‘Mildred Pierce’ remembers downtown L.A.’s Philharmonic Auditorium
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At the southeast corner of 5th and Olive streets in downtown Los Angeles, there sits an ugly parking lot that looks rather out of place among the historic buildings that form the periphery of Pershing Square. Each day, a steady stream of pedestrians and drivers passes by this urban eyesore, most of them unaware that it used to be the site of one of L.A.’s most prestigious performing arts venues, the Philharmonic Auditorium.
For more than 40 years, the Philharmonic Auditorium served as the home of the L.A. Philharmonic, before the orchestra moved to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1964. Largely forgotten today — thanks to a date with the wrecking ball in 1985 — the auditorium has come back to virtual life on HBO, serving as a crucial setting in the miniseries ‘Mildred Pierce.’
In the final episode, which is set in the late 1930s, Mildred (Kate Winslet) attends a concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium given by her daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), an ascending coloratura soprano. The concert serves as an emotional high point for Mildred, who sits teary-eyed as she channels her lifelong ambitions through her daughter.
In the original novel by James M. Cain, Veda’s concert takes place at the Hollywood Bowl. An early version of the screenplay by Todd Haynes and Jonathan Raymond also set the scene at the Bowl, but the filmmakers quickly realized that it would be difficult to replicate the outdoor venue on location in New York, according to Pamela Koffler, an executive producer on the miniseries. As a result, the scene was moved indoors.
Mark Friedberg, the production designer, chose the United Palace Theatre in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood as a stand-in for the Philharmonic Auditorium. ‘I looked at a number of theaters in New York. It’s limiting because the vast majority are occupied,’ he said. ‘Todd saw the hall and liked it for how it would work with the drama of the scene.’ With some clever lighting and CGI embellishments, the filmmakers turned the Moorish exterior of the United Palace Theatre into a convincing component of the downtown L.A. skyline. Friedberg said he spent some time in L.A. with a special-effects crew filming various buildings that they would later add digitally to outdoor scenes in post production.
The film’s research team consulted historical records to get details about classical-music concerts during the Depression. ‘We did some research at the Zoetrope archives, which has a collection of ‘30s things,’ said Maki Takenouchi, a researcher for the movie. ‘We pulled from programs at the time — they weren’t all necessarily from the L.A. Philharmonic, but they were from concerts in L.A. and San Francisco.’
Much of what is known about the Philharmonic Auditorium today is thanks to Otto Rothschild, once the primary photographer for the L.A. Philharmonic. Many of his photographs are now stored at the Music Center Archives and at UCLA.
During its heyday, the Philharmonic Auditorium was the largest theater west of Chicago, with about 2,500 seats. It opened in 1906 as the Temple Auditorium and hosted concerts, movies and religious services. The L.A. Philharmonic moved in during the 1919-20 season and stayed for 44 years. Musical greats such as Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Zubin Mehta appeared at the auditorium. The L.A. Civic Light Opera also made its home there.
After 1964, the venue was again used for religious services and was known as the Temple Baptist Church. It was demolished in 1985 to little notice. A report in the L.A. Times read: ‘No one — no historians, no entertainment figures, no culture vultures — was on hand to say farewell to the historic old Philharmonic Auditorium, once the cultural heart of Los Angeles.’
— David Ng
Photo (top): An undated photograph of the Philharmonic Auditorium. Credit: Music Center Archives / The Otto Rothschild Collection.
Photo (middle): The inside of the Philharmonic Auditorium. Credit: Music Center Archives / The Otto Rothschild Collection
Photo (bottom): Kate Winslet and Brian F. O’Byrne in ‘Mildred Pierce.’ Credit: Andrew Schwartz / HBO