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Downtown L.A.’s First Talkie Theater Becomes a Spectacular Apple Store, and Preservationists Are Talking It Up

From being possibly the first theater to screen "The Jazz Singer" to an opening day as an Apple Store that brought out Finneas and Hollywood luminaries as well as Tim Cook, the theater has rebounded from 33 years of near-constant darkness.

at the Apple Tower Theatre Store
Michael Buckner for PMC

One of downtown Los Angeles’ landmark clock towers, the one atop the 1927 Tower Theatre, is no longer right just twice a day. More significantly, the landmark theater below it at 8th and Broadway is no longer the near-exclusive habitue of pigeons, ghosts and David Lynch (who’d used it for a spooky “Mulholland Drive” location shoot). After years of extensive renovation, the 94-year-old venue is now a spanking new Apple Store, and the sensitive but spectacular redesign is drawing plaudits from the local community of historic preservationists, as well as proving a draw to opening-week crowds that wouldn’t know famed movie-palace architect S. Charles Lee from Tommy Lee.

Hundreds lined up Thursday morning as the Apple Tower Theatre opened for business, and the first few dozen to pass through the door were met by an unexpected greeter: Apple CEO Tim Cook. Inside, Cook talked with a handful of guests from the entertainment community, like singer-producer Finneas, actor Paul Scheer and filmmaker Mark Duplass, as well as posed for selfies with the invading throng of Apple fanatics and lookie-loos.

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Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles, California. Michael Buckner for PMC

There’d been a much smaller but arguably just as important open house the previous day, when members of the historic preservation community were invited in for a tour. Many had participated in a task force set up several years ago for give-and-take on the alterations and refreshments being made to the theater. That dialogue happened very quietly, of course, given Apple’s usual secrecy and NDAs. (Although rumors first surfaced of Apple leasing the space in 2015, and city permits went public circa 2017, Apple never officially acknowledged the project publicly until this past week.) Now that they’ve seen the finished work and are at liberty to speak, advocates for the Tower’s historicity can finally open up with their prevailing emotion: delight.

To go along with our photo gallery (below), Variety spoke with representatives from the two organizations best known locally for being activists and watchdogs in the preservation of historic theaters, the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation. (Apple declined to make members of its design teams available for comment for this story.) Both see it as a best-case-scenario example of adaptive reuse.

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Musician Finneas attends the Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles, California. Michael Buckner for PMC

“I think Apple has really struck a balance here, in terms of: it still reads as a theater,” says Adrian Scott Fine, the L.A. Conservancy’s senior director of advocacy, offering perhaps the highest praise that can be offered for this kind of project. “They’re still telling the story that this was the Tower Theater, but it’s decidedly reinvented and re-imagined as a modern interpretation, taking some of the spaces of the theater and re-imagining those for functionality that Apple typically has with these types of operations. The question is, how do you infuse the Apple brand and everything that everyone knows about Apple and put in a space that is also still its own brand? You see the balance in the attention to detail, both with the modern aesthetic that you find with Apple products, but also the (original) detail of this building.

“You can’t walk in that space and not see all the intricacies and the craftsmanship that went into this building. We’re really pleased that Apple brought those details back, because the building has sat vacant for decades, and to see it come back and to see these details shine like this is really exciting.”

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Deirdre O’Brien, senior vice president of Retail + People, and Apple CEO Tim Cook open the doors at the Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles Michael Buckner for PMC

Tiffany Nitsche is president of the board of directors of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, which took on getting official landmark status for the Tower as one of its first acts when it was formed in the late 1980s. She says that, even as her org worked with Apple over the last few years, it never adopted an official position on the project, because there are members who maintain that a theatrical use can or should always be found for historic venues. But most would agree that, for several practical reasons that were borne out over the decades, the Tower was unlikely to come back into play as a viable theatrical space, and that they couldn’t have wished for a better adaptive result than this one.

“We treaded very carefully as an organization, knowing our membership and followers were split on the idea of it becoming Apple,” says Nitsche, “and we just wanted to be careful on what they were going forward with, because you can present one thing and do something vastly different. But looking back is, and especially now seeing it open today, I think one thing we can agree on is: They went into the Tower because it’s the Tower. They didn’t go into it to gut it and make it something else. I think they love it for exactly what it is.”

