Coronet Theatre Building History
The Coronet Theatre Building was commissioned by Frieda Berkoff Gellis, a well-known Russian vaudeville dancer. From the time she could walk, she had worked as a vaudeville performer traveling all over the USA with her family troupe offering their balletic and Russian character dance act. This time on the road and the grueling 5-performances-a-day, 7 days-a-week schedule had fostered incredible ties with her family, especially her sister, Olga, and brother, Louis. The Berkoff family settled in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles and opened a chain of movie theaters. It was during a visit as a spectator at the Turnabout Theatre at 716 North La Cienega Boulevard. that Frieda incepted the idea of a theatre complex.
In 1942, Frieda Berkoff Gellis applied to build an entertainment complex on the corner of North La Cienega Boulevard and Oakwood Avenue in 1942. Given the green light, she commissioned Lyle Nelson Barcume, a renowned theatre architect to build what would eventually be named the Coronet Theatre Building at 366-372 North La Cienega Boulevard. in Los Angeles, CA. The Streamline Moderne complex meets Late Moderne was completed and opened to the public in 1947 and instantly became a significant location for the post-war entertainment industry. Built to house a 272-seat stage theatre, a performance space, commonly known as the “Little Theatre”, a cinema (shared space with the main theatre), multiple storefronts, office rentals and a dance rehearsal studio. Later a bar occupied a narrow corner space adjacent to the storefronts on North La Cienega Boulevard. affectionately known as the Coronet Pub. From 1957-1961, the Coronet Theatre’s “Little Theatre” was home to Doug Weston’s original Troubadour, a hub for folk, beatnik readings, and jazz musicians.
The second-floor dance and rehearsal studio was built not only for Berkoff Gellis’s personal use, but also to house her family dance school, Coronet Dance Studio. Over the next 27 years, this studio was a practice dance space for Mitzi Gaynor, Barry Ashton, Nancy Sinatra, Betty Grable, Lucille Ball, Rod Steigner, Ann Margret, and Anthony Quinn. Choreographer Roland Dupree offered dance classes through his famed Roland Dupree Dance Academy, as did David Winters, an acclaimed choreographer and performer, who taught his classes and offered private sessions in the dance studio.
1923: Frieda Berkoff Gellis and Louis Berkoff at Shadowland during their time as Vaudeville dancers.
1962: Petrie Robie in a produc-tion of "Hamlet"
The offices were rented to industry greats in allied arts such as The Theatre Guild, Rodger and Hammerstein (west coast office), and Audrey P. Franklyn, entertainment promoter, best known as Elle Fitzgerald’s long-term promoter. Psychic to the stars, Kenny Kingston had an office that drew A-listers both dead and alive, like Elvis,
Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Lucille Ball.
The building complex was owned and operated by the Berkoff family, including Frieda’s daughter, Petrie Robie, and Frieda’s youngest brother, Eugene Berkoff, for nearly 50 years. In 1996 the building was sold to Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker of Dee Gee Entertainment. Petrie sold it to Deborah and Gigi in honor of her mother, “My mother, Frieda Berkoff Gellis, loved this theater. I felt she would have liked the idea of two female entrepreneurs taking over the reins.”
Under DeeGee Production, the Coronet Theatre continued to be a creative compound offering an establishment to actors, writers, and directors. Quality entertainment continued to be produced by tenants such as PKE, Playwrights’ Kitchen Ensemble (mistakenly known as Patchett Kaufman Entertainment), which drew the talent of actors including Peter Falk, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Goodman, and Gena Rowlands. In 1999, under their ownership, the second-floor rehearsal dance studio space was converted into a 99 - 150 seat theater, coined “ Upstairs at the Coronet,” with the goal of giving rising talent a showcase. (figure 5) Prete and Pritzker managed the complex until they sold it on May 16, 2007, in a private sale to its current owner, Hersel Saeidy.
In 2008, Mark Flanagan heard that the new owner, Hersel Saeidy, was planning to demolish the building. Flanagan was looking for a new venue for his popular club, Largo, which at that time was located on Fairfax Boulevard. He landed a 15-year lease, saving the Coronet Theatre from a doomed future and establishing a new legacy for the famed building to include music and comedy.
