Inside LA STAGE History: The Burbank Theatre

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[dropcap]My[/dropcap] father owned a restaurant, The Stage Coach Café, in the Trailways Bus Depot, located at 6th and Main Streets in Downtown Los Angeles for close to 40 years. On Friday afternoons, after school, I was allowed to “hang out” on Main Street until my Dad got off work. My favorite place to sojourn was the Burbank Burlesque Theater, located at 548 S. Main Street, one of two burlesque houses that faced each other about half a block from my dad’s eatery. The Burbank made its debut in 1893, built by dentist Dr. David Burbank (also giving his name to the city).

In 1899, Burbank leased the 1800-seat facility to entertainment entrepreneur Oliver Morosco, who dubbed it Morosco’s Burbank Theatre, specializing in presenting East Coast productions at a working man’s ticket price. To do this, Morosco formed his own stock company, paying the actors a pittance with the promise of promoting their talents to LA’s burgeoning film industry. Over the years, the theatre evolved from live theater and vaudeville into a newsreel house in the 30s. But during the WWII years, Burbank evolved into a fulltime purveyor of burlesque, the most successful burlesque house in the U.S. This was abetted by nearby Greyhound and Trailways bus depots that disgorged thousands of off-duty servicemen on a daily basis.

burbank ad smallWhen I turned seven, my dad thought it was fine for me to see the shows. I particularly loved a baggy pants comic named Joe Yule, the father of Joe Yule Jr. (better known as Mickey Rooney). Strippers such as Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Amazon Yolanda and a slew of others, amply demonstrated their talents, although the relevance of their performances was kind of lost on me at the time.

I do remember December 1948 when I was ten. I was on school break and I was hanging out at the Burbank almost every day. I think it was about three days before Christmas and the usual 2pm matinee was cancelled. The management and performers re-dressed the stage for a holiday lunch. I was invited by Mr. Yule to join them. Members of LA’s City Council, a few men in police uniforms and LA Mayor Fletcher Bowron were also in attendance. The highlight of the afternoon was Joe Yule and two other comics offering their own version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, supplemented by three impressively endowed ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. I carry that image with me to this day.

The Burbank, renamed New Follies Burlesque, attempted to continue on into the 1950s but by the end of the decade was forced to close. This magnificent building was demolished in 1973.

An Interview with CTG’s Sherwood Award Winner, Mat Diafos Sweeney

“I think LA theatre is at its best when it’s reaching across forms and reinventing its relationship to a live audience, and at its worst when it’s trying to fit an existing mold or production model that made sense in New York a century ago. LA is the future- our garden is wilder, vaster, and more diverse so it should be tended differently.”

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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.