It was a double premiere- the opening of the new Belasco Theater at 11th & Hill streets and the Los Angeles debut of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on November 1, 1926. Author Anita Loos and the crème de la crème of filmdom society were in attendance. Both the play and the theater were a hit. History doesn’t record whether the theater’s major financial backer enjoyed the show; he was about to leave for Washington, D.C. to testify in his bribery trial.
Operation of the new theater was headed by Edward Belasco, brother of the big New York theater man David Belasco, who’d given Ruth St. Denis her start on the legitimate stage back in 1910. Designed by Morgan, Walls and Clements, at 1100 seats the setting was intimate, the acoustics perfect. Los Angeles Times arts critic Edwin Schallert praised its “old-gold luxuriance” and lack of ostentation. Local oil billionaire Edward L. Doheny, Sr. put up most of the reputed $1,2500,000 cost of building the theater.
Belasco, like his counterpart A.L. Erlanger at the Biltmore Theater, was focused on bringing Broadway shows to the west coast simultaneously, or as nearly so as possible, with their Manhattan debuts. Based on Anita Loos’ 1925 book about the adventures of gold-digging flapper Lorelei Lee, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened at the Times Square Theater in New York only a little over a month earlier and was still enjoying a hit run. In the past Los Angeles had had to wait some time for shows to make it out west.
The audience list for the premiere read like a Who’s Who of early Hollywood: besides Loos and husband John Emerson (credited as co-author of the stage version), it included Harry Langdon, the Charlie Chaplins (Lita Grey), Buster Keaton and his sister-in-law Constance Talmadge, the Harold Lloyds (Mildred David), sisters Viola Dana and Shirley Mason, Marie Prevost, Ruth Roland, the John McCormicks (Colleen Moore), Pola Negri, Ramon Novarro, John Barrymore, Lon Chaney, Lillian Gish and Bebe Daniels. Irving Thalberg escorted future wife Norma Shearer. The papers don’t mention whether Doheny was present to see the playhouse he’d financed; he was under indictment for conspiracy in the Teapot Dome oil lease bribery case along with former Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall and was due in Washington to testify a few days after the Belasco opening.
Top image: CSL collection.