The Wiltern Opened 80 Years Ago. Its Survival Story Is As Grand As Its Terra-Cotta Tile
Less than a year old and wearing red tennis shoes, I took the first steps of my life at the Wiltern. My mother had brought me to visit my father, an architect, in his office on the second floor of the Pellissier office tower, overlooking the art deco theater's neon marquee. Twenty-two years later, I recently returned to the Wiltern on the 80th anniversary of its grand opening. A green terra-cotta wonder in an urban sea, it remains enchanting.
Nowadays, the 2,200-capacity, Live Nation-operated music venue is known for hosting rock and pop acts, with concerts by the Smashing Pumpkins, Foster the People and Primus on this year's schedule. But when I'm there for a show, I always find myself paying equal attention to the intricate sunburst ceiling and the stylized acanthus leaves on the walls, meticulously crafted with metallic paint.
In a city full of historic theaters, the Wiltern is unique. Officially known as the Pellissier Building, the theater and office complex was designed as a vaudeville house by architect Stiles O. Clements. (He also designed the El Capitan and Mayan theaters.) Located at what was then the edge of the city, the Pellissier was designed to be big enough for moviegoers to see it from miles away. At 12 stories -- the maximum height allowed at the time -- the eight-sided Pellissier was then the tallest privately owned building in Los Angeles. Its distinctive blue-green glazed terra-cotta tile was chosen by Pellissier's wife as a reminder of the green pastures that previously covered the land; the building itself was originally built on a sheep ranch owned by Germain Pellissier.
The Wiltern Theatre opened its doors on Oct. 7, 1931, as the Warner Theatre -- part of Warner Bros.' chain of first-run movie houses -- with a screening of Alexander Hamilton, starring George Arliss. A brass band played, as movie stars and other stylish guests walked the temporary "Bridge of Stars" across Wilshire Boulevard to the theater's front doors. The bridge was decorated with lights and flowers.
But the theater went dark only two years later, due to the Depression. In 1956 the building was sold to Franklin Life Insurance, which leased it to Pacific Theaters. But by 1979, with tax benefits exhausted, Franklin Life Insurance decided to file for a permit to demolish the building and sell the vacant lot. This decision did not go over well with the city, however, as the complex had been designated a historic cultural monument a few years earlier.
The Los Angeles Conservancy began to picket on the boulevard to try to save the theater from the wrecking ball. L.A. City Council President John Ferraro supported the cause and asked developer Wayne Ratkovich to purchase the Pellissier Building. Interested in converting the movie theater into a performing arts center that could host concerts and Broadway-caliber stage performances, Ratkovich agreed to buy the building and renovate it.
At the time, Los Angeles had no great history of preservation, making Ratkovich and his architect, Brenda Levin, the city's leading preservationists by default. "It was all new to me at the time -- everything was fun and unusual for us," Levin says now. "It was the level of potential of revised opulence and grandeur that made the Wiltern exciting to work on."
Levin discovered extensive damage to the building, however, and it became clear that this would be a long and difficult project. Undaunted, she organized major infrastructure upgrades. The stage and orchestra pit were expanded, murals were carefully repainted, damaged doors and tarnished hardware were restored, and salvaged vintage theater seats were refurbished and installed. The Wiltern Theatre finally reopened on May 1, 1985, after four years of construction.
Today Live Nation, the behemoth promotions company based in Beverly Hills, hosts a wide variety of events -- not just concert, but everything from benefits and galas to Lebowski Fest.
At the start of the Great Depression, the Wiltern and the Pellissier were constructed as an act of faith in the future of the city, and marked a change in Los Angeles from a city with one urban center to one with several. Eight decades in, it's both a reminder of -- and a contributor to -- our local cultural history.
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