Inside LA STAGE History: Mason Opera House

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[dropcap]In[/dropcap] the 2010-14 HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Eddie Cantor (played by Stephen DeRosa) is prominently featured as an up-and-coming song-and-dance entertainer plying his trade in 1920s Atlantic City, under the patronage of local political/bootleg kingpin Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi). This made for entertaining TV, but was historically inaccurate. By the 1920s, the real Eddie Cantor was the reigning star of New York’s Ziegfeld Follies and had been a leading entertainer on the national vaudeville circuit since 1912, drawing sold out houses whenever he performed in Los Angeles. Years later, when Cantor was performing at LA’s Mason Opera House, he confided to entertainment columnist Walter Winchell an incident that had occurred in 1916—and could have been written for Boardwalk Empire.

Mason Opera House, located at 127 S. Broadway in Downtown LA, was built in 1903. The 1600-seat performance palace was a favorite venue for touring superstars and notable companies, including Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, John Drew, Shakespearean actor/manager Robert Mantell, Britain’s Stratford-upon-Avon Players, and D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Such operettas as John Philip Sousa’s The Free Lance were another popular draw. In 1908, the Mason hosted the controversial stage play, The Clansman, the basis for D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 silent film epic, Birth of a Nation.

By 1916, the Mason was being managed by entrepreneur Oliver Morosco, who was achieving great success at the nearby Burbank Theatre. In June of that year, Morosco convinced Cantor to come to LA to star in his whimsical Canary Cottage, with music by Earl Carroll. During the show’s two-month run, Cantor’s favorite after-show haunt became the original Pig ‘n Whistle, nearby at 224 S. Broadway. (Opened in 1908, it had started out as a lunch room and pastry shop, but by 1915 had expanded its hours.)

Eddie Cantor
Eddie Cantor

Late one Friday night, Cantor was sitting in the nearly deserted Pig ‘n Whistle, reading Variety, when someone came up behind him and threw a coat over his head. He was rushed out into the street and thrust into a waiting car, which immediately sped off. Cantor told Winchell that he truly believed he was being “taken for a ride.” In fact, the vehicle’s destination was Baron Long’s Hawaiian Village nightclub in the town of Vernon, five miles southeast of Downtown LA.

Cantor’s kidnappers turned out to be Keystone comedy film star Mabel Normand and silent screen leading man Thomas Meighan. Miffed that Cantor had repeatedly refused her requests to hear her latest protégé, ukelele player-song writer Buddy de Sylva (part of a vocal group called The Hawaiians), Normand had enlisted the aide of Meighan and her chauffeur to force the issue. Although Cantor was not amused by what he described as “rough treatment” from the decidedly soused silent film duo, Cantor was impressed by de Sylva, who would later compose (with Joseph Meyer) one of Cantor’s signature songs, “If You Knew Susie,” and became part of the monumentally successful song writing team of de Sylva, Brown and Henderson.

Cantor returned to Los Angeles in 1930, establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, performing in films, radio and television. He died in 1964. Meanwhile, Mason Opera House continued to be a leading legit venue, even with the advent of talking pictures. In 1920, the theater came under the management of A.L Erlanger, turning the theater into the West Coast headquarters of the Erlanger legit circuit. During the 1930s, the Mason was often used for WPA Federal Theatre productions, including a run of Barré Lyndon’s The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, in 1938, the same year it was made into a feature film, starring Edward G. Robinson.

The World War II years put an end to the Mason’s run as a legit venue when it was converted into a movie house. By the late 1940s, Latin-American entrepreneur Frank Fouce had turned the Mason into a home for Spanish-language films from Mexico, introducing Angelenos to the talents of Mexican comic actor Cantinflas. In 1956, the Mason was torn down to make way for a State of California office building, now demolished as well. So goes LA’s architectural history.

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.