1997: Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker
2008: Mark Flanagan, current tenant; Largo at the Coronet Theatre
In the 75 years since its debut, the Coronet Theatre has presented well over 300 performances, been the epicenter of experimental and art cinema, the original home of the Troubadour, and even the filming location for Conan O'Brian Late Night Show in 2020 in 2020 when the Covid- 19 pandemic restrictions were first put in effect. (7) The dynamic and significant history of the Coronet Theatre Building is the foundation for the endless possibilities going into the future, “... people will always go for the best show...” Freida Berkoff Gellis, article written by Audrey P Franklin.
Deep Dive: Theatre
The Coronet Theatre Building construction was completed in 1947 and was ready to be used as a legitimate theatre. The theatre established a stellar reputation with its first three back-to-back John Houseman’s Pelican Production shows. The first production debut on June 11, 1947, with Thornton Wilder’s, The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Jane Wyatt & Keenan Wynn. Later in the summer, on July 30, 1947, the theatre’s dynamic legacy continued with the world premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, starring Charles Laughton, and on August 23, 1947, Pelican Productions presented Jean-Paul Sartre’s production of No Exit.
Under Frieda Berkoff Gellis’s ownership, other noteworthy productions over the years included Pete Seeger’s stage debut, Broadway hit Dark of the Moon (1947), and The Stone Jungle (1948), directed by Lloyd Bridges, starring Shepperd Strudwick and featuring a young Russ Tamblyn, and Steve Fisher’s world premiere of Blood in the Streets. Other productions were Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute (1949) and Broadway actress Irish March production of Claude Andre Puget’s, The Happy Days (1951) starring Kay Christian, Dana Earle, and Micaela Mitchell. Other productions included Hamlet (1962), starring Guy Stockwell and Berkoff Gellis’s daughter, sound engineer and artist Petrie Gellis Robie, and the musical Billy Barnes’ L.A. (1962). Billy Barnes continued his time at the Coronet Theatre following Billy Barnes’ L.A. with the Best of Billy Barnes (1963).
Charles Laughton in the world premiere of Bertolt Brecht's Galileo,
Oona O'Neill Chaplin and Charlie Chaplin at the opening of "Galileo" at the Coronet Theatre, 1947
In 1964, Ray Bradbury, famed and influential science fiction and fantastical writer and author of Fahrenheit 451, created a new repertory company devoted exclusively to science fiction theatre. Ray Bradbury leased the Coronet Theatre for his “Space Age Theatre.” Ray Bradbury and two associates, Charles Rome Smith and Herbert Selwyn, coined this organization, Pandemonium Theater Company, to produce and finance the venture.
The repertory company drew upon a backlog of Bradbury’s one-act plays. Ray Bradbury hired John Whitney, the “father” of computer animation and sound technician, and Saul Bass, a renowned graphic designer, as consultants to create unusual electronic effects for the theatre. These two utilized the pre-existing movie projection system to create floating images on small parts of the stage to support the dramatic action. On October 14, 1964, Ray Bradbury and Pandemonium Theater Company debuted The World of Ray Bradbury, a collection of short plays which included, The Pedestrian, To The Chicago Abyss, and The Veldt. The “’ limited engagement’’ ran until February 14, 1965. The next play was The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, which included A Device Out of Time and The Day it Rained Forever. In 1968, Bradbury returned to the Coronet Theatre with The Anthem Sprinters, starring Monte Markham, Garry Walberg, Bob Ball, and David Knight.
During this time, other notable productions included The Owl and the Pussycat (1966) with Emmy winner Bill Bixby and Carol Cole (daughter of Nat King Cole and sister of Natalie King Cole) and Ron Rich’s Big Time, Buck White (1968), which ultimately inspired the New York’s Broadway musical Buck White, which was Muhammad Ali’s debut and only stage experience. In January of 1969, Mimeo directed and starred with Don Johnson in the West Coast premiere production of Fortune in Men’s Eyes, a groundbreaking play that was the first stage production to include a simulated rape scene, including full nudity, between two men.
