Historic Hayworth Theatre is entering a new stage of life
The historic Hayworth Theatre, a Spanish colonial-style building named after actress Rita Hayworth, has changed its identity many times since it opened in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park.
The venue has served as a live-performance theater for the last 11 years, and before that was the longtime home of the Vagabond, the popular repertory cinema. Legend has it that it was once a dance studio for Hayworth’s father.
The Hayworth’s newest identity comes with a different kind of Hollywood twist.
The building has been purchased by TV writer Jenji Kohan, the creator of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and Showtime’s “Weeds.” Records show the theater was acquired in November for $4 million.
Plans for the theater, designated a historic cultural landmark by the city of Los Angeles, are in the early stages but Kohan is turning the second floor into production offices for writers and editors on her TV shows, which include a new HBO pilot, according to her husband and business partner, Christopher Noxon.
The couple wants to keep the main theater on the first floor and hopes to interest theater groups into leasing the 200-seat space. The building also has two smaller stages upstairs, with about 45 seats and 63 seats.
“We love the theater. We love the building,” said Noxon. “We don’t want to alter its cultural status.... We want to bring the building back to its former glory. It was pretty beat up.”
The Hayworth Theatre shared the building with La Fonda Supper Club, a restaurant established in 1968 that featured a popular mariachi dinner show. The restaurant closed earlier this year.
Kohan and Noxon are reaching out to restaurateurs to move into the La Fonda space. They have contacted Sqirl, a restaurant in Silver Lake, according to owner Jessica Koslow, who said she is considering the offer.
The couple’s interest in the building dates to their childhoods in L.A. “Jenji and I used to see art-house movies [at the Vagabond], though we didn’t know each other at the time,” he said.
In the past, Kohan’s shows have rented production office space in locations in Hollywood, including Ren-Mar Studios, which is now the Red Studios Hollywood.
For the last 11 years, the Hayworth was home to a resident theater company that specialized in producing new plays and offbeat musicals. Gary Blumsack, the company’s founder and artistic director, said the new owners offered to let him stay.
“They offered me a lease that was very decent. But even a decent lease is difficult at this time,” he said, adding that interest in the theater space from playwrights and potential renters had declined in recent years. “What used to be so many calls a week had dropped off to a couple of calls a month.”
Among the company’s notable productions were: “Lovelace: The Rock Opera,” a well-reviewed musical biography about porn star Linda Lovelace that opened in 2008; “Silence!,” a musical parody of “The Silence of the Lambs” that ran in 2012; and two plays directed by filmmaker Paul Mazursky.
In 1983, the city designated the building as a historic cultural landmark. It was designed by the prominent L.A. architect Stiles O. Clements of the firm Morgan, Walls & Clements, which also worked on the Wiltern in Koreatown, the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood and the Mayan, now a nightclub downtown.
The Hayworth isn’t nearly as large or opulent as the Mayan — it is two stories tall and occupies about half of a city block — but its association with Clements makes it significant, according to Hillsman Wright, executive director of the L.A. Historic Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving and preserving the city’s old theaters.
“There are so few of [these kinds of buildings] left,” he said. “For me, it’s interesting because it had a dual identity as a theater and a cinema. I would love to see it come back in some way.”
For several years, Circus Theatricals, an award-winning local theater company, produced plays on the Hayworth’s stages. The company was expected to become a resident of the Hayworth’s upstairs stages in 2011 but backed out because of building-code issues.
“But I loved the building. It has a good creative vibe when you walk in,” said Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin, the managing director of Circus, which is now called New American Theatre.
The building has recently served as a venue for the Whitmore Eclectic, a theater company run by James Whitmore Jr., the son of actor James Whitmore.
In one of its early incarnations, the Hayworth was known as the Masque Theater, a live-performance venue. Actress Eva Gabor starred there in a 1946 production of a play titled “Candle-Light.”
Because of its landmark status, renovations to the Hayworth Theatre building must be approved by city officials.
“It’s to ensure that significant architectural features would be retained and that new construction is compatible with its historic character. It doesn’t freeze a building in time and place, but it does provide for a review,” said Ken Bernstein, manager of L.A.'s Office of Historic Resources.
The new owners said they expect work on the building to last at least a year.
Times staff writer Roger Vincent contributed to this report.
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