THE INDESTRUCTIBLE THEATRE-MAN: ESCOTT O. NORTON
The Wrecking Ball Stops Here!
By RYAN M LUÉVANO
Behind every fading marquee, lone box office, empty stage and dusty lifeless lobby is Escott O. Norton—designer, executive director of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (LAHTF) and founder of the Friends of the Rialto, who’s fascination for historic theatres has transformed into relentless stewardship for these timeless treasures. Mr. Norton and LAHTF have worked on preservation efforts for many historic theatres including: The Rialto, South Pasadena; The Chinese Theatre, Hollywood; The Palace Theatre, L.A.; The Tower Theatre, L.A.; and the Los Angeles Theatre, among others. I met with Mr. Norton to find out more about the man who seeks to revive these buildings for history and to benefit the communities in which they reside.
Appropriately so, Mr. Norton lives in an historic building located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. To be more specific, he lives in the former corner office of William Mulholland (1855-1935), at the time the head of a predecessor department to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. His living room is complete with original dark wood finishes including fluted columns, ornate crown molding, elegant wainscoting, big windows and a marble fireplace.
Upon revealing his upbringing it became apparent as to how Mr. Norton came on his life’s path for architecture and saving historic theatres. His father Oakley Norton was a math teacher and third generation home designer/builder who built the five houses Mr. Norton grew up in, all located in Eagle Rock, California. From a young age principles of construction and design were integrated into the math lessons his father gave him. Furthermore, his mother Sally Norton was a theater professor at Occidental College and co-founded the Occidental College Summer Drama Festival where Mr. Norton has fond memories of helping out whenever he could as a kid on stage or building props.
What prompted you to begin your campaign for Historic Theatres? When did that happen?
Mr. Norton entered the film industry before finishing high school working as a productions designer and in special effects. As Mr. Norton was missing the theatrical element in his life, in 1983 he founded the Friends of the Rialto, a group dedicated to maintaining and restoring the neighborhood movie palace he remembered visiting as a child with his mother. Just a few years later, in 1987, the Los Angeles Historical Theatre Foundation (LAHTF) was founded and he joined as an early member to support the cause for preserving the historic theatres in L.A.–theatres that needed a voice to help them stay alive.
About a decade later his career took a turn: “I had one week that goes down in my history of life changes. That week I did a tampon commercial, a toilet paper commercial and some other feminine hygiene product. Three commercials that were basically bathroom based. None were about telling a story through the arts—it was incredibly unsatisfying . . . and I couldn’t see my kids due to the long hours.” He left the film industry soon after that week and went into the home design business full time in the mid 1990s. Mr. Norton soon realized that his interests were in historical properties of the past, the complete opposite of his father whose designs always looked towards the future.
What are some of the theaters that have been successfully kept alive?
One of Mr. Norton’s most gratifying experiences is working with the Chinese Theatre (1922) in Hollywood, a theatre that only a few years ago was more famous for the concrete blocks of signatures, footprints, and handprints outside the building, than the magnificent theatre space inside. Mr. Norton recalls, “The management is receptive to historians and preservationists, they support our efforts and genuinely listen to what we have to say.” When the owners decided to remodel the Chinese Theatre they worked with the LAHTF and other preservation groups to preserve and restore the original historic elements. Now one of the most famous theatres in the world is also the best place to see a movie—at the top of it’s game, the Chinese Theatre currently hosts as many as two to three premieres a week.
The most challenging area for historic theatres has continually been the downtown Broadway theatre district, an area that has lost precious movie palaces to swap meets and other retail endeavors. However, “in the last two years there has been more activity in the Broadway theatre district than in the last thirty years.” The main reason Mr. Norton gives for the current revitalization of this district is the surge of residents in the area, reaching over 50,000, a number that is projected to double in the next few years—“having people who would walk to a theatre is making a huge difference.” Mr. Norton continues: “For years there was only the Orpheum Theatre booking shows on Broadway, then in 2014 the Ace Hotel came in and took over the United Artists Theatre.” Mr. Norton says, “It was partial restoration, but it was a full activation. They went from a closed theatre to filling houses and showing movies, doing concerts and selling out 2,000 seats. That was huge! Since then the other theatres have started stepping up their game and booking more shows. The Theatre at Ace Hotel gets at least some credit for that.”
