Column: The hottest red carpet in Hollywood is the ... American Legion?

Neon sign reads "American Legion Hollywood Post 43" while a smaller sign says "Peacock presents Poker Face streaming Jan. 26"
A historic original neon sign glows outside the Hollywood Post 43 American Legion as the venue’s theater is prepared to host the premiere of Rian Johnson’s Peacock show “Poker Face,” starring Natasha Lyonne.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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On what felt like the first dry night of 2023, the stars and creators of Rian Johnson’s new Peacock series, “Poker Face,” made their way down a custom-styled gray carpet in front of a phalanx of photographers shouting their names — Natasha Lyonne, Benjamin Bratt, Maya Rudolph, Adrien Brody, Ron Perlman.

Other A-list guests, including Amy Poehler, Taika Waititi, Awkwafina, Kate Hudson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Fred Armisen, emerged from black Escalades to join them in front of the cameras or simply mingle.

Then they all made their glamorous way into a gorgeous new state-of-the-art theater smack dab in the middle of .... the headquarters of Hollywood Post 43 American Legion.

For those desperately seeking a bright spot in another disappointing year at the box office, here’s one: With an increasingly robust calendar of screenings, film festivals and high-wattage premieres, the Hollywood Legion Theater is restoring the luster to a Legion branch built by film industry founders and known for years as “the post to the stars.”

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"Poker Face" actors and its creator line up in front of a banner across from a line of photographers and videographers
Talent from “Poker Face” smiles for a photo-op at the Hollywood Legion Theater on Jan. 17, 2023.
(Line 8 Photography)

The new demand for big premieres from streaming services like Peacock has benefited many local venues, but the Legion’s growing place in that increasingly luxe stratosphere is no accident. Way back in 2016, then-Post 43 Commander Fernando Rivero decided that the best way the 105-year-old organization could fight the dwindling membership and fading cultural relevance that afflicts so many posts throughout the country was to put on a show.

Or at least create a world-class theater in which stars would want to put on a show. Six years, $6 million and one pandemic later, that is precisely what has happened.

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In the past few months, the Hollywood Legion Theater has hosted, among other glam events, the TCM movie festival, the Noir City Hollywood Festival, the L.A. premiere of “Halloween Ends” (complete with an appearance by Jamie Lee Curtis); a screening of “Elvis” (ditto with Austin Butler), and the premieres of Tim Burton’s Netflix hit “Wednesday” and “1923,” a prequel to Taylor Sheridan’s hugely popular “Yellowstone,” starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren.

Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren! At the Hollywood Legion!

“We started out with roots in the entertainment business,” said current post Commander Jeff Daly, “and now we are returning to them.”

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Oscar nominations bring surprises, including Andrea Riseborough, Ana de Armas and Brian Tyree Henry; and snubs of Danielle Deadwyler and Viola Davis.

Post 43 was established in 1919 by World War I vets working in the nascent movie business and their supporters (including one of Hollywood’s own founders, Mary Pickford). Billed on its website as “the longest continuously operating speakeasy in Hollywood,” its original purpose was to provide a place for veterans and to raise money for various charitable ventures that support them.

The words "Peacock presents Poker Face" are projected onto the exterior of the building
The Hollywood Legion Theater was built in Egyptian Revival style.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In 1921, Post 43 bought land on El Centro Boulevard and built the Hollywood Legion Boxing Stadium, a wildly popular venue frequented by big stars of the day, including Charlie Chaplin and Bela Lugosi; profits from those fights funded the Highland headquarters, which was built in 1929.

Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan and Stan Lee were just a few of its more luminous members: Marilyn Monroe was an honorary colonel as were Ginger Rogers, Jayne Mansfield, Lana Turner — all women who entertained troops or contributed to various war efforts.

Over the years, however, the Legion faded from the Hollywood landscape. As the city grew around it, it found itself wedged between a senior home and a Best Western. Its membership dipped to 400.

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If you’ve lived in Los Angeles for any amount of time, you know Post 43, even if you think you don’t. Built in 1929, it’s the Egyptian Revival-style building a block or so south of the Hollywood Bowl. The one with the Japanese cannon in front; the one with all the flags.

