Inside LA STAGE History: The Macabre Tale of The Majestic & Lon Chaney

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[dropcap]If[/dropcap] ever a theater could be cursed by a single event, it just might be the luxurious Majestic Theatre at 845 S. Broadway, built in 1908 by the firm of Edelman & Barnett for department store tycoon M.A. Hamburger.

Originally leased by Oliver Morosco, the 1700-seat Majestic quickly becomes the preferred home-away-from-home to many national touring musical and dramatic productions from Broadway. Future silent film star Ramon Navarro’s first show biz job is as an usher there.

In 1910, the Majestic is the local performance venue of choice for a versatile, LA-based stage performer named Lon Chaney, later dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”

Born on April 1, 1883, the son of deaf parents, Chaney becomes adept at pantomime and contortion, as well as music, comedy, drama and makeup design. He begins his career as a touring vaudeville performer in 1902; in 1905, Chaney marries 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton, who joins his act. An emotionally fragile young woman, Cleva resents that she is not given equal billing with her husband. During February 1906, the Chaneys are performing in Oklahoma City and residing in a small cabin by the city’s Bell Isle Lake. Here Clara gives birth to a son who appears to be stillborn. While his wife wails uncontrollably, Chaney grabs the bluish infant from her arms, races outside and plunges the newborn into the Lake’s icy waters. The baby, Creighton Tull Chaney, recovers, howling in protest. His mother, believing Lon was actually trying to kill their son, begins to descend into deep depression, refusing to perform with her husband.

The Majestic Theatre
The Majestic Theatre

In April 1913, during the Majestic’s opening night of the Kolb and Dill show, managed by Chaney, Cleva attempts suicide, ingesting mercury dichloride and running onstage from the wings. She survives but is never able to sing again. The scandal forces Chaney out of live theater and into silent films. There he specializes in creating such fearsome characters as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Chaney divorces Cleva; his son subsequently takes on the name Lon Chaney, Jr.

On the verge of making a successful transition into talking pictures, Lon Chaney dies on August 26, 1930, of a bronchial hemorrhage. Meanwhile, the bad publicity resulting from Cleva’s suicide attempt has knocked the Majestic out of favor with mainstream touring acts from Broadway. In 1926, the Majestic partners with Orange Grove Theatre (later the Grand) in the presentation of risqué vaudeville and burlesque shows.

Over the next half-dozen years, the theater is subjected to constant police raids for violation of the city’s Indecent Show ordinance. It is forced to close in 1931, when a police raid results in a number of patrons being trampled. In 1933, the Majestic is demolished to make way for a parking lot, which eventually becomes the three-story garage that stands on the site today…

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.