Inside LA Stage History: The Ivar Theatre and the Decline of LA’s Mid-Size Theatres

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By Julio Martinez

Yeghishe Harout, an Armenian-born immigrant and actor (proclaimed “the Armenian Barrymore”), performed with the Antranik Dramatic Company, touring through Europe and the United States during the 1920s. After settling in Los Angeles, Harout branched out into the restaurant business in the 1940s, opening the Har-Omar on 1605 N. Ivar Avenue in Hollywood. He added a theatre to the menu in 1950, building it right onto the front of the restaurant. The facility, equipped with an orchestra pit and a two-story fly gallery, had seating for nearly 400 patrons.

The Ivar Theatre opened in February 1951 with a production of The Barretts Of Wimpole Street (starring Susan Peters, John Hoyt, and Philip Reed). Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who would launch television’s I Love Lucy just a few months later, were in the audience at the opening performance. This was followed by Joan of Lorraine, starring Luise Rainer.

Harout’s theatrical timing seemed to be amiss. As Los Angeles-based live theatre venues geared up for the 1950-51 season, legit producers saw their previously dedicated theatre audiences being siphoned off. People no longer felt it was necessary to actually get in their cars and travel for entertainment. Television, scoffed at by mainstream showbiz during the 1940s, had slowly begun to invade the homes of the upwardly mobile post-WWII middle class. Though TV sets were still considered too pricey for the average working man, the late ’40s phenomenon of installment buying had begun to erode Americans’ thrifty Depression Era and wartime need to stay within a budget. LA Times Drama Critic Edwin Schallert wrote, “It is hoped, of course, that when television sets are paid for and the novelty of this form of entertainment has worn off, people will seek entertainment away from home once again.”

One entrepreneur, actor/producer Harold J. Kennedy (who directed the Ivar’s first two shows), sided with Schallert’s assessment. Early in the ’51 season. Kennedy helped sustain Harout’s Ivar Theatre with a highly acclaimed staging of The Mad Woman of Chaillot, starring Aline MacMahon. Kennedy then joined forces with nightclub proprietor Herman D. Hover to turn Earl Carroll’s former cabaret on Sunset Boulevard into a legit house, offering an extravagantly produced Detective Story, starring Chester Morris (star of radio’s Boston Blackie), opening the production at the Ivar then moving it to the Earl Carroll. Kennedy calculated a $3.60 top ticket price was imperative for the smaller Ivar; he figured $2.40 could be charged at the 800-seat Earl Carroll. Unfortunately, the financial numbers didn’t crunch. As if tolling the doom of mid-size houses in LA, the El Capitan on Vine Street was taken over by NBC TV, and the Music Box on Hollywood Boulevard became an outlet for CBS, as did the Century Theater. Kennedy’s Earl Carroll experiment self-destructed and he returned to New York.

But the Ivar pushed forward. For the next 23 years, this neighbor of the Hollywood Public Library, while constantly struggling financially, became a nationally recognized legitimate theatre and hosted many successful shows. LA Stage Times Editor Emeritus Lee Melville recalled, “In 1961, Corey Allen’s Freeway Circuit brought its touring production of [Jerome] Lawrence and [Robert Edwin] Lee’s Only in America into the Ivar. It starred Herschel Bernardi as the Jewish humorist/journalist Harry Golden. The Ivar was operated then by partners Zev Bufman and Stan Seiden (under the sponsorship of Harout). We had a successful four-month run there. It was my first Equity job as assistant stage manager and I played a small role. There were many well-known actors in the 20-plus member cast. Harold Gould was Herschel’s understudy and got his Equity card from the show. I remember Lawrence & Lee did some rewrites from the original play which had flopped on Broadway.”

Indeed, Ivar shows featured a slew of well-known Hollywood talents, including Cliff Robertson, Billy Dee Williams, James Whitmore, Darren McGavin, Gary Burghoff, Luise Rainer, Elsa Lanchester, Signe Hasso, Ruth Warrick, Bonnie Franklin, and Kim Coles in shows like The Lady’s Not For Burning, The Boy Friend, The Fantasticks, Under The Yum-Yum Tree (starring Bill Bixby, this was the Ivar’s longest running show, May 1962 to Mar 1964), Stop The World I Want To Get Off, The Odd Couple, You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, The Boys In The Band, and Godspell, among many others. The Ivar also hosted such cabaret shows as An Evening With Lord Buckley (1959), Elsa Lanchester Alone (1961), Second City (1961)—and a Grateful Dead concert (1966).

In 1964, another pioneering Hollywood theatre, The Players Ring, was destroyed by fire. In 1965, Players Ring producer Dorothy Vivienne (Roth) and her husband Mandel co-produced Nobody Loves an Albatross at the Ivar Theatre but it was not successful. It was her last venture into live theatre.

After a long illness, Mr. Harout passed away in June of 1974 and the Ivar changed hands frequently. Eventually, burlesque shows took over and the building began falling into decay, boasting nude dancing year round, with promos like “Sunday is Camera Night.” After a 15-year run, the strip-joint operation faded.

In May 1989, the Inner City Cultural Center purchased the Ivar and the center’s founder and long-time Executive Director, C. Bernard Jackson, restored the theatre’s legit status, making it available to other groups for plays, music, dance, and performing arts. The Inner City Cultural Center re-opened in 1990 with guest productions, including the Celtic Arts Center’s staging of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow Of A Gunman and San Francisco Mime Troupe’s I Aint Yo’ Uncle. Inner City’s first production at the Ivar was a March 1992 staging of Minnesota writer and feminist Carol Connolly’s Payments Due, a piece by a woman about women, produced, performed, and directed by women, in celebration of March as both Poetry Month and Women’s History Month. Following her review of the work, L.A. Times Drama Critic Sylvie Drake commented, “…before its 1989 purchase by ICCC, the Ivar played host to the nightly denigration of women. It housed adult nudie shows and rumor has it that at least one stripper committed suicide in the building. Her ghost, we’re told, can still be heard wailing.”

When Jackson passed away in July 1996, the Ivar Theatre went into foreclosure, its doors remaining closed for almost two years. Meanwhile, the lively Hollywood Farmer’s Market had been going on for several years in front of the theatre along Ivar and Selma Avenues and had become one of the larger markets in the Southern California area, continuing every Sunday of the year. As the millennium began, The New Ivar Theatre, now a mid-size theatre seating 284, became the home of The California Youth Theatre, a 38-year-old, non-profit educational organization founded by Jack Nakano. David Carlton came aboard as Theatre Operations Manager in 1993, serving until 2003. Edward Wilson, from the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, became Artistic Director in 2004, with actor Michael York serving as Chairman of the Board.(During this period, Valerie Harper starred at the Ivar in All Under Heaven, her one-woman play about Pearl S. Buck.)

The Ivar Theatre, which observed its 50th anniversary in the summer of 2002 with many alumni in attendance, was purchased by the Los Angeles Film School in 2007 and is currently used as a private shoot facility for student projects. Edward Wilson passed away in February 2008. CYT Founding Director Jack Nakano died in January 2009 at age 75.


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.