“If you can go into the space and leave your opinions of what you think it should be at the door, it’s just a spectacular space — it’s wonderful,” continues Nitsche. “It’s protected for the future, with the seismic retro upgrade. It’s beautifully presented and a beautiful space to shop in. And it’s introducing the theater to generations that have never stepped foot inside that building. As preservationists in an organization (LAHTF) that wants them to stay theaters, did we get to keep it as a theater at the end of the day? No. But there’s very little they’ve done that can’t be reversed. Everything that’s been removed is photo-documented, cataloged and stored, mostly on-site. It could all be put back, if there were a way for it to go back to a theater in the future if the time comes.”

(She likens in, in that regard, to the long-fought-for Warner Theatre in Huntington Park, which recently reopened as probably the nation’s most magnificent fitness center… again, with eversible alterations, should Huntington Park decide it needs a movie palace again in some future decade, or century.)

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Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles, California. Michael Buckner for PMC

On a stretch of Broadway that’s said to have the highest concentration of largely intact ’20s and ’30s movie theaters in the world, the Tower has stood out for several reasons: It was the first theater designed by Lee, the most famous and beloved of movie-palace architects. It was the first theater wired for talkies in downtown L.A. It has a peculiar shape, on a 50-x-150′ lot, that makes it feel almost more like a palatial bowling alley than a pictures palace. And, unlike most of the other theaters on Broadway, it’s sat dark, except for film shoots and a bare handful of concerts, since it showed its last triple-feature in 1988.

When Lee was commissioned to do it as his first theater design in the mid-1920s, it was an odd job, in that the size of the lot was so odd. The owners had another theater on the site, which had only held 600-some patrons, torn down for the Tower, which would hold 900, with the promise of talking pictures destined to bring in potentially larger crowds. The Tower was poised to take advantage of that, as the first theater in the Broadway corridor with sound capability. (“The Jazz Singer” is said to have a preview screening there before the Tower opened, although it didn’t play at the venue until its second run. The Tower officially opened in October 1927 with a silent picture, “The Gingham Girl,” but it sported a then-revolutionary Vitaphone musical short subject before the main feature. You can read and see more about the history of the theater here.)

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Apple CEO Tim Cook at the opening of the Apple Tower Theatre store in downtown Los Angeles, June 24, 2021 Chris Willman / Variety

Lee went on to do a much bigger and more lavish movie palace a couple of blocks away, the Los Angeles Theatre, in 1931. The Tower seems almost miniaturist by comparison, although that would hardly be anyone’s description now if they walk into the Apple Store off the street. But it does point to one of the reasons why the Tower wasn’t a prime candidate for theatrical use in the 21st century. Within a block and a half, the more humongous Orpheum and Theatre at Ace Hotel are both offering regular concerts, which would leave little room for the Tower to establish itself for similar purposes.

At one point in the early 2000s, the owners — the Delijani family’s Broadway Theatre Group, which also owns the nearby Palace, Los Angeles and State theaters — reportedly planned to turn it into a restaurant. It was easier to imagine it transformed into a nightclub, which hardly would have been ideal. “The unfortunate side when historic spaces become nightclub venues, and everything’s kind of painted black,” says Scott Fine, is that you only see it in the dark of the night, early in the morning when you’ve probably had too many drinks, and it’s not the way you want to experience that space.”

Publicity material from the Apple team says that “upon the closing of its doors in 1988, the space has lain empty and unused.” While perhaps true in spirit, it’s not exactly accurate that the theater has been completely abandoned all those years. It had some very intermittent concerts in the 2000s, the last one having been a 2017 gig by the group Cloak & Dagger, whose very name might have spoken to how unnoticed it went as a furtive rock venue. (It was also opened up for the first few years of the annual Night on Broadway downtown series.) Mostly, though, it was used for filming, when it was used at all. Its most famous appearance might have been in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” marking the turning point in the film where things begin to get completely surreal, as Naomi Watts and Laura Herring get frisky in the balcony while watching a Spanish-language performance of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” The seats on the floor were taken out for good for the filming of 1992’s “The Mambo Kings,” and the auditorium subsequently played host to Sean Penn and Robin Wright in “She’s So Lovely,” Arnold Schwarzenegger in “End of Days,” Piper Perabo in “Coyote Ugly” Cate Blanchett in “The Good German” and Emma Stone in “Gangster Squad,” among many others.

But its future as a theater-theater? “The Tower was unique because it’s not your typical historic theater,” says Scott Fine. “Although it’s a big space, it was always more of a jewel box in comparison to the Orpheum or the Los Angeles Theater. So it was hard to make it work in terms of other functions.” Agrees Nitsche: “When you walked in, it felt like an old New York vaudeville house — very intimate, not grand like the Orpheum down the street. S. Charles Lee built that exactly for the space that was available to him, and really went for it with a lot of gumption when people didn’t think it could be done.”