From 1981 to 1988, the building was home to L.A. Public Theatre, directed by Peg Yorkin. L.A. Public Theater, also known as LAPT, at that time was one of only three equity theatre houses in Los Angeles. During Yorkin’s tenure, the LAPT brought significant contributions to the Coronet Theatre, as she produced works such as John Guare’s Rich and Famous (1982), Anne Commire’s premiere of Put Them All Together (1982), Shay (1983),and Melody Sisters (1983), Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy (1984), Baby with the Bathwater (1985), A.R. Gurney’s Dining Room (1985,) and Doris Baisley’s Mrs. California (1986). During this time, the building operations were being run by Petrie Gellis Robie due to Frieda Berkoff Gellis’s poor health.
See Frieda Berkoff's Theatre Show Log 1947 - 1986
From 1990 to 1994, the theatre was rented by Serendipity Theatre Co., a children’s theatre operation led under the artistic direction of Scott Davidson. In 1994, producer and tenant Jim Freydberg brought numerous highly successful productions to the Coronet Theatre. These productions included Brooklyn Laundry (1991), starring Glenn Close, Laura Dern, and Woody Harrelson, Wrong Turn at Lung Fish (1992), written by Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz, as well as Claudia Sheer’s one-woman show, Blown Sideways Through Life (1994), and Brad Ellis and Gerard Alessandrini’s celebrity-attended, Forbidden Hollywood (1995).
Promotional poster for Ray Bradbury, premier Production at the Coronet Theatre.
Crimson Thread, and Dare Not Speak Its Name, which all went on to some combination of commercial runs or film and television adaptations. Actor James Farentino optioned the play, My Father’s House, while Jean Smart took the play, Higher Laws, to movie production.
PKE held staged play readings every Monday night for a crowd of L.A. theater lovers, who could see the show for free. These readings were part of a process intended to showcase new plays submitted from all over the country and read by established actors such as Charles Durning, Scott Wolf, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Christian Slater for a slew of development people from film and television. The goal was to help fresh talent get discovered. Born out of PKE, The Coronet Writer’s Lab developed, this small and focused group of writers and actors moderated by T. Jay O’Brien, was focused on developing great scripts for stage plays, screenplays, and teleplays. Many of these readings happened in “Upstairs at the Coronet,” the second-floor theatre, originally the dance rehearsal studio.Other notable productions at this time were Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show, God Said `Ha! (1996), which was filmed during its run at Coronet Theatre. Directed by Sweeney, the filming was executive produced by Pulp Fiction director, Quentin Tarantino. Other shows included Barbara Corday, Michael Filerman, and Roger Lowenstein I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (1998), Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly (1999), presented by Ian Praiser and Michael Alden and starring Jim J. Bullock, Fully Committed (2001), Puppetry of the Penis (2002), Tori Spelling and Charlie Sheen’s
In 1996, Petrie Robie sold the building to Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker of Dee Gee Entertainment, soon after actor Dan Lauria founded PKE and took residence in the theatre. While PKE was at the Coronet Theatre, they staged and facilitated more than
200 plays, including A Bronx Tale, The
1991: Glenn Close and Woody Harrelson after a performance of "Brooklyn Laundry."
Maybe Baby (2002), The Vagina Monologue (2003), The Tempest (2004), Michael Jackowitz produced and Jonathan Larson’s written, Tick, Tick... Boom! (2006), and Menopause, The Musical (2007).
In 2007, Dee Gee productions sold the Coronet Theatre Building to its current owner, Hersel Saidy, who was looking to demolish the complex to make room for Urban Outfitters. Luckily, Mark Flanagan of Largo fame convinced the owner to lease the Coronet Theatre to him as the new location for Largo. This lease saved it from demolition while bringing a new relevant life to the complex through music and comedy. In 2008, Largo, one of the best-known entertainment venues in the city, moved from its location on Fairfax Boulevard to The Coronet Theatre Building and became known as Largo at the Coronet. In 2009, Jared Meisler and Sean MacPherson opened Roger Room, a highly considered and beautifully lit bar. Located adjacent to Largo, it occupies the space that once was the Coronet Pub.
