A Million Dollar dream

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

PASSERSBY were greeted to a most unusual sight this week on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Unusual in recent memory, that is. The iron gate at the entrance of the historic Million Dollar Theater was wide open. Nobody was manning the box office, but the unshuttered exterior, in all its Churrigueresque glory, was a sign that life is returning to the ornate auditorium, which this year celebrates its 90th anniversary.

The other sign of revival can be found on the side of the marquee: The Million Dollar presents Mexico's venerable Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, appearing May 11. This marks the first major concert in about a decade staged by the landmark theater that many worried would never reopen. Not noted on the sign is tonight's centennial tribute to Mexican mariachi composer Tito Guízar, sponsored by the Cervantes Center.

Located at Broadway and 3rd Street, the Million Dollar was once considered the grande dame of the marvelous movie palaces that line L.A.'s historic theater district. It was Sid Grauman's first movie house in town, designed by noted architect Albert C. Martin Sr. and hailed as one of the finest in the world when it opened on Feb. 1, 1918, to a crowd of celebrities including Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille. For decades, it would serve as the site of glitzy Hollywood premieres, often preceded by live vaudeville shows featuring the likes of Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson.

In recent decades, the theater has fallen on hard times. It had served most recently as a church before the faithful also abandoned it five years ago, leaving its once-gilded interior inexplicably whitewashed. Then, it just sat empty.

Inside, the lobby is lined with large posters of some of the Latin stars that appeared here during the 1950s and '60s -- glamorous Mexican actress Maria Felix, Cuban singer Celia Cruz in full rumba regalia and comedian Cantinflas with a beaming smile. The slightly faded photos are vivid reminders of the venue's postwar heyday as an important Latin entertainment showcase, kept alive by the city's new immigrants as Angelenos fled downtown for the suburbs.

Upstairs, in a plain office behind a messy desk, sits the theater's new manager, Robert Voskanian, a tall and skeletal Armenian immigrant who has dabbled in moviemaking and spent years running two big downtown discos before taking on the theater's renovation. The man is either a visionary or a fool, betting on the chance of restoring the Million Dollar to even a quarter of its past glory.

"They told me, 'It's not going to work. Broadway is never going to be what it used to be,' " Voskanian recalls with a shrug. "All your typical stuff. Hopefully, I'll show them wrong."

Resting on the floor is a framed photograph of the entrepreneur on stage with local dignitaries, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It was taken at an invitation-only event last month that heralded the theater's reopening as part of "Bringing Back Broadway," a city-sponsored drive to spruce up the corridor. (No public funds were used to restore the Million Dollar, Voskanian says.) On the 800 block, the Orpheum Theater has already undergone a $3.5-million makeover and now features a busy schedule of performances.

But gone are the days when the theater can depend exclusively on Latino audiences to stay afloat. The Million Dollar long ago lost its monopoly as L.A.'s Latin music showcase, after other venues opened their doors to Latino performers.

Voskanian understands the need to diversify. The day I met him, he was checking out the website of Michael Kleitman, a Soviet-born opera singer he's considering presenting. The moment was a glimpse into the multicultural future of the new downtown. At the Million Dollar, we have an Armenian promoter who was born in Iran interested in presenting a Russian singer who immigrated to Australia and performs romantic pop in Italian.

People seem sensitive to the perception that downtown gentrification means pushing Latinos out. Even without being asked, they deny it.

"Why on Earth would we want to get rid of this amazingly vital community that already exists?" asks Cindy Olnick, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Conservancy, which also promotes the revitalization of Broadway. "We want to keep the authentic resources that make the community unique and vital. We just want to augment it."

"I'm not going to give up on the Spanish crowd," Voskanian says in his heavily accented English. "I'm going to add an international flavor. There's 365 days to fill the theater, so there's enough nights to do everything I want to do."

With his spindly fingers, bushy mustache and long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Voskanian looks like a character that could have come out of the 1977 independent horror movie he directed, "The Child," which the All Movie Guide calls an "odd little period zombie film." Eventually, he wants to get back to making movies.

Voskanian came to the United States in 1962 as a teenage exchange student and was later joined by his mother, a homemaker, and father, a trucker who hauled gasoline in Iran. Armenians were a minority back home, he recalls, but not like L.A.'s Latinos. "No, there's a difference, because Latinos have a lot of power here, and we didn't," he says.

He studied business at Whittier College and cinema at CalArts. In 2006, joined by partners from the disco business, he signed a 20-year lease from the Million Dollar, owned by the Yellin Co., which also has the neighboring Grand Central Market. He says he has since invested $1 million for renovations, an amount that coincidentally gave the theater its name because that's what it cost to build. "The place was, bluntly put, in a sad shape," he says, as he tours the interior.

The Spanish Baroque auditorium (designed by William Woollett) must have been awe-inspiring in its day, with its massive arched proscenium, 75-foot-high coved ceilings, filigreed organ grilles and massive balcony, an engineering feat at the time. The tenants have replaced the ragged carpets and painted everything from the gold vases in the alcoves to the ornate chandeliers. But there's a lot left to do, judging from the water stains on the high ceiling caused before leaks were fixed. The balcony is closed off pending repair of a rickety exterior staircase. But the show must go on. Already scheduled this year are a film festival, a beauty contest and two screenings as part of Last Remaining Seats, the conservancy's annual film series in historic venues.

With so much on the line, you'd expect Voskanian to be a little nervous.

"No, not really," he says, strolling through the theater with his hands causally tucked into the pockets of his suit pants. "It's like, you're already in it, so you've got to try to make the best of it."

Musical Tribute to Tito Guízar, featuring performances by singers Tito Guízar Jr. (son) and Mauricio Guízar (grandson) and actress Lilia Guízar (daughter), among others. 6 tonight, Million Dollar Theater, 307 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. Admission is free. Info, (310) 526-1480 or go to www.cervantescenter.org.

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