Carthay Circle Is Best Known as a Theater and a Disney Destination. But There's More to the Story

A postcard commemorating the world premiere of the Carthay Circle TheaterEXPAND
A postcard commemorating the world premiere of the Carthay Circle Theater

I grew up in the bottom half of a duplex near the intersection of Pico and Fairfax. When people asked what neighborhood I lived in, I never knew what to tell them. I'd see signs: Carthay Circle, Carthay Square, PicFair Village, Little Ethiopia. I had no idea where the boundaries for any of these designations were, or if they were even real.

The neighborhood the Los Angeles Times defines as Carthay is bounded by Fairfax to the east, La Cienega to the west, Wilshire to the north and Pico to the south. The name Carthay comes from the top half of the neighborhood, now known as Carthay Circle, a low-rise neighborhood consisting mostly of single-family homes – quaint, walkable, tony but in a subtle way, not nearly as ostentatious as its neighbor to the west, Beverly Hills.

"It’s like an oasis nestled in between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, is how I would describe it," says Carthay Circle resident David Rosenberg. "People walk all the time. Kids play in the sidewalk and the streets. It’s what a really fine neighborhood should look like."

Carthay Circle was the creation of a developer named J. Harvey McCarthy. His father, Daniel O'Connell McCarthy, had been a miner up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, who started a Republican-leaning (Lincoln-era Republican) newspaper called The American Flag. Later, he moved his family down to San Diego. His son, John Harvey, was a ne'er-do-well almost from the start. As historical writer Hadley Meares put it in KCET:

You see, from an early age J. Harvey was a person people seemed to want to punch. A college-age J. Harvey first burst onto the pages of history in 1891, not for a society ball or a sporting accomplishment but for arraignment on the charge of having impersonated a police officer during a horse deal on the Mexican border. Shortly before this arraignment, he and [his father] had been charged with smuggling a brand stallion and roan horse across the border. It seems [the elder McCarthy] was simply caught up in his son's mess and J. Harvey was acquitted, but a couple of months later he was involved in some kind of kidnapping case that was also resolved, perhaps with the help of his influential father.

He and his father were involved in all manner of shady business dealings — an oil scheme here, a real estate speculation gone bust there. In 1903, the Los Angeles Times referred to the younger McCarthy as a "get-rich-quick expert." But one real estate deal turned his reputation around. In 1922, McCarthy bought 136 acres of land, just east of Beverly Hills and just south of Wilshire Boulevard. According to Meares:

The land had been a passenger airplane flying field, but to J. Harvey it was his last stab at a field of dreams. Here he would create a model California community, the "ideal upper middle class residential area of Los Angeles," boasting the first underground utilities in Los Angeles, an electric rail stop, and ornamental street lighting. But this thoroughly modern neighborhood would be steeped in the past, in the whitewashed version of California history that for J. Harvey was very close to home.

Its original name: Carthay Center (Carthay being an anglicized version of McCarthy).

Los Angeles underwent an astonishing population boom in the 1920s, adding nearly half a million people. Little suburbs sprang up all over, particularly along Wilshire Boulevard, in the area we now call Miracle Mile. Unlike many of these little suburbs, Carthay Center was a carefully planned subdivision, designed to be self-contained, with a school and a church

and even a theater. Streets were named after famous Californians and included six pedestrian-only walk streets. McCarthy convinced Henry Huntington to extend one of his streetcar lines to the intersection of Fairfax, Olympic and Eulalia Avenue, which later became San Vicente.

The newly respected real estate developer then littered the town with monuments, including a boulder honoring Jedediah Smith and a 512-pound bronze statue of a miner, officially named The Pioneer but affectionately known as "Miner Dan," which can still be seen today on the south side of San Vicente. The statue was stolen in 2009 — literally chopped off at the knees — but quickly recovered.

But what really put the subdivision on the map, at least temporarily, was its theater, initially called the Fox Carthay Circle Theatre, a confusing mishmash of words that can be interpreted thusly: Fox meant that it was owned by Fox Theaters (later known as 20th Century Fox); Carthay meant that it was located in Carthay Center; Circle was because the 1,500-seat auditorium was designed in a perfect circle; and Theatre meant, well, theatre (or theater).

Anyway, the movie palace opened in 1926 to much ballyhoo, with the premiere of the Cecil B. DeMille silent epic The Volga Boatman. According to an L.A. Times story written the day before the Circle opened:

The gay beauty of the theater, the brilliance of the crowds who will attend, including many of prominence in filmland and society and the historical importance of the event will combine to make this probably the most memorable debut a California theater has ever made.

With its grand tower and many floodlights and neon sign and Wurlitzer organ, the theater instantly achieved landmark status, and its fame soon overtook that of its own neighborhood, which before long was known as "Carthay Circle." The name stuck, outlasting the theater itself, which was demolished in 1969. Today, in its place on San Vicente, sit a couple of nondescript office buildings. But the Circle Theatre lives on, or at least its visage does, at Disneyland's California Adventure theme park, which has a slightly smaller-than-life replica of the movie palace, which houses a restaurant, lounge and members-only club.

The Carthay Circle theater in Disneyland's California Adventure is actually a restaurant.EXPAND
The Carthay Circle theater in Disneyland's California Adventure is actually a restaurant.

And what of the other Carthays, Square and South? Both neighborhoods, lying directly to the south of Carthay Circle, have tried to fashion themselves after their tonier cousin to the north. Each has its own separate neighborhood association and Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.

As the L.A. Times noted in 1994, "A growing number of L.A. neighborhoods yearn for some cohesiveness to keep property values stable and crime at bay." And it quoted one resident from Carthay Square:

"I think it's very important to have a name," said Wayne Saks, community relations representative for South Carthay and owner of City Lights Realty. "It's such a massive city that having a name and a neighborhood association is a way for people to feel they have some control."

Creating a community identity has helped to minimize crime and maximize property values, Saks said. "We can't realistically improve all of the Westside, but we can preserve our own neighborhood."


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