Incredible entertainers have performed at the Largo at the Coronet’s main stage and in the “Little Theatre.” Under Flanagan’s direction, the legacy continues with the likes of Adele, Lindsay Buckingham, Dave Grohl, Fiona Apple, Bill Hader, Beck, Phoebe Bridgers, Judd Apatow, Macaulay Culkin, Jeff Tweedy, Margaret Cho, Karen O., Jack Black, Tenacious D, Will Ferrell, Nig Notaro, Maya Hawke, Inara George, Larry David, Pink, Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Sean Lennon, Jon Brion, Gary Shandling, Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Violet Grohl, Greg Kurstin, and Aziz Ansari.
Deep Dive: Cinema
While the Coronet Theatre was being used for significant stage productions, the building was also an art house cinema from its beginning. The year the building opened its door, Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington’s newly formed film society, Creative Film Associates, showed a premier midnight screening of Kenneth Anger’s debut homoerotic film, Fireworks (1947), with Frankenstein’s director, James Whale, and pioneering sexologist Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey in attendance. This movie would return to the Coronet Theatre in 1950 and 1957.
Post-WWII, there was a rise in the experimental film and visual music scene. MGM Studio released a memo to Danish American actor, Jean Hersholt on May 14, 1946, listing three venues for art cinema in Los Angeles: the American Contemporary Gallery, the Great Film Society, and Paul Ballard’s Film Society which initially showed films out of his apartment in Hollywood before moving his operation to the Coronet Theatre in 1947.
Once Paul Ballard relocated his “society” to the Coronet Theatre, he changed the society’s name to The Hollywood Film Society. The Hollywood Film Society was a nonprofit dedicated to the studying and reviewing of motion pictures as an art form. Ballard curated his collection of the film in specific groups, for example:
Series “A” included such films as Passion of Joan of Arc, Kumradschaft, Million Dollar Legs, and Variety. This services also included short films L’Amitie Noire, White Flood, and Brotherhood of Man.
Series “B” was more documentary-focused and included such films as Song of Ceylon, Valley Town, Plow That Broke the Plains, Turksib, A Child Went Forth, Granton Trawler, and Triumph of the Wall. This series included films that were shown for the first time on the West Coast.
Series “C” covered the history of motion pictures in chronological order and was specially curated for students of cinema as an art form; for example, early Charlie Chaplin comedies, Tol’able David, Three Musketeers, and Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
Series “D” was focused on child-friendly films such as Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Grandma’s Boy, Adventures of Chico, and films on nature, animals, sports, and human endeavors.
Experimental films were woven into the series, such as Oskar Fischinger’s Abstraction with accompanying synthetic sound by John and James Whitney, Man Ray’s Emak Bakia and L’Etoile de Mer, and a showing of This is Robert, a movie on child behavior that was shown for an audience of parents and educators.
Raymond Rohauer took over the theatre from Ballard in 1950. The theatre went by Coronet Louvre and was programmed by the Society of Cinema Arts with Raymond Rohauer serving as curator (Stan Brakhage would briefly work as a projectionist under Rohauer and later would become a famous experimental filmmaker). The Society of Cinema Arts was a nonprofit dedicated to bringing art and experimental film to the public. Early avant-garde screenings included a series co-presented by Creative Film Associates that included Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment and Fireworks, Curtis Harrington’s Fragments of Seeking and Picnic, Sidney Peterson’s The Lead Shoes, James Broughton’s Mother’s Day, Buster Keaton’s The General, Maya Deren’s A Study In Choreography for Camera and Man Ray’s Juliet.
Under Rohauer’s curation, visual artists utilized the theater to share their creativity with the public. Animator Oskar Fischinger offered the first presentation of his invention, eventually called Lumigraph, through a performance called, Visual Color Symphonies. Fischinger’s visual instrument made it possible for anybody to produce and create fantastic color plays without a camera, other photographic equipment, or machinery. On January 2, 3, 4, and 5, 1951, he placed a black curtain behind the instrument, dressed entirely in black except for white gloves, so that only the movements of his moving hands would be visible, floating in the darkness while working his “light machine.” His paintings were on display in the lobby during these performances. In the mid-50s, Edward
Kienholz opened his first gallery in the lobby of the Coronet Theatre to foster the Los Angeles art community in exchange for theatre remodeling work for Rohauer.
