A hotbed of culture, Los Angeles leads as a center of art, film and design, sprinkled with iconic architectural gems. Among these – nestled in sundry neighborhoods across the Southern California city – are a string of quaint, definitively charming movie houses with deep-seated histories and offbeat appeal. Of these, two stick out: the Vista Theatre and the Majestic Ventura Theatre. Seemingly distinct and geographically separated, each of these theaters is connected by an essential element: their visionary architect, Lewis Arthur Smith.

 

L.A. Smith, as he was aptly known, worked extensively in the early and mid-1920s designing and overseeing the creation of theaters, though during the scope of his career he completed designs for over 40 movie houses . Long-enduring, many of these buildings remain today, standing as hip neighborhood staples and go-to conversation pieces for LA locals who are captivated by their eclectic, Spanish styling.

The Vista Theatre

Drenched in red paint with bright white accents, the Vista stands out against the Los Feliz neighborhood as a historic landmark with a more than 90-year history. Its near-century legacy is speckled with celebrity appearances and an eclectic mix of screenings that take place in its intimate interior, which features a single screen and only 400 seats.

Part of its appeal comes from its dual aesthetic, as it displays a Spanish-influenced exterior with an Egyptian-centric interior. While the exterior was influenced by the Spanish roots grounding Los Feliz, its peculiar interior is thought to be the result of a wave of interest in ancient Egypt that swept over Los Angeles in the 1920s during the time King Tut’s tomb was discovered.

 

“Without a doubt, the interior of the Vista Auditorium stands the test of time,” says Lance Alspaugh, CEO of Vintage Cinemas Inc. “The Egyptian heads that line the left and right side of the auditorium are original, and were restored by us in 1999. These one-of-a-kind art pieces almost fell to the wrecking ball, as the City of Los Angeles and former property owners were required to Earthquake retrofit the building, with one steel beam planned for installation right through the middle of each Egyptian Head. Fortunately for all, the plan was altered with ‘build around’ which required 2 steel beams, and (of course) a significant additional cost. But I think it will be difficult to find anyone who will not concur that it was well worth the cost and effort.”

Discussing the overall atmosphere of the building, Alspaugh remarks, “The vibe of the building lends itself to creating an escape for the audience. Our designer [during the restoration], Ronald Wright, took free interpretation for the lobby area and other portions of the venue that were not intact, creating a complimentary Egyptian atmosphere on the walls and recreating the box office.”

Once housing the office of the cult and legendary filmmaker Ed Wood and now serving as the go-to scene for showings, the Vista holds its place in L.A. locals’ hearts.

Majestic Ventura Theatre

Nested in Ventura County, the 1200-capacity Majestic Ventura Theatre emerged in the late 1920s, acting as one of the first venues to carry luxury, cinematic styling into the area. Though opening night of the theater saw Vaudeville acts and a popular movie screening, the Ventura Theatre is now the site of live musical acts, which range in genre from punk to electronica.

Similarly Spanish Mission styled, the Ventura Theatre features a decorative beige edifice, highlighted by a clay-colored tile roof and green canopies.

 

Loanne Wullaert, the theatre’s manager, identifies the arches above the entryway and the entryway itself as the most defining elements of the building’s exterior. “Sadly,” she states, “the original marquee does not exist, and old photos of the theater show a marked different in architectural design. In the past, it resembled more of a cathedral.”

When asked about the interior of the building, Wullaert pointed out the “beautiful chandelier and proscenium, which is complete with mermaids and shields. The upstairs lobby also includes interesting details,” she said, such as the “the ceiling, which features strange heads attached to spines and faces that appear as though they are blowing wind.”

While the interior is without some of its original hallmarks—a pipe organ and the slope of the theatre floor—Wullaert claims, “There are still treasures buried beneath. The original hardwood flooring remains under the layers of the stage, and supposedly, underground tunnels lead across the street.”

Needless to say, the theatre has a rich and somewhat mythologized history. Once a fresh and defining structure of downtown designed by L.A. Smith, the theater now serves as a historical landmark and hip haunt for Ventura residents as well as out-of-towners.

While the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles incessantly develops – seeing buildings rise and fall, experience renovation and rebirth – a silent history of architecture remains largely untouched. Thanks to the efforts of conservation committees, local design enthusiasts and the art-oriented public, modern Angelenos are able to revel in the 1920s cinematic masterpieces of L.A. Smith.