The interior of The Wiltern Theatre is as distinctive as its exterior. Hand-painted murals by artist Anthony Heinsbergen detail Deco nature scenes, patterned in green, gold, and red. Most notable is the sunburst on the theater’s ceiling, each spoke a golden skyscraper pointing towards a hopeful, metropolitan future.
Undoubtedly an architectural treasure, the building is permanently protected by the Los Angeles Conservancy as a historical landmark and, now that it’s one of the most popular Live Nation venues in Los Angeles, it’s easy to take The Wiltern for granted. But its existence wasn’t always a given.
In 1931, the Pellissier building was erected at the very edge of a nascent city, on land formerly occupied by a goat farm. Designed by architect Stiles O. Clements, who also designed the Mayan and El Capitan theaters, The Wiltern was designed as a vaudeville cinema – complete with 37-rank Kimball pipe organ – and was originally called Warner Bros Western Theater, the flagship for the future theater chain. Crowds lined the street to stargaze on the lavish opening night, where the celebrities of young Hollywood like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Loretta Young, and James Cagney were in attendance. Despite an auspicious beginning, the theater closed only a year later due to the Great Depression, but reopened as The Wiltern later that decade.
In 1956, the complex was sold to the Franklin Life Insurance Company and the theater steadily fell into disrepair. When the owners filed for demolition permits in the late 1970s, a citizen’s group and a very young Los Angeles Conservancy protested and ultimately saved the day.
Developer Wayne Ratkovich and his firm, Ratkovich, Bowerts & Perez, took up the charge to restore the building, but it was in frightful disarray: pieces of the ceiling had fallen into the rows of seats, fixtures had been pilfered and pawned off, murals almost entirely muddled. It took four years to restore The Wiltern to its original grandeur, and then some – the orchestra pit and stage area were expanded to accommodate theater and live performances.
In 1985, The Wiltern reopened as a premiere cultural hub with performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company, and today, the theater hosts live performances and festivals of many stripes. While The Wiltern showcases the names of the day, its cool, green-gilded silhouette marks a time when the bustling metropolis of L.A. we now know was only dreamed of.