Inside LA Stage History: The Burbank Theatre & Oliver Morosco

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By Julio Martinez

From July 1943 until August 1949, I grew up in downtown Los Angeles, where my father managed the twelve restaurants in Downtown LA’s Whelan’s Drug Stores. He was headquartered at the main store, located in the Pacific Electric building at Sixth and Main Streets. When Pacific Electric closed down in the late 1950s, Julio Sr. opened the Stage Coach Café across the street inside the Trailways Bus depot, and the corner of Sixth and Main became my second home.

After school on Friday afternoons, I was allowed to “hang out” on Main Street until my Dad got off work. My favorite spot was the Burbank Burlesque Theater 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 was built in 1893 by dentist Dr. David Burbank, who made most of his money running an 8,000-acre sheep ranch in an area that was later incorporated into the City of Burbank. At 1800 seats, The Burbank was too opulent for the scraggly, overgrown village that was LA at the end of the 19th century. It was a financial failure, with a number of management companies unable to make it work as an upscale legitimate theater.

In 1899, an ambitious 23-year-old named Oliver Morosco came to town and leased The Burbank. Born Oliver Mitchell in Logan, Utah, he had become, at age 16, the assistant manager at one of the theaters owned by impresario Walter Morosco in San Francisco. Young Oliver adopted his mentor’s name and made his way to LA to make his fortune. He quickly changed the name of the theatre as well, dubbing it Morosco’s Burbank Theatre.

Surprisingly, the theatre started achieving some success, but it wasn’t easy. Oliver Morosco had no company, and no means of assembling one. The traveling shows out of New York were all controlled by Southern California Syndicate boss, H. C. Wyatt. Morosco called on a friend from his San Francisco days, T. Daniel Frawley, an enterprising actor-manager with a company on the North Coast. Frawley came to Los Angeles with a production called Madame Sans-Gene, starring Mary Van Buren and Mary Hampton, the two leading women of his company.

The play was a huge success. Morosco had a sense of what the Los Angeles theatergoer wanted: new shows. At the first inkling that Sans-Gene was experiencing a decline in audience attendance, he shut it down, immediately sending telegrams of its great success to every independent theatre producer on the West Coast, adding that the Morosco Burbank was now available for bookings. The next attraction, presented by James Neill, included a company with Edythe Chapman as leading woman and Frank MacVicars as character man. The ingenue was a promising little girl named Julia Dean, who starred on Broadway in Her Own Money before finding success in silent films.

Oliver Morosco

The success of this play led Oliver Morosco to finally form his own company, along with William Beach and Helen McGregor. There were no prominent names in the organization, but its steady success paved the way for the entrepreneur to strive for the same success as his Broadway counterparts, at considerably lower cost. The company featured a galaxy of players whose record of good all-round performances made the Morosco Burbank a top grossing theater on the West Coast. He paid the actors a pittance, with the promise that their talents were being promoted to LA’s burgeoning film industry, like the aforementioned Julia Dean.

Morosco was able to secure plays as rapidly as they were released for stock, and, by following the traveling companies in quick succession, he became a dangerous competitor of high-priced organizations from the East, specializing in presenting East Coast productions for a working man’s ticket price. Morosco’s Burbank began presenting original plays then moving them to New York City, including The Rose of the Rancho by Richard Walton Tully, and Edgar Selwyn’s The Country Boy and The Arab. In 1908, Morosco moved his theatrical operations beyond Burbank, leasing the new Majestic Theatre on Broadway in Los Angeles. He added the former Los Angeles Theatre on Spring Street to his portfolio in 1911, renaming it the Lyceum Theatre. That same year, the Belasco-Meyer organization in San Francisco convinced Morosco to take over management of their West Coast theaters, including the gem of the bunch, The Belasco. In 1913, he built LA’s luxurious Morosco Theatre on Broadway (now The Globe).

Among the more than 40 shows that Morosco produced on Broadway were Peg o’ My Heart and The Bird of Paradise, starring Laurette Taylor. The Louis F. Gottschalk musical, The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, which Morosco produced in 1913, introduced Charlotte Greenwood and made her a star. In 1917, he opened the Morosco Theatre in New York.

But four failed marriages and the failure of Morosco’s speculative purchase of land in California—the site where he had planned to build his own “Morosco Town”—forced the ambitious entrepreneur to file for bankruptcy in 1926, and he lost control of his theaters. Although he attempted to mount a film career as a writer and producer during the rise of talking films in the 1930s, his fortunes continued to decline. In 1945, at the age of 69, Morosco died in Hollywood after being struck by a streetcar.

In the 1930s, Morosco’s original downtown LA stage space, The Burbank, evolved from presenting live theater and vaudeville into a newsreel house. But during the World War II years, The Burbank became a full-time purveyor of burlesque. In fact, it was the most successful burlesque house in the U.S., featuring a cast of 60 performers and a band. The nearby Greyhound and Trailways bus depots that disgorged thousands of off duty servicemen on a daily basis guaranteed a never-ending source of patronage.

When 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 lost on me at the time.

Burlesque star tempest Storm under the marquee at the Burbank Theatre.

However, I do remember December 1948. I was 10 years old, on school break, and hanging out at The Burbank almost every day. It was three days before Christmas and the usual 2 p.m. matinee was canceled. The management and performers had re-dressed the stage for a holiday lunch. I was invited by Mr. Yule to join them. 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 The New Follies, 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.

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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.