1920s automobiles are lined up in front of an American flag-lined Egyptian Revival-style building, with a cannon in between
The dedication of the new American Legion post on July 4, 1929.
(Photo from Post 43 Archives)

Many people know it best as a good place to park while attending the Bowl. A certain demographic may remember wandering its halls as part of “Tamara,” the long-running theatrical experience that ran there in the mid-'80s; I will never forget covering the event held there by Tolkien fans the night “The Return of the King” swept the Oscars.

For the post’s members — veterans and their families — it is, as its website claims, the coolest clubhouse in town, with, among other things, a poker room, billiard room and two bars.

The glamour and the underbelly of the hippest party house in 1960s L.A.

The smaller bar is an Art-Deco beauty with more than a hundred visible notches left there, as the legend goes, by Humphrey Bogart (one for every drink). The other stands impressively along one wall in an event space; rumor (and IMDb) has it that it was used in pick-up shots for “The Shining.”

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A room with a bar at far left, a stage at back and many couches, chairs and tables
A bar used in shots for “The Shining,” at left, is one of two housed within the Hollywood Legion building. The other one was frequented by Humphrey Bogart.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It was definitely the location of a barroom brawl in “Star Trek.” In fact you have probably seen bits of the Hollywood Legion in many films and television shows: Until the Legion Theater opened, location fees were Post 43’s primary source of revenue.

There is also, apparently, a ghost. When my daughter took a part-time job at the theater last summer, she was told to watch out for the spirit of a man killed long ago in a poker game. (She hasn’t seen him.)

The building always had an auditorium at its heart, designed for meetings, events, performances and yes, movies. It was that space Rivero had turned into a 482-very-comfortable-seat theater outfitted for 35mm and 70mm as well as digital projects and kitted out with Alcons sound.

And that has made all the difference. Post 43’s membership has grown to 1,300. And each successful event begets another.

“It is such a unique space, in terms of space and size and the things you can do there,” said Genevieve McGillicuddy, vice president of enterprise for Turner Classic Movies (TCM). “But we were really excited about the formats, that we are able to show 35- and 70-millimeter films. Most standard theaters don’t show actual film any more.”

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“We did a walk-through on three places,” says Kate Mazzuca, whose company Bespoke Bohéme created the “Poker Face” event. “But I knew right away we were going with the Legion. When you have Rian Johnson doing his first series, you need all the top-of-the-line tech — the sound, the projection — to make cinema geeks happy. And,” she adds, “the space is just so cool.”

An aerial view of the Hollywood Post 43 American Legion
If you’ve lived in Los Angeles for any amount of time, you know Hollywood Post 43 American Legion, even if you think you don’t.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The theater lies at the back of the building. Visitors enter via a rotunda with a three-story ceiling and an air of grandeur; on one side is a comfortable community space known as the Trophy Room; the bars and community spaces are downstairs. All are accented by pictures, posters and various memorabilia honoring Post 43 veterans and the Legion’s Hollywood history. Even the muted light feels historic.

The grande dame of amphitheaters, which celebrates its centennial this year, defines L.A. life as only Angelenos can understand.

“People walk in expecting a pull-down screen and folding chairs,” says Taylor Umphenour, the theater’s creative director and chief projectionist. “Then they see this.” He motions to the tantalizing silence of empty red seats beneath a cathedral-like ceiling that somehow does not echo.

And by “somehow,” I mean it has been expertly and expensively designed to conduct cinematic sound perfectly.

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A man stands on a stage in front of rows of red theater seats
Taylor Umphenour, the Hollywood Legion Theater’s creative director and chief projectionist, oversaw its conversion into a state-of-the-art screening space.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Before the renovation, Umphenour says, the theater’s acoustics made it perfect for classical music concerts. “Columbia Records recorded a lot of soundtracks for Disney here, including most of ‘Fantasia,’” he says. “Which is great for concerts, not so great for film.”

The acoustics represented, he says, the biggest challenge of the renovation, but not the only one.

