The Almost Russian Theater, Los Angeles, CA

Click on photos to enlarge.

Among my far-flung searches for places connected to Russian culture this surely is one of my favorite finds. As I was doing my scattershot, though deeply immersive, research this summer on Russian artists in LA., one thing led me to another which led me to another and I ended up reading bits and pieces of Sergei Bertensson’s book In Hollywood with Nemirovich-Danchenko, 1926-1927. Imagine my astonishment (well, you can’t if you already knew this, but it was new to me) when I read the following diary entry from June 1927:
Two of the directors of the Hollywood Playhouse payed a visit to Vladimir Ivanovich to discuss the possibility of organizing a permanent drama theater in Hollywood, a true art theater. Both of them are naive and primitive enough, one of them is frankly thinking only of profit. Vladimir Ivanovich spoke about three possibilities: 1) to organize a permanent company on the basis of the Art Theatre, 2) to stage one play using the tasks and methods of the Moscow Art Theatre in order that this play becomes a model for the future work, 3) to work out a detailed plan (artistic, administrative, juridicial) according to which the owners of this theatre could run the company without the help of Vladimir Ivanovich. Vladimir Ivanovich promised to inform them of his acceptance of the first or second plan no earlier than in a month when his plans for the future became clear. He could work out the third plan now. It has been decided to have a tour of the building of the Hollywood Playhouse in two days’ time and after that to come to the conclusion.”
Holy Moses! There was almost a Moscow Art Theater, or maybe a Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in Los Angeles! Well, as you read on, you realize that this “almost” – like so many “almosts” in life, especially in the life of anyone trying to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the United States – probably wasn’t much of a real “almost.” And yet, and yet… Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, while in Hollywood, actually visited this theater, the Hollywood Playhouse, and actually did consider – at least for a few moments – the idea of opening a Moscow Art Theater-type theater in Los Angeles.
Indeed, two days later, on June 17, Nemirovich-Danchenko and his secretary Sergei Bertensson headed over to the Playhouse, which you see photographed here in loving delight, for a meeting with the owners. I think it’s interesting – though it may or may not be important – that when the director discovered he had mistakenly scheduled two meetings at the same time, he chose to honor not a meeting with a big Hollywood honcho (Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who wanted to do a film with him, he went to the Hollywood Playhouse for a tour of the plant and a discussion of the possibilities of collaboration.
The idea – at least of Nemirovich-Danchenko directing a play – remained alive until mid-October. Simeon Gest, brother of the more famous Russian-emigre producer Morris Guest, conducted the negotiations for the Russian director with the American theater owners.  According to Bertensson, the owners were to have informed him of their decision to go ahead with the project or not on Oct. 12, but asked for another day to consider. On Oct. 13 Bertensson writes in his diary, “All the business with the Hollywood Playhouse has fallen through, as the management either cannot or do not want to risk giving Vladimir Ivanovich the necessary financial guarantees. When from high-sounding words we proceeded to dollars, all their pathos disappeared immediately. And the Academy refused to support the initiative officially, referring to the point that the stage is beyond the scope of their interests as they only deal with pure cinematography. However, admitting the general significance of such an event as a production by Vladimir Ivanovich, certain members of the Academy promise their assistance!? Words, words, words...”
Ah, yes, Words! We have heard words, too. But allow me to brush aside my lyrical outburst and provide the proper bibliographical information for my quotes. They were drawn from pages 129-30, and 156 in Bertensson’s published memoir.

When I set out in search of this little theater-that-couldn’t-quite, I never expected to actually find it. I thought for sure it would be one of those places that has since fallen to the bulldozer and the parking lot. But no. As I drove north on Las Palmas Ave. toward Sunset Boulevard from De Longpre Ave. with my sister Margie riding shotgun, my eyes began to grow bigger and bigger as we drove through a mostly residential block in which a strangely theater-like building stood up ahead on the left, right about where 1445 N. Las Palmas Avenue should be. I jumped out of the car and began taking photos, hoping against hope this was what I thought it was. Then I walked around a big bougainvillea plant and looked up. I might as well have seen a live dinosaur. There it was, the old Hollywood Playhouse sign still intact. A bit worse for the wear, a bit faded for the years, but there was no mistaking what it said. I must also say that the maniac in me began having incredibly wild ideas, because there it is, written on two places on the building – the place is available for rent. Anybody got a couple million dollars they want to invest? With Russians flooding abroad these days (I recently read an article about 100 top Russian intellectuals who have abandoned Putin’s Russia in recent years), this could be the next big thing in L.A. Anybody think? I’ve got contact information here, if you get my drift… I got ideas…
Back to earth, however.
As much as it pains me to say it, this location had at least one more brush with Russian emigre cultural figures. I happened upon that tidbit recently when researching Ivan Lebedeff’s biography. You see, Alisa Rosenbaum’s debut play was staged here. Alisa Rosenbaum? Oh, you mean, Ayn Rand. Ugh. Yes. Ayn Rand.
As reported in Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s first stage play, The Night of January 16thopened as Woman on Trial at the Hollywood Playhouse in October 1934, in a production by sometime actor E. E. Clive and featuring former silent-screen actress Barbara Bedford. Critics and a star-studded first-night audience, including Rand’s Polish idol Pola Negri, Frank Capra, Jesse Lasky, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, three members of the White Russian aristocratic diaspora, and Rand’s friend Ivan Lebedeff, among other film celebrities, praised the plot and were beguiled by the volunteer jury” [drawn from the audience].
So there you have it. Stand back and squint. Do you see Nemirovich-Danchenko, looking not at all Hollywood-like in his heavy Russian beard, entering the door? Is that Bertensson – who would immigrate to the U.S. a few years later and would publish his notes of his time with Nemirovich and later write a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff – following his friend in the door? Or is it Rand, the Russian wannabe emigre writer, sneaking out after the premiere of her play, not wanting to be noticed because she really didn’t like people? Or might that dashing figure coming out now be Lebedeff, monocled and mustachioed, who absolutely loved opening nights and Hollywood crowds!
Whoever it is, there are some pretty good Russian ghosts here.

 

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