Everyone who walks through the door gasps. Folks step from the sidewalk of downtown L.A.’s surprisingly well-lit, nearly deserted Broadway into the lobby of the Los Angeles Theatre and, taking in the old-school Hollywood opulence (visibly battered but undeniably vibrant, gorgeous), let go with reflexive sighs of “Wow” and “Oh, my God.” Mike Sonksen (a.k.a. Mike the PoeT), our tour guide for the evening, glides through the lobby introducing himself while two elderly couples, a hipster homo duo, assorted hetero power-broker couples dressed simply but expensively, and a gaggle of artsy-boho Silver Lake types all take in the cavernous space. Light from vintage crystal chandeliers glints off gilt ornaments and bronze banisters; even the dullest eye can catch and appreciate the attention to detail that workers from almost 80 years ago lavished on everything from the marble fountain to the etched and painted high ceiling. It feels like we’ve stumbled through a rainforest onto an ancient city, still intact, with the ghosts of a past civilization nudging us into awe.
Slowly, people make their way up the red-carpeted staircase that is in the center of this secular cathedral, gathering around the crystal fountain and mural by the great theater artist Anthony Heinsbergen. From that vantage, it becomes obvious that an optical illusion created by the strategic use of mirrors makes the narrow lobby seem wider than it actually is. The group slowly breaks up to canvas this sprawling movie palace that — top to bottom — is larger than some neighborhoods. It comes complete with a once-spectacular grand ballroom, crying-proof baby rooms whose colorful walls are painted with clowns and animals, sprawling (and working) marble restrooms, a paneled lounge, the shell of a restaurant, and two massive balconies. The main auditorium (which could seat 1,800) is crowned by a lunette containing Heinsbergen trompe l’oeil murals.
At one point, as my friend Alfonso and I stare into a huge, dark room located just off the ballroom, one of the elderly women comes up to us and asks what this area was. “The big room,” jokes Alfonso. “Honey,” calls the woman over her shoulder to her husband, “you gotta come see the Big Room.”
A small crowd gathers on the second-floor auditorium balcony where Mike fills us in on historical data: The Los Angeles Theatre was built in 1931, designed by celebrated theater architect S. Charles Lee and constructed in 90 days at a cost of $1 million, just in time for the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. (That event was attended by Chaplin’s friend Albert Einstein. A great photo of the duo attending the premiere now hangs in the lobby.)
“No way was this built in 90 days,” scoffs one woman. Mike assures her that it was. “And what do they do with it now?” she asks. “Does it just sit empty or what?”
“They do a lot of filming here,” he replies. “Rush Hour 3, The Prestige . . .”
“Dreamgirls?” comes a voice from the crowd.
“No,” smiles Mike. “That was filmed at the Palace, across the street.”
We make our way back to the main lobby and gather at the foot of the staircase. Mike stands on the stairs while a beret-wearing guy lightly pounds on bongos. “I’m alive in Los Angeles!” exclaims Mike exuberantly, launching into his poem of that name. Though he’s been a tour guide since 1997, and a passionate collector of books and oral history about Los Angeles city since he was a child, he’s an award-winning poet whose subject is . . . Los Angeles. He’s a three-generations-deep native, having inherited his love for L.A. from his grandfather, who taught him this poetic line to help him memorize downtown’s major streets: “Wouldn’t it be Grand to Hope to pick Flowers on Figueroa?”
Mike begins one of his own poems with “Haze hovers after another nuclear sunset,” then tosses the verbal baton to fellow poet Phil Harmonic, who holds the crowd rapt with his words. The ebony-and-ivory duo perform an ode to the city that ends in a burst of applause and sets the tone for the rest of the three-and-a-half-hour bus tour that takes us through downtown L.A., Silver Lake and Koreatown.
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As the bus pulls away from the theater, Mike grabs a microphone and drops more knowledge: Broadway was once the most vibrant artery in the city, its 12 movie/vaudeville houses being incubators and showcases for Hollywood glamour; William Mulholland once owned a stately penthouse at the top of the building that houses the Million Dollar Theater; the pyramid top of City Hall is a nod to the Aztec influence on the region (“It’s a nod to the Masons,” whispered a guy across the aisle conspiratorially); Judy Garland was discovered in a vaudeville revue at the State Theater. Still, this isn’t an info-laden excursion. (For that, Mike offers more fact-intensive walking tours of downtown and Hollywood.) The goal of this jaunt is to bring strangers together to bond over love and lore of the city. It’s more like a ’60s happening on wheels, except for the musical accompaniment over the sound system, which includes Spanish-language ballads, X and Chrissie Hynde.
The bus rolls to its first stop: the Broadway Bar, downtown, home to one of the coolest neon signs in L.A. Literary agent Charlotte Gusay (Saul Williams is a client) sits at the circular bar and laughs. “I have some East Coast friends who hate L.A. and never have anything good to say about it,” she says. “The next time they’re in town, I’m bringing them here. They’ll love it.”
As we meander through downtown, Silver Lake, Hollywood and back again, Mike drops poems celebrating the dynamic chaos that is Los Angeles — power brokers and struggling masses, Latino history and lipstick dykes, jazz on Central Avenue and East Coast haters too blind to grasp the magnificence of L.A. Soft laughter and chatter waft through the vehicle all night. Voices rise in unison as Mike loops a phrase from one of his poems and asks the bus to repeat it back to him, say-hooo style.
At our final stop, Frank ’n Hank’s in Koreatown, Mike and Phil perform a poem on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Light traffic on Western Avenue is their backdrop. James Brown’s “The Payback” from inside the bus is their score. A homeless woman tiptoes to each listener, puts a hand on an arm and quietly asks, “Do you have a penny?” Alfonso presses a dollar in her hand. She stands stunned for a moment before finally saying, “Thank you,” and slowly making her way down Western.