When Commander Rivero decided that a revitalized movie theater might help put the Hollywood Legion back on the Hollywood map, he hired Bill Steele, a Navy veteran, to oversee the project. Steele was working with the Navy’s Hollywood liaison office but living in Lawrence, Kan., with dreams of building an art-house cinema. “Fernando was looking for a veteran who loved movies and that was me,” Steele said over a Zoom from Lawrence. “As soon as I walked into the place I knew it was a project I would have to take on, to create a world-class theater.

“Because of my love of the physical nature of theatrical films,“ he adds, “it felt like my patriotic duty.”

Steele says he could write a book about the drama involved in building a modern theater in the middle of a 90-year-old American Legion post with historic building status. “Some of the members didn’t really understand what we were doing,” Steele says. “The project was very expensive.”

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A film projector points out at a theater
The projection room at the theater, outfitted for 35mm and 70mm as well as digital projects and kitted out with Alcons sound.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

As with most remodeling projects, it became more expensive once it got started. “We realized as we worked on the theater that other parts of the building needed some help,” Steele said. In the end, the whole renovation came to about $6 million.

Umphenour, who got his start at Imax and has worked with top filmmakers, joined the theater staff at what Steele calls the project’s “lowest point.” The projectionist who hired Umphenour, a consultant through much of the process, quit hours before his new employee was set to arrive.

“I get this text that he’s left because things had gotten so crazy and I thought, ‘Well, I’m already in the car so I might as well check the place out.’”

Like Steele, he took one look and knew he wanted to be part of it.

After more than a year, my husband and I have a movie date (“Together Together”) and it was very weird and extremely wonderful.

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“We can do anything in this theater,” Umphenour says. “Show almost any movie ever made. It’s amazing.”

In 2019, the Legion Theater got its first big booking as part of the TCM film festival, which included a 70mm screening of “The Sound of Music.” “People from Fox said it was the best presentation of the film they’d ever seen,” Umphenour says.

A room decorated with historical memorabilia
Community spaces are accented by pictures, posters and various memorabilia honoring Post 43 veterans and the Legion’s Hollywood history.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

TCM uses several nearby theaters for its festival, and only the Legion has 70mm capability. “We do about 10 to 12 screenings there each year,” McGillicuddy said. “And use it to present our Robert Osborne Award. We really appreciate that the bar — you couldn’t ask for a better bar for TCM participants.”

The theater, which hosts regular screenings for Post 43 members and the general public, quickly became a presence on the film festival circuit and the burgeoning business of TV premieres. Los Angeles is littered with venues for premieres or parties, but few that have the capacity to do both. In a historic building. With enough room for a red carpet and plenty of nearby parking.

Oh, and a drive-in theater.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Hollywood Legion, like every other theater, shut down.

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A view from above of cars parked in front of an outdoor movie screen
During the pandemic, the parking lot of the Hollywood Legion Theater was turned into a drive-in spot.
(Taylor Umphenour)

So Umphenour looked where so many other pandemic-afflicted businesses did — to the parking lot. Hollywood Bowl parking is a big source of revenue for the post, but it quickly became clear that the Bowl would not have a 2020 season. So Umphenour and his staff decided to turn its 68 parking spots into a drive-in. “The only drive-in in Hollywood,” he said.

The indoor theater reopened in 2021, but the drive-in remains operational for at least another year. “Permanent is a tricky word,” Umphenour said. “We’ll see.”

The outdoor screen is yet another selling point for studios, festivals and exhibitors. The premiere for the first season of “Yellowjackets” in 2021 was an outdoor event, and at the “Poker Face” premiere, the screen, beaming with the show’s title, was a perfect background for the red (well, gray) carpet — the first step in what Peacock, and Bespoke Bohéme, hoped would be a full-immersion experience.

For 22 years, ‘Blair Witch’ has haunted its creators — along with ‘Yellowjackets,’ ‘Archive 81’ and a spine-tingling swath of films and series.

