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Inside the New Ace Hotel's Dazzling Old United Artists Theatre
Excerpt: " When Downtown's United Artists Theatre first opened in late 1927, Motion Picture News pronounced it 'the final word in theatre construction,' and no wonder. Designed by noted theater architect C. Howard Crane and commissioned by United Artists, the film industry powerhouse founded by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and DW Griffith, the Spanish Gothic-style venue provided a visual overload of lavish details reminiscent of the sixteenth-century Segovia Cathedral. Now part of the newly-opened Ace Hotel, the former UA movie palace has been re-christened the Theatre at Ace, and, per press materials, 'will be available for concerts, premieres, private screenings, conferences, seminars, performances and creative gatherings.'
The theater's ornate features include vaulted, arched ceilings, intricate plaster and metalwork, elaborately painted murals depicting Pickford, Fairbanks, and other Hollywood luminaries in scenes from epic myths, and the pièce de résistance—a massive dome above the center of the auditorium, covered with thousands of mirrored discs and crystal pendants and encircled by an enormous sunburst. But alongside the dazzling, Old World craftsmanship, the UA's builders incorporated forward-thinking modern elements, such as a 'refrigeration plant [of] the latest washed-air type, with dehumidifiers automatically controlled to maintain a proper temperature,' installed, Motion Picture News noted, 'at a cost of $100,000.'
After its heyday as a United Artists venue came to an end, the movie palace changed hands several times, and by 1989 was no longer screening films. In its most recent incarnation, the building served as headquarters for the University Cathedral, the church headed by colorful televangelist Dr. Gene Scott until his death in 2005. In addition to installing the building's two famous neon 'Jesus Saves' signs (one of which still remains), Dr. Scott and his church acted as admirable stewards of the 87-year-old structure, to the point where Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation head Hillsman Wright described it as being in 'perhaps the most turn-key shape' out of all of Broadway's dozen historic theaters when it went up for sale in 2009.
In advance of the reincarnated space's official relaunch next Friday, February 14, Curbed was given a tour of the venerable venue last week by Gregory Randall and Janet Olson of Chicago architecture firm GREC Architects, who worked on the restoration and design of the hotel and theater, along with Ace's in-house design team Ace Atelier and locals Commune Design.
Echoing Wright, the GREC team found the 1927 theater to be in remarkably sound shape when they began work. Other than adding subterranean office space, few structural changes were made. The firm consulted with architectural historian Teresa Grimes and brought in restoration specialists from Spectra to revive the exterior, *and Historic Building Services for the interior. The theater's murals—painted by the era's foremost muralist, Anthony Heinsbergen—were restored as well as its intricate plasterwork. The auditorium's showstopping dome was retrofitted with LED lights, while its 1,600 seats were reupholstered. A new, custom-designed carpet featuring a fish-scale pattern that complements the mezzanine's coffered ceilings was installed, along with a new Deco-inspired ticket booth. And, Randall informed us, a connecting passageway was constructed on the theater's upper level that leads to the hotel's private banquet rooms. The theater is also repurposing a lower-level room, once used by Pickford to view rough cuts, into a space that can be reserved for independent film premieres, conferences, or readings."