What are some of the theaters that have been unsuccessfully kept alive?
“A real turning point for the theatre foundation was losing the California Theatre (1918) [that resided at 808 S. Main in downtown L.A.] It may not have been the biggest or the grandest, but it had a lot of original elements and had been ignored for a long time—now it’s a parking lot. That one really hurts. It was a traumatic day for us.”
The other big loss that Mr. Norton notes is the Raymond Theatre (1921) in Pasadena, more recently know as Perkins Palace. He recalls, “We had a very unfriendly owner. And I had a friend who spent 20 years trying to save that theatre. She filed multiple lawsuits, and even had buyers ready to write a check for millions of dollars for that theatre. But because of the owner and what seemed like a personal vendetta, the theatre has now been divided up into condos and retail spaces—the theatre is to all intents and purposes destroyed.” Mr. Norton further relates, “I still get a lump in my throat when I drive by the theatre today because it was a viable active venue.”
Do you have any favorite historic theaters outside of California that you’ve had on your radar?
“I’ve traveled all over the world looking at movie theatres. My family knows if we drive down a street and I know there’s a movie theatre, I’m going to stop and take a picture. And there are a few that have gotten my attention for various reasons. What makes theatres most attractive to me is the stories they’ve told, and how they’ve connected their community.” Given this, the theatres that Mr. Norton discusses are the Loew’s King Theatre (1929) in Brooklyn, NY; The Tampa Theater (1926), Tampa, FL; and the Music Hall Theater (1878) in Portsmouth, NH.
Loew’s King Theatre, Brooklyn, NY
“The Loew’s Kings is a stunning theatre. For a while it was completely ignored and boarded up. It’s one of the “Wonder” theatres that Loews built. This one seats 3,200 people and they just spent $94 million to reopen it and this is in Brooklyn, in not necessarily the most well to do area either, and there’s no nearby subway. It’s absolutely gorgeous, it’s a stunning thing.”
The Tampa Theatre, Tampa, FL
“The Tampa Theatre in Tampa is a favorite of mine, the architecture’s really cool, but one of the reasons it’s a favorite of mine is because they are a revival house… just revival movies. Yet they’ve build such a loyal clientele that they can average 600 people a night. They do all sort of great programming… They’ll do a series of movies that’s related to beer and they’ll have artisanal beer selections in the theatre. They do great programming like that and they have an audience. They’re a downtown theatre, when they started people weren’t living downtown; they were scared to go to downtown Tampa. Now they get regular big audiences and some could say they were part of the revitalization of that downtown. The Tampa is a favorite for how they’ve done it.”
The Music Hall Theatre, Portsmouth, NH
“This was a theatre that was going to be torn down. The little community was self-described as a town of “fisherman, sailors and whores”. They got together and started doing fundraising for the theatre, literally selling bricks at the farmers market. Basically through community involvement, though they did have an “angel” who wrote a larger check, not millions of dollars, just something a little more substantial [allowed them to] reopen that theatre as a live venue. They do movies, live speakers, they do shows, and it has been so successful that they’ve opened a second stage. The town has been completely revitalized. I talked to one guy who operates multiple restaurants and he says he only operates these restaurants because of the success of the theatre. The Music Hall is in a small seaside town two hours away from the nearest metropolis… yet they’ll fill those 900 seats… To me that’s a complete success.”
Why are historic theatres important and worth saving?
“It’s a unique form of architecture. It’s the only kind of architecture that is built for total strangers to come together and experience something good. People choose to go to the theatre; they don’t have to go to the theatre. Some people feel they have to go to church, or to court, or to a train station, those are other places where strangers gather. The memories that are created in a theatre are unique. It’s a collaborative experience, it’s usually a teaching moment, and people are learning something or experiencing something, maybe for the first time. All of this makes theatres unique. Movie palaces are the best example of a theatre because movie palaces themselves are designed to tell a story. Literally from the sidewalk you are experiencing an environment that is there to tell you something – Are you a king or a queen walking into a palace, are you an explorer walking into an ancient Mayan temple? Whatever the story is the movie palace fantasy is another unique form of architecture. I’m intrigued and fascinated by the stories that each theatre tells, and each one is different.”
