Wreckers' Ball Brings Down Final Curtain at Auditorium

Times Staff Writer

George Gershwin played his last concert there. Booker T. Washington lectured there. Igor Stravinsky conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra there. Buck and Bubbles, not to mention Pavlova and Nijinsky, danced there. Jack Benny and Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle joked there.

In short, almost everybody who was anybody in the performing arts of the 20th Century entertained there from the day its velvet curtains first rose in 1906 until its faded curtains dropped for the last time in 1964. And all during that time--and up until 1978--hundreds of thousands worshiped there.

Over the years, it was was called variously The Auditorium ("Theater Beautiful"), the Philharmonic Auditorium and, finally, Temple Baptist Church. Late Thursday, the last wall of the once-grand auditorium--the largest and most elegant west of Chicago when it opened--finally crumbled into rubble, dust and twisted steel. The victim, as they say, of progress and the wreckers' ball.

No Farewell

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.

Dan Swartz, president of Houk Development Co., which is clearing the site at 5th and Olive streets to make way for a 35-story, multimillion-dollar hotel and office building complex, wasn't on hand either, although he said from his office next door that he was rather sad about it all.

He and company chairman David Houk worked for years to try and save the auditorium, incorporate it into the structure of the hotel. But, Swartz said, everyone in the world of theater backed away from it--the cost of restoring and turning it into a viable showplace would have been about the same as the cost of building the Music Center, which in effect put the Philharmonic Auditorium out of business as a showplace.

The location wasn't right, the facilities obsolete and the seats were uncomfortable, Swartz explained.

"And the acoustics weren't so great either," he added.

"Someone else told me the acoustics were outstanding," an interviewer said.

"Well," Swartz said, "I guess acoustics are in the eye of the beholder."

Barbara Fleming, Houk's executive assistant, was a little sadder than Swartz, but she wasn't on hand for the final moment either.

Fleming was sad not only because she is researching and writing a history of the old building, but also because some of the most memorable moments of her life were spent in the auditorium.

As a child, she said, she paid 10 cents each Saturday to hear whatever great orchestra might be playing at the time. She recalled once that Sir Thomas Beecham, the legendary British conductor, stopped the orchestra in mid-symphonic flight to shush the restless audience of children.

She heard countless performances of the Los Angeles Philharmonic--including the debut of a young guest conductor named Zubin Mehta.

The Philharmonic performed at the auditorium for 44 years, and the Los Angeles Light Opera Company played there 27 seasons.

It was Fleming who ticked off the names of the famous performers who had played at the auditorium, which was originally financed by the Temple Baptist Church and a group of neighborhood businessmen. With 2,300 seats, she said, it was by far the largest auditorium in the West at the time. On weekday evenings, it was used for theatrical performances, on Sundays for worship services.

One of the few great entertainers of the time who failed to perform there, Fleming said, was the magnificent but not overly brave Enrico Caruso.

Caruso, who according to legend fled in panic (and in his nightshirt) from the Palace Hotel when the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco, had been negotiating to appear at the auditorium here a few months later to celebrate its first season.

But, Fleming said, Caruso vowed never to return to a part of the world so close to shaky San Francisco--and he kept his vow.

Also not on hand for the final fall of the final wall was Los Angeles Cultural Heritage coordinator Ileana Welch.

She said in a telephone interview that the commission wanted to at least try to save the auditorium, but when that body held a hearing on the matter in March, 1984, no one even showed up to stand up for the old cultural landmark.

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