featuring gilded mirrors and spindly spires.
The movie house was shuttered in 1989, and later housed a church until 2010. The iconic "Jesus Saves" sign on the building's roof — shuffled between a couple different roofs since 1935 — ended up atop the Ace, where it will remain. The 1,600-seat venue, now called Theatre at Ace Hotel, occupies three floors of the 13-story building, with the 182 guest rooms above.
Ace's renovation preserves the theater's original eye-popping opulence, with a delicate hand from local designers Commune on finishing touches.
"Part of my attachment to L.A. is the history — those grand old days of Los Angeles," Millepied says. "To revive a piece of that history in the United Artists Theatre has been a thrill. On top of that, it's a great space for us because of its sightlines and proportions."
LADP's inaugural Ace performances, from Feb. 20 to 22, will continue the company's goal of collaborating across media. Even those unfamiliar with dance will recognize the roster of noted artists and musicians involved. For the U.S. premiere of Reflections, choreographed by Millepied, artist Barbara Kruger's blocky graphics will fill out the staging. For Murder Ballads by Justin Peck (a choreographer who recently worked with indie-folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens), the music is supplied by guitarist Bryce Dessner of Brooklyn-based quintet The National. Both of those pieces are paired with a preview of a piece by Hiroaki Umeda — in his signature robotic style — before its premiere in Paris next month. Of the 2,000 tickets available, most have been priced at $20 to ensure accessibility to the largest audience possible.
It's ballsy to offer big-time amenities and tiptoe through a sensitive preservation project amid accusations of gentrification, as an Ace hotel tends to upwardly transform a neighborhood. Plus, L.A. historically has been less than enthusiastic about dance.
But the partnership is beneficial for both parties. For Ace, it fits with a core idea from co-founder Alex Calderwood, who died last year in London at age 47. He wanted to draw visitors who are attuned to the art, music and design of a place. The Ace New York has walls adorned by local artist Ryder Robison. In Portland, you can rent a bike made by local designer Jordan Hufnagel. Palm Springs' pool area evokes the ubiquitous lounge-iness of the desert resort town.
Bringing in LADP fulfills Calderwood's vision, while restoring a local treasure is a bit of generosity that could help defend against the gentrification talk.
For Millepied, the arrangement could satisfy detractors who have accused him of having a less-than-genuine interest in a long Los Angeles tenure. He has a post directing the Paris Opera Ballet, plus LADP has many international engagements, and most of its dancers come from or were trained in New York, not L.A.
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"LADP has been very successful in our two years, but the biggest challenge is growing at home in L.A., and this is a huge step in that direction," Millepied says.
But will the crowd at the Ace really care as much about the LADP shows as it does about being seen up on the swanky rooftop? Millepied thinks it's a no-brainer.
"The Ace audience is a sophisticated young audience into the arts, technology and music," he says. "They are interested in us."
L.A. DANCE PROJECT | Theatre at Ace Hotel, 933 S. Broadway, dwntwn. | Feb. 20-22 | ladanceproject.com