The lights on Broadway have all but dimmed. In the early days of cinema Charlie Chaplin and his contemporaries alighted from limousines into lavish cinemas that lined Los Angeles' busiest boulevard for the fanfare premieres of the age. Today, the stars are long gone. But the theatres still stand, all but forgotten like the marquee names of the silent era, swept away by the march of time, the talkies, and the town's insatiable appetite for the here, the now, the new.
Broadway is now a bustling hub of retail stores peddling knock-off Prada and knock-down electronics, the daily chaos redolent of a third-world transit centre. Shoppers and the homeless wander by, oblivious to the fading beauty of these crumbling edifices. It's a far cry from cinema's golden age. When the Hollywood impresario Sid Grauman's Million Dollar Theater opened in 1918, Broadway hit its stride, offering moviegoers an opulent escape into another world. By 1931, it contained the largest concentration of movie palaces anywhere on the planet - and some of the most flamboyant architecture this side of Rome.
Despite its historical status, the fate of these theatres would make Grauman turn in his grave. Beneath the baroque ceiling and plush, velvet balcony at the Pantages Downtown (1920), which began life as a vaudeville house, strip lighting glares on flimsy counters, touting lacklustre jewellery. Over the street, a young man waits patiently for future converts to the Loew's State (1921). Once the busiest cinema in the city, it's now a church. The ushers long gone, cleaners curiously direct wayward tourists come to gape at the Spanish Renaissance splendour.
The Globe (1913) has served as a wax museum, a swap meet, and now a nightclub; The Roxie (1931) and The Clunes's (1910) levelled auditoriums are stacked with boxes, their gutted foyers converted into gaudy gadget stores. So what went wrong? With the opening of Grauman's Egyptian Theater (1922) and Chinese Theater (1927) in Hollywood, the film-going experience began to shift away from downtown Los Angeles. Then suburban strip malls and multiplexes arrived, and the bright red streetcars that once delivered the world to these doors slowly emptied out.
It didn't help when the majors were forced to divest their exhibition interests in the late 1940s. Downtown was left to the down and outs; Broadway fell into decline; and Hollywood's very own history became just that. On Jan 4, 2001, film fans gathered at The Orpheum (1926) to witness the final curtain on the last Broadway theatre to operate as a full-time movie house. They filed out after the show, on to the desolate streets, filled their cars and fled the homeless spilling out from the tent-lined streets of nearby Skid Row.
Since then, the only regular screenings have been each June for the Los Angeles Conservancy's Last Remaining Seats programme. Last month, filmgoers flocked to watch features from a bygone era in their original settings. This year's schedule includes screenings of The Sting, Buck Privates, Cabaret and Macunaima and A Streetcar Named Desire. But things are slowly starting to change. A multibillion dollar investment programme has attracted artists, bargain hunters and loft dwellers alike to one of the city's best-kept secrets. And downtown is getting ready to entertain them.
"For a long time there was a problem with perception," says Carey Upton, a former manager at The Palace (1911) and The Los Angeles Theater (1931), which is leading the charge to switch the lights back on. "People found downtown unpleasant and potentially dangerous, although our crime statistics are less than in Hollywood. Everyone from the mayor downwards is working closely together to revitalise this area."
Playing a leading role in this endeavour is the Los Angeles Conservancy Group. Its Broadway Initiative is part of a decade-long effort to help regenerate Broadway and the surrounding neighbourhoods in Los Angeles' historic downtown neighbourhood. Not so long ago, New York's 42nd Street was avoided like the plague. Its seven historic theatres lay in tatters. It was rife with corruption. Today, it's once again a vibrant entertainment hub and the theatres have reopened.
Investment from entertainment corporations such as Disney, which unveiled The New Amsterdam Theater in 1997, played a major role in the redevelopment of the street. But Upton isn't waiting for act two on Broadway. "I would like to see the studios show an interest," he says. "They like it as a filming location, and there are now some premieres here. But I don't think anyone is expecting Disney to come in and save the day. There have been conversations, but I haven't seen the studios show any interest in rebuilding Broadway."