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Paul Scheer, Marc Duplass and Apple CEO Tim Cook attend the Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles Michael Buckner for PMC

Gumption might be the word for what Apple has done, too, not only spending never-to-be-told millions on hiring top architectural films, but banking on Broadway being a major foot-traffic site again, looking to join the Ace Hotel as another relatively upscale turning point in a transformation of the boulevard that is still a work in progress. One thing is for sure: the new store is a destination, whether you’re looking to see the place where the magnified image of Al Jolson first talked, or whether you’re just headed there to buy a device that puts the vast majority of talking pictures ever made into your pocket.

 

Some of the transformations will be obvious to even the least preservation-minded customers. You don’t have to guess that the wall of windows along 8th Street on the main floor was not there when movies were being shown. The Genius Bar at the very top of the balcony level? Clearly where a projection room once sat. The seats on the main floor were taken out 30 years ago, but the chairs in the balcony weren’t removed until this renovation — replaced with cozy couch-style seating, for anyone waiting for a genius or who can’t wait till they get home to play with their new iPad.

Seemingly the only complaint some die-hard historic preservationists had upon seeing initial photos of the new design — beyond the fact that “Die Hard” will never show there again — is that the golden-hued color scheme inside the auditorium has been brightened up considerably. It’s nearly the opposite complaint that some had when the United Artists Theatre a block and a half away was transformed into the Theatre at Ace Hotel, when its gold shadings were darkened up into a more gothic look. In either instance, it’s a small quibble, at most, and maybe difficult to argue it doesn’t befit the current usage. And it makes for an interesting yin/yang contrast, now, having the interiors of the Tower and the UA/Ace as the light-and-dark bookends of that section of South Broadway.

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The Tower Theatre in downtown L.A., now an Apple Store, now and then Courtesy Apple

Nitsche addresses what’s the same and what’s different about the renovated space, starting with the interior shades. “Yes, it’s light colors. But it’s not as stark-white as it could have been; it’s softer. And again, it’s just paint, at the end of the day. Obviously the entire 8th Street wall has been blown out, so you see straight onto the sidewalk, and people on the sidewalk can see straight in. But all of those marble panels that were there are stored, so they can always go back up.”

As other exterior elements go, the vertical blade sign that has been a landmark to downtown-goers for as long as most have been alive has been preserved, although that only dates back to a 1960s renovation, even if most might assume it was part of the original design. As for the actual marquee, the Tower has had many over the years, including ones that bore a different name when it was known mid-century as the Newsreel, then Music Hall, before returning to its original moniker in the 1960s. The marquee Apple put up for this iteration of the theater takes it all the way back to the 1920s — “it’s obviously new,” points out Nitsche, “but a recreation, to the best of their ability, based on the original schematics and drawings.”

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Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles Michael Buckner for PMC

 

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Vertical blade sign of Apple Tower Theatre in downtown L.A. Chris Willman / Variety

It might take a drone to offer a proper appreciation of the tower that sits over the Tower, but its features, remaining or missing, have been a particular source of attention and affection from preservationists. A cap above the clock has been missing since the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, and recreating it wasn’t initially high on Apple’s priority list, but that’s where the task force proved valuable with powers of persuasion.

The Conservancy’s Scott Fine says that, as happy as he was to think of the theater “all clean and shined up with everything back in its place, the one thing that really seemed to be missing as the topping on the cake, so to speak, was the little pyramid piece on the very top of the clock tower. Initially that wasn’t necessarily in the budget for them to do and put it back. But since the early ’70s, the theater had always sort of looked like it was missing something — and it really was missing something — without that terra cotta piece at the very top. It was certainly something we pressed for, especially when there was some question whether it was in the cards or not. I think Apple heard us and ultimately felt like it was missing its hat, too, and felt they needed to put that back on. I’m really excited to see that back, because it just makes it feel like the exterior is complete again.”

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Clock tower at the Apple Tower Theatre in downtown Los Angeles Courtesy Apple

The stained glass over the front door? Original, although it had been taken out at some point to protect it from spray-painting and vandals, then put back in. The chandelier you see when you walk into the lobby? Also original. “When you walk in off of Broadway, that entrance has always been breathtaking,” says LAHTF’s Nitsche, “but the little star that hangs down has been missing for probably decades. But they sourced and sourced until they could find a star, probably for a year, to find the perfect one to hang there that could pay tribute to the original as much as possible.”

