A Three-Hankie Tale of Dashed Dreams
A cynic might say that his former life as a loan shark and acrobat perfectly prepared him for his role, but Los Angeles’ first legitimate theatrical impresario succeeded by never forgetting the Bard’s maxim that “the play’s the thing.”
The roots of the city’s theater actually run back to the early 1800s, when traditional posadas, or Nativity plays, were held in the old plaza each Christmas. In the decades that followed the United States’ acquisition of California in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, various venues--including Turnverein Hall, the Grand Opera House, the Merced Theater and Hazard’s Pavilion--played host to traveling productions dispatched by the powerful producers of the New York theatrical syndicate.
Their profits were proof of Los Angeles’ appetite for drama; all the town needed was a local entrepreneur with flair and the dramatic vision to electrify audiences with new talent and new plays.
That someone was 24-year-old Oliver Morosco, a former San Francisco theater manager-director and loan shark, ready to cross the threshold of a new century.
He was born Oliver T. Mitchell in Utah in 1875. When his father deserted the family, Oliver moved to San Francisco with his mother and older brother. There, he embarked upon his acrobatic career at age 6. His act was performed on the iron railing of a restaurant, earning him 45 cents.
His talents were soon discovered by Walter Morosco, owner of the Royal Russian Circus and San Francisco’s Grand Opera House. Devoted to his new foster father, Oliver adopted Morosco as his stage name.
Spending his teenage years inside a tiny box office, he discovered a lucrative sideline making high-interest loans to actors, who borrowed against their weekly salaries.
The soon-to-be theater impresario’s road to fame began in 1899, when he arrived in Los Angeles with a wife, baby, mother-in-law and $40 in profits from his loan-sharking operation.
With the financial support of his foster father, Oliver took over the struggling Burbank Theater at Main and 6th streets despite its theatrical nickname as the “hoodoo” house: a place that was bad luck for actors, and worse for their productions.
Dispelling the “hoodoo,” Morosco revolutionized the theater by employing a company of 500 actors, directors, writers and stagehands. He set out to find new plays and revamped the role of house manager, who took an active part in the staging of plays rather than relying on old favorites from the standard repertoire.
With an eye on his audience’s hunger for art that drew on local history and experience, Morosco staged such plays as “Under the Bear Flag,” “Rose of the Rancho” and “The Judge and the Jury,” which had Californian and Western themes and settings.
And if the productions also contained wild tales of outlaw love, who could complain?
“The Best Players in the Best Plays in America for the Money,” the Burbank advertised, as it became both a center of popular entertainment and a creative launching pad for glamorous showcases.
With the development of the local film industry, it soon became known as the “Stairway to the Stars,” the first step for such unknown actors as Eddie Cantor, Charles Ruggles, Bebe Daniels, Charlotte Greenwood, Lewis Stone and Warner Baxter, the original Cisco Kid.
Success led Morosco to Dave and Moe Hamburger, who were building a new department store at Broadway and 8th Street in 1906. He convinced them that constructing a new theater adjacent to their store would attract more customers to the area. They agreed, giving Morosco a 10-year lease at $3,700 a month for his new 1,650-seat Majestic Theater and office tower. He set aside the entire eighth floor for a school of drama, run by Shakespearean actor Hobart Bosworth, the soon-to-be-star of L.A.’s first full-length motion picture, “In the Power of the Sultan.” (The Hamburger Department Store later became the May Co.)
Although his personal life was in turmoil--his wife, Annie Cockrell, kept slipping in and out of depression and a sanitarium--Morosco’s business kept booming. Theater by theater he added to his chain, including the Belasco theaters, whose success made him the biggest theater manager on the West Coast.
Smash hits, such as “Peg O’ My Heart” starring Laurette Taylor in 1912, not only made Morosco a millionaire, but a waltz, cigar and sundae were named after his leading lady. Morosco took the play east, where it ran for two years, with more than 600 performances, finally winning Los Angeles notice as a producing center.
The following year, he built his namesake 1,450-seat theater at Broadway and 7th Street at a cost of $500,000.
But one namesake wasn’t enough.
Hailed as the “Oracle of Broadway”--New York’s Broadway--after sending several hit plays to the East Coast, he built another Morosco theater on West 45th Street in New York.
Morosco also followed his stars into the cinema, leaping into filmmaking with his old friend Bosworth by building Bosworth-Morosco Studios on Occidental Boulevard in 1914. (The original buildings are still there under the name Occidental Studios.)
By 1922, Morosco had produced 84 plays in Los Angeles, but his luck began to wane when he attempted what he called “musical miracles.”
He was a dreamer who envisioned “Morosco’s Greenwich Village,” a 20-acre center with a theater and drama school at Western and Melrose avenues, where shops and streets would be designed in a variety of international styles and made available to film companies.
But after three messy divorces, poor health and victimization by a stock swindle, the master showman filed for bankruptcy in 1926, leaving his Hollywood dream behind.
Over the next 19 years, Morosco tried his hand at new productions and even writing, but nothing clicked. In 1945, at the age of 70, he died after being run over by a streetcar on Hollywood Boulevard. He had 13 cents in his pocket.
Had one of his plays ended that way, there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the house.
His beloved theaters fared no better. After World War II, the Burbank became the local grand dame of bump ‘n’ grind. In 1954, a 26-year-old man named Roger Wing Whittier shot himself to death on the theater’s stage. Whittier was in love with Loretta Miller, a stripper he called “Angel Face” in notes that accompanied red roses. She ignored them. On the stage, he had scrawled in chalk “Goodby, Angel Face.”
Miller performed that night with a small black ribbon in her hair.
The final curtain fell on the Burbank in 1974, when it was demolished and replaced with a parking lot.
Morosco’s namesake theater--the last surviving live theater on Broadway, later called the Globe and often referred to as the “Newsreel,” the first all-news theater in L.A.--is now a swap-meet site. Concrete was poured over the stage, where today a little stand sells Fruit of the Loom underwear.
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