Rohauer hosted the Society of Cinema Arts, 1st Annual International Film Festival, showcased at the Coronet Theatre in 1950. ( figure 14) Excerpt from Tim Lanza’s chapter for Alternative Projections: in Los Angeles, 1945-1980,
Raymond Rohauer and the Society of Cinema Arts (1948-1962): Giving the Devil His Due:
Still of Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947)
Still of Maya Deren's A Study In Choreography For Camera (1943)
On 8 August 1950, the Society premiered what it called the 1st Annual International Film Festival, which offered over the course of the month nightly screenings organized into seven separate programs. While featuring important silent and sound films, such as Paul Leni's silent horror film 'Waxworks' (1924) and Sergei Eisenstein's 'Ten Days That Shook the World' (1928) and 'Thunder Over Mexico' (1932/34), half of the festival's programming days were devoted to experimental film. It included a four-day program of selections from the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Art such as Frank Stauffacher's 'Zigzag' (1948) and 'Sausalito' (1948). It also included a five-day program of American and French works, such as Gregory Markopoulos's 'Xmas-USA' (1949) and three films by Man Ray.
While Rohauer was screening John E. Schmitz’s film, Voices, and Anger’s film, Fireworks at the Coronet Theatre in 1957, Rohauer was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department vice squad on obscenity charges. Police charged Rohauer on the grounds that the films dealt with “homosexuality, and one depicted a nude woman.” Although the arrest was for a very brief glimpse of a nude woman featured in Voices, it was Fireworks that drew the “true fury” as it was the “most openly queer film to precede the late 1960s.” When the case went to trial, Raymond Rohauer’s lineup of films was denounced as “arousing lascivious thoughts” among the men in attendance. This statement led many to believe it was the Coronet Theatre, an established “ gay male social hub,”
actual existence that was also on trial.
The film Fireworks is an autobiographical account of 17-year-old Kenneth Anger’s awakening desire. Fireworks “explored the pleasures and perils of same-sex desire and interracial identification in a culture in which homosexuals and racial minorities were demonized and persecuted.” Anger’s “insistence on the actuality of homoerotic desire and sexual activity was a first in American cinema.” The film, Fireworks was a response to militant public life during WWII and the postwar racial and ethnic tensions that were surfacing in Los Angeles. Rohauer’s trial revealed that Los Angeles Police Department’s motivation was related to the Coronet Theatre as much as the actual film Fireworks. The theatre was a well-establish “gay haven” and the arresting officer, Donald Shaidell, made his attack on the gay community by affirmatively stating when asked by Rohauer’s lawyer if viewers could find meaning in the film, because there were so many homosexuals whom I recognized in the audience of this theatre.” The Los Angeles Police Department hid its attack on the community by focusing on the legal language of the obscenity of material. The trial mainly focused on Anger’s film, Fireworks, and at its conclusion, Judge Harold Shepard found Rohauer guilty of exhibiting obscene material on February 20, 1958. Soon after, the verdict was reversed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court because homosexuality is “nonetheless not obscene, in and of itself.”
Rohauer’s sustained a consistent calendar of screenings every day of the year for close to a decade. He ran multiple films each evening and matinees on the weekends. Sometimes the film lineup would change daily and other m lineups ran longer. Rohauer and the Coronet Louvre’s tenure at the Coronet Theatre Building ended around 1958-1959. During Rohauer’s time at the Coronet Theatre, he curated some of the most innovative cinema programming, inspiring and influencing many future filmmakers and curators (26), as well as, setting the template for many of the underground and experimental art cinemas of the 1960s and 70s. Excerpt from David James’s 2005 book, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles writes:
Nothing comparable to [Rohauer’s] one-man cinematheque was available in New York or indeed anywhere else in the United States until the much less eclectic Anthology Film Archives opened in New York twenty years later, and nothing else like it has since existed in Los Angeles. In the wasteland of blacklist Hollywood, purged of all radical difference, the Coronet was a unique oasis where Rohauer educated the generations of cineastes who came to their maturity in the following decades.