Exploring forgotten L.A. on a Conservancy walking tour

In the current movie hit (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Tom brings his quasi-girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel) to a park overlooking downtown Los Angeles, and together they admire the grand old buildings standing above the desultory new parking lots. “There’s a lot of beautiful stuff here,” says Tom. “I just wish people would notice it more.”

I almost leapt out of my seat and cheered. Downtown Los Angeles is one of the most incredible, yet most ignored, urban landscapes in America. Built in time of fantastic wealth and artistic productivity, it was more or less abandoned in the late 1940s, and now, an entire city that could compete with Chicago’s Loop, Pittsburgh, or countless other lavish leftovers from the Gilded Age, has been mostly left, largely intact but rotting, to Mexican immigrants. For lots of white Americans, it might as well be off the maps.

I’m always hungry to learn more about the original Los Angeles, but few of the people I meet seem to know anything about it. While there are lots of books about fake palazzos and long-lost Hollywood stars, even the manager at The Traveler’s Bookcase, the city’s most important travel bookshop, was at a loss to provide me with any book of substance about the history of the area.

Thank goodness for the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group that fights to preserve what it can of the downtown district. Because there’s so much worth saving, the group runs popular walking tours of the best bits, usually on weekends when suburbanites can enjoy them.

The Broadway Historic Theatre District tour, held every Saturday at 10 a.m., could blow your mind, even if you don’t care a thing about theatre. Over three hours, our guide Laura Crockett led us through long-forgotten cinemas and stages as we headed down Broadway, which was once the spine of Los Angeles and probably the most important street in the Western United States after the San Francisco quake reduced that city to a B-level burg.

How quickly a society abandons its glories. This is the L.A. that the great names knew. At the Los Angeles Theatre, Charlie Chaplin attended the 1931 premiere of his City Lights. Loew’s State, once the city’s pre-eminent house and where Judy Garland appeared as a child in the Gumm Sisters act, is another church conversion; its keystone above the stage, which once held a gorgeous Buddha-like ornament, has been stripped to a bare niche, likely to avoid offending the congregation.

As we walked, the scales fell from our eyes, and suddenly, Los Angeles revealed itself. As it turned out, it once was a real city with an actual heart — not the car-reliant dystopia we know today — and we were standing in it, among the peeling paint, crumbling iron, and discount stalls serving recent immigrants. Many of the evidence of a thriving civiliza
tion remain, intact but fading.

The spectral Egyptian visage above the stage of the Million Dollar Theatre (1918), once worthy of its name, now presides over a Hispanic church with all the swank of a dusty rec center. On the side of the Tower, for example, I could just make out the old painted signs, nearly sixty years old, advertising newsreels. Atop the marquee of the Morosco (1913), the first serious playhouse in the city, you can still see the globe that advertised its later life as a purveyor of newsreels.

As a bonus — because no truly thorough L.A. architecture tour could neglect it — we also stopped beneath the spectacularly skylit cage elevators of the sublime Bradbury Building (1893), which also happens to be the setting for the final scene of (500) Days of Summer. Not all of L.A. has been left to the spiders, you realize when you set foot in the gleaming, well-tended treasure evocative of the best of the Chicago School. And with proper appreciation and funding, there are scores more jewels waiting to be polished in this city.

There are plenty of tragedies, too. The lobby of the Cameo Theatre, built in 1910, has been turned into a down-at-heel electronics shop. Laura led us behind the grim, bedsheet-like curtain at the back of the store and we found ourselves in the original auditorium. The seats were ripped out, and instead, lining the bolt-pocked sloping floor of the orchestra, were shelves of TVs and video game consoles.

The once-glorious Pantages Downtown, later the showcase for Warner Bros.’ most illustrious premieres, is now obliterated by concrete. Someone filled in the space where the seats once stood to turn the entire orchestra level into a gloomy jewelry mart. “It will never be a theatre again,” lamented Laura. While security guards and vendors eyed our group warily — because of the valuable wares, we were forbidden to take photos here — we peered up at the proscenium and whitewashed decor, still mostly intact over our heads. It’s a small victory, perhaps, that the ornamentation survives even though the original purpose will never again be realized.

“It’s a beautiful city with beautiful buildings, but people have messed up many of them with so-called ‘improvements,’” Laura said.

The tour isn’t really about theatre. It’s about the birth and death of American cities, and it’s about filling in the considerably large blanks that many of us have in our knowledge about the history of the second-most important city in our country.

The tour was done by 1 p.m., early enough to grab lunch at Clifton’s Cafeteria, a weird but satisfyingly kitschy 1935 that’s still dishing out green Jell-o in a dining room kitted up like a Redwoods forest, complete with two-level waterfall.

Admittedly, it would be more fitting of downtown’s current residents to grab a fresh-made taco at the Grand Central Market, by the tour’s starting point. I also dropped into a clothing store geared to poor immigrants — the silent escalators were encrusted with dust and announcements were made only in Spanish — and bought a fantastic pair of plaid summer shorts. The final price, with tax: $3.84.

Symbolically speaking, that’s a long way from the Million Dollar Theatre. It would be long way back, too, but that would be a journey worth taking.

Los Angeles Conservancy Broadway Theatres Walking Tour, Saturdays at 10 AM, www.laconservancy.org, $10, reservations required