Inside LA STAGE History: The Coronet Theatre

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[dropcap]When[/dropcap] famed European dance ensemble, The Berkoff Family, emigrated to the U.S. from Odessa, Russia, in the early 20th century, youngest daughter Frieda (1903-1976) became enamored with American vaudeville. Frieda and brother Louis made their New York debuts in the long-running revue, Greenwich Village Follies (1922-23). After touring for 20 years, performing in theatres and concert halls around the country, Frieda relocated to LA in the early 1940s. Having prospered from her years of performing, Frieda decided to create her own space for live theatre and dance. In 1947, Frieda’s newly constructed, 275-seat Coronet Theatre at 366 North La Cienega Ave. was ready to make its debut, but it lacked a suitable opening production.

Now it just so happened that a friend of Frieda, British actress Elsa Lanchester — best known in the U.S for her title role in the 1935 horror film, The Bride of Frankenstein — was reliving her British music hall roots, performing at the historic Turnabout Theatre, located up the street at 716 N. La Cienega. Elsa confided that her husband, the quite notable stage and screen thesp Charles Laughton, had been working for months with German expatriate playwright Bertolt Brecht on a new work. Frieda desperately wanted it to be the Coronet’s debut production, but doubted whether the Brecht/Laughton duo would want to premiere a work at a fledgling theatre space.

Frieda was wrong. Laughton had developed an intense desire to return to the stage following WWII, fueled by his friendship with Brecht and by the subject matter of Brecht’s work. For over a year, Laughton had been collaborating with Brecht in the translation and adaptation of Life of Galileo. (In a later essay, “Building Up a Part,” Brecht lauded “the processes by which Laughton painstakingly, over many weeks, created his Galileo.”) Both men were quite anxious to have the work produced and felt that the Coronet would be a perfect venue.

Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo premiered on August 16, 1947, produced by John Houseman, directed by Joseph Losey, and starring Laughton, as well as Frances Heflin (wife of Van Heflin), and Hugo Haas. (Reluctantly in attendance that evening was 9-year-old Julio Martinez Jr., who had been brought there by his babysitter — her boyfriend was in the production. I remember nothing about what was happening onstage, but was fascinated when told that I was sitting behind the Bride of Frankenstein.)

Sal Mineo and Don Johnson
Sal Mineo and Don Johnson in “Fortune And Men’s Eyes” at the Coronet, 1969.

Frieda Berkoff (now Gellis) was certainly happy with the attention the Coronet received from Galileo, which was followed by the West Coast debut of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth. During the ensuing years, Frieda didn’t just operate a theatre; she created a small artistic community that included a two-story building of rehearsal halls where Rodgers and Hammerstein had their West Coast offices, Rod Steiger conducted acting classes, and musical film stars such as Betty Grable, Cesar Romero, and Vera Ellen practiced dance routines.

Frieda’s family operated the space for nearly 50 years, hosting more than 300 stage works — including the 1969 West Coast debut of John Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes. When Frieda became ill in 1976, her daughter, Petrie Gellis Robie, continued to operate the space for another 20 years.

There were two periods when Petrie turned over the operational reigns of Coronet to others. LA Public Theatre, under the direction of Peg Yorkin, occupied the facility from 1981-1988. In 1990, Petrie leased the Coronet to The Serendipity Theatre Company, a professional children’s theater, operated by Jody and Scott Davidson, formerly of the Laguna Moulton Playhouse in Laguna Beach. After a four-year residency, Serendipity closed down in March 1994. It was during this time that Frieda passed away of complications from Alzheimer’s (1991).

In 1996, Petrie sold the Coronet to 30-year-olds Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker, founders of Dee Gee Entertainment. They paid $1.7 million for the complex and then committed another $2 million for renovations. These included the eventual conversion of the former Rodgers and Hammerstein offices into a 99-seat black box theatre.

While actively continuing to book productions — beginning with the 1997 staging of A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, starring Stephanie Zimbalist and Charles Kimbrough — Del Prete and Pritzker also initiated Playwrights’ Kitchen Ensemble, a play discovery and reading series that held Monday night stage readings of new plays by American playwrights, attracting the talents of such notable thesps as Dennis Franz, Ed Harris, John Goodman, Peter Falk, Gwyneth Paltrow and Charles Durning.

As live theatre producers, Dee Gee Entertainment booked an eclectic range of stage fare, including the long-running I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (1998); Howard Crabtree’s tuner, When Pigs Fly (1999); Snoopy The Musical (2002); singer Sam Harris’s solo outing, Sam (2003); and Jonathan Larsen’s three-hander, Tick…Tick…BOOM (2006). Coronet also had the distinction of hosting both The Vagina Monologues (2000) and Puppetry of the Penis (2004).

Coronet’s life as a live theatre venue ended on June 2, 2008, when it was purchased by Mark Flanagan, owner of the tiny Largo nightclub, located at 432 N. Fairfax Avenue, which offered eclectic cabaret fare. Delighted to have a much larger venue, Flanagan renamed his operation Largo at the Coronet. Its upcoming bill o’ fare includes comics Sarah Silverman (April 9) and Jeff Garlin (April 10). And to show that live theatre can still be heard within Coronet’s walls, Largo is currently hosting Blaine Swen’s The Improvised Shakespeare Company (April 4 & 5, May 9).

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.