“The reason a movie palace speaks to me is that not only does it still tell a story, but it tells a story about the era it was built. In the ‘20s you have this fascination with Egyptian and Chinese architecture. There’s multiple Egyptian and Chinese theatres because we were just discovering [those cultures] as a world. In the 30s and 40s we had the Spanish revival. [Thus,] you have a lot of movie palaces that include Spanish revival architecture …because we as a world we were rediscovering the Spanish culture.”
Mr. Norton goes on to discuss why these theatres should be important to everyone. “In general our culture doesn’t value history as much as it should. …And because these building specifically tell stories, they may be the better communicators of history than reading in a textbook. When you walk into the lobby of the Los Angeles Theatre that feeling is so much different than any picture or any book could explain. [These buildings] tell the story better than a book or picture ever could. Maybe they develop people’s interest in history, maybe they’ll question something because they see something in the theatre that they wouldn’t otherwise question if they had just read it in a book or website. [Additionally,] “If you go to a movie in a beautiful environment that experience locks in that memory of the movie going experience. Perfect example for me is seeing Chaplin movies at The Rialto. I will always associate Charlie Chaplin with the Rialto because the first time I saw his movies on the big screen was at The Rialto.”
What sparked your reactivation of The Friends of the Rialto again? What is the current progress with the Rialto project?
“There was this high school student, Miranda Gontz who made a documentary entitled “The Rialto–A Fading Treasure”. And I looked at it and said, ‘what have I been doing? Why have I been letting it disappear?’ In many people’s eyes the Rialto was disappearing, not physically but emotionally. People were putting blinders on and not seeing it anymore . . . it was depressing. And her film got a lot of us reinvigorated, so I give her a lot of credit for that. I reactivated the name and I set up the website, put up a Facebook page, I signed on with a fiscal sponsor so we can receive non-profit donations all in a short amount of time. Within a matter of 18 months after reactivating I was sitting at a private meeting in the City Hall of South Pasadena with the mayor, city councilman, architects, the chamber of commerce, two theater experts we were looking for the next step. Then two strangers walk in to the room, they don’t introduce themselves until much later in the meeting when they announced that they are the representatives of the family trust that owns the theatre. The first time in 27 years I met these people that I had been trying to contact. There they were sitting in the room. Within months of that meeting it was announced that they were going to sell the Rialto. Things snowballed from there. And now we were where I wanted to be 25 years ago, we’re actually dealing with an owner that is returning phone calls, talking about renovating, we’ve got a community that is active and interested, and a city government that is wanting to do the right thing.”
Best case scenario what would you like to happen with the Rialto?
“Best case scenario is the theatre is reopened, restored to an original condition …maybe 1940, active on all levels, meaning I want to see live theatre on the stage, music, spoken word, movies both vintage and new, and I want to see kiddy matinees again. I want the Rialto active for every member of the community. So moody teenagers will find a place in the Rialto, they’ll neck in the balcony back row …I want them to have an experience like I did. I want kids to have an experience –I want them to walk into that theatre, see some goofy comedy and then have a chance to win a bicycle like they did in the 1950’s. I want seniors to be able to walk in and have them go up in the balcony and neck like they used to 30 years ago, I want them to be able to revisit the memories that they had and create new memories. There’s a seat for everybody at the Rialto. This not only brings the community back to the theatre, but also brings the theatre back to the community. Revitalizing the theatre will not only revitalize that square footage, but it will bring a center to the city of South Pasadena, and it will activate the local businesses in a way that they aren’t currently. Everyone’s going to benefit, it’s that simple.”
BREAKING NEWS ABOUT THE RIALTO!
There is a great possibility for Mr. Norton’s vision for the Rialto to be a reality as he, myself, and a magnificent team of others have proposed a formal plan to the owners that will save this theatre. The details of this plan will be shared with the community very shortly. Until then, please keep an eye out for PROJECT 1023!