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Stained glass and chandelier in lobby of Apple Tower Theatre Chris Willman / Variety

 

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Lobby of Apple Tower Theatre in downtown Los Angeles Chris Willman / Variety

Proceeding further in, up the main stairwell to the mezzanine, of the railings and other features, Nitsche says, “You can tell immediately the ones that the patina have wear on them — they’ve been there for almost a hundred years. You walk up a little bit further and they’re pristine; you know those aren’t original. But they’re exact replicas — casts of the original. When you think of the care that was taken in that, so you don’t walk in thinking, ‘Oh, this is all new,’ it’s a really good balance. There’s a new elevator for ADA accessibility, and it’s hidden; you can hardly see it. But then when you do see it, it’s this gorgeous bronze door — and it’s inspired by the panels in the auditorium that go up to the ceiling of the balcony. You don’t even realize it at first until you’re up there and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s where they got that.'”

Nitsche is also pleased that the basement level includes installations that point out some of the original features of the auditorium and how they were refinished or recreated. “A lot of the historic elements are covered up downstairs  — they’re now part of back-of-house” that devotes most of the subterranean space to storage and other use — but near the elevator and restrooms are “those artistic installations, some of which are photographs, but some are tactile and meant to be touched. There’s one that has three pieces of railing; the top railing is how they found it when they went in, the second railing is completely stripped down, and then the bottom railing is what it looks like restored. And there are photographs of the marquee at three different stages in the life of the Tower, and photos of them doing restoration work today, so it pays tribute to the original construction artists and the current renovation restoration artists.”

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Display of vintage railings in basement of Apple Tower Theatre in downtown Los Angeles Chris Willman / Variety

For the Conservancy’s Scott Fine, the high level of cooperation and communication between Apple and his org and others on this project was proof that the historic preservationist and the big corporation, like the cowman and the farmer, can be friends. “I believe, and I think Apple agrees, that it made for a better project to work with us and others as they were putting this together.”

He says, “I hope that a project like the Tower Theater will inspire others to think creatively about what can be done with historic buildings, and not just this idea that they have to be kind of  exactly as they were when they were built — that there’s flexibility and creativity that can still come with an historic building and new uses. Sometimes people are either lacking imagination or even think that the preservation community might not be open to that, and I mean, that’s a misnomer.”

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Paul Scheer and Marc Duplass attend the Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles Michael Buckner for PMC

Says Nitsche, “I will say I’m very anxious to hear from our founding board. When the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation was founded in 1988, one of the first things they did was put in an application to get the Tower nominated as a historic- cultural monument, which happened in 1989. finally. So I’ll be curious to know, since they helped protect it, what they think of it today. It was a very scary time when LATHF was formed; we had lost a dozen theaters in downtown within a two-year mark, and the very first thing they did was go after the most vulnerable theaters to get them landmarked.”

She hopes Apple’s adaptation of the Tower will establish the inherent coolness of their cause in L.A. and knock down stereotypes about nostalgists who just can’t let go of glory days. “Preservationists are typically thought of as older and from generations past who remember something a certain way. And it’s really hard sometimes to get even city officials to see how something can be adaptively reused. I can’t tell you the times I’ve heard, ‘Oh, new brands don’t want something old. They want to start over.’ I really hope that this changes that narrative, along with the Theater at the Ace, or even something like Starbucks coming into the old Gilmore gas station on Highland. It’s really cool to see iconic brands go into historic buildings and do them right. People are seeing preservation doesn’t have to be a dirty word” — or an oldster one. “It can actually be just as beautiful as a brand new brick-and-mortar, or more so, because of the character defining details. Little by little, the narrative is changing.”

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Apple Tower Theatre store interior on opening day, June 24, 2021 Chris Willman / Variety

 

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Musician Finneas and Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles Michael Buckner for PMC

 

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Apple Tower Theatre in downtown Los Angeles Chris Willman / Variety

 

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Seating in balcony of Apple Tower Theatre in downtown L.A. Chris Willman / Variety

 

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Apple CEO Tim Cook greets customers at opening of Apple Tower Theatre store in downtown L.A., June 24, 2021 Chris Willman / Variety

 

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Apple CEO Tim Cook takes selfies with a fan at the Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 in Downtown Los Angeles Michael Buckner for PMC

 

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Musicians perform at the Apple Tower Theatre Store Opening on June 24, 2021 Michael Buckner for PMC