Having a full-scale premiere for a television series is a relatively new thing, even in party-obsessed Los Angeles; for years only HBO regularly hosted blowout bashes for its shows. But when Netflix, Amazon and other streamers joined the race for eyeballs and Emmys, small-screen premieres grew in number and lavishness. Color-themed flowers and an open bar would no longer suffice; parties have been replaced by immersive events, which means dressing spaces in a way to make revelers feel they are inside the world of the show that’s premiering.

The Hollywood Legion Theater suits this new immersive aesthetic nicely.

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A room with long couches, a variety of chairs and three vertical windows with crests on them
The theater can be customized for premiere parties to fit the themes of the show or film. For the “Poker Face” premiere, Kate Mazzuca’s event design company Bespoke Bohéme was “able to create a roadside bar at one end and a honky-tonk at the other,” she says.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For “Wednesday,” in which Wednesday Addams wreaks havoc at Nevermore Academy, the Hollywood Legion got the full goth-school treatment. “Poker Face” follows Charlie (Natasha Lyonne), whose ability to detect a lie, any lie, forces her to take to the road, solving mysteries as she goes. It is, among other things, an homage to 1970s and ‘80s murder-of-the-week series like “Columbo,” “McCloud,” “The Rockford Files” and “Murder, She Wrote,” which matched up equally well with the Legion’s age and welter of styles.

“The show has a patina to it,” Mazzuca said. “A lot of character. And so does the Legion. We were able to create a roadside bar at one end and a honky-tonk at the other. From the carpet outside to every room inside, it all felt very much like the show.

“It’s also,” she adds, “just a great place to throw a party.”

Turning what was originally a private club into an event space hasn’t been easy either.

“I thought building the theater would be the hardest part,” said Steele. “Turns out programming is the hardest part.”

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An octagonal card table and six chairs
The poker room at the Hollywood Post 43 American Legion.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The theater has been so successful that it is now the biggest source of revenue for Post 43 — so big that the post, which is tax-exempt, is discussing whether or not to spin it off into a subsidiary business for the post.

“It would be a wholly owned subsidary,” said Daly, “but if we can stop worrying about how much money we make, it will be very freeing.”

Daly, who is Post 43’s first Black commander in its hundred-year history, took the position last spring. He joined in 2017, having discovered the post through the entertainment industry. “I took a comedy writing class there through the Veterans and Media program — we help veterans enter the industry. Before that,” he adds, “I didn’t know it existed. When I drove by the building I thought it was a post office. And I wondered, ‘Why do they have a cannon in front of a post office?’”

Now he says, he is determined to get every Marine veteran in Hollywood to join.

“I went to ‘The Price Is Right’ in hopes of being called up on stage so I could ask Drew Carey to join. But it didn’t happen. And I’m always hoping to bump into Adam Driver, but he lives in New York.”

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His larger mission, he says, is to help ensure that the organization survives another hundred years, and he too believes the Hollywood Legion Theater is key.

A metallic angel decoration
“We started out with roots in the entertainment business,” said current post Commander Jeff Daly, “and now we are returning to them.”
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There are still members who are angry about the multimillion-dollar renovation, he says, but many are excited about being part of Hollywood again. “It’s a centerpiece, it attracts attention and funds. We have one of the youngest memberships in the country and many of them do work in the industry so they understand that.”

Still, organizing a schedule that includes members-only, public and private events can get ... complicated. “The building is big enough, with enough separate spaces that we can do more than one thing at a time.” But Thursday and Friday are “bar nights” for members, so best kept private. “And I would never, ever allow anything to be scheduled on Veterans Day.”

Now that the Bowl is back on its pre-pandemic schedule, summer evenings are pretty much out as well. “No one wants to deal with Bowl traffic,” Daly said.

But last spring, Umphenour had a program-adjacent brainwave. On the day Haim played at the Bowl, the Legion Theater screened “Licorice Pizza,” in which the sisters appeared, and invited their parents to host.

“I think we could do more programming like that,” Umphenour said. “When there’s a John Williams concert, we could screen ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ or ‘Star Wars.’ Make it a day-long experience for fans.”

Park your car early, catch a movie and then go to the Bowl? That’s Hollywood synergy.