EARL CAROLL THEATRE
“Through these portals…”
Christmas of 1938, Hollywood saw one of the most glamorous openings ever–and for a city like Hollywood, that’s saying something–the opening of the Earl Carroll Theater at 6230 Sunset Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
Earl Carroll was a New York showman on a par with Florenz Ziegfeld and Billy Rose. In 1931 he opened “the largest legitimate theater in the world” on 7th Avenue. Not everybody had the guts to do that in the height of the depression. The place did well, but not well enough. Its operating costs were enormous and it went into foreclosure in early 1932. (Ziegfeld took it over, renamed it the Casino Theater where it staged a very successful revival of Show Boat. But the place was too much even for the likes of Ziegfeld and it went bankrupt only a short time later.)
But none of this deterred Earl Carroll. Depression be damned! If one nightclub failed, who’s to say the next one would too? It was time to try his luck in Los Angeles so he decamped to the west coast and set about building the second Earl Carroll Theater. No, no! Not just a theater, but an “entertainment palace.”
As he had done at the New York theater, Carroll emblazoned over the front doors: “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world.” Because let’s face it–who doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned parade of glamour? The hedonistic crowd in Hollywood certainly knew glamour when they saw it, so Earl laid it on thick and the folks ate it up. To top it off, the building’s facade was adorned by what became one of Hollywood’s most famous landmarks: a 20-foot-high neon head portrait of entertainer Beryl Wallace who just happened to be Carroll’s girlfriend. (In retrospect perhaps not a huge coincidence…)
The supper club-theatre presented shows on a massive stage with a 60-foot wide double revolving turntable and staircase plus swings that could be lowered from the ceiling. (Any glamour girl can stand on stage and sing a song, but pop her on a swing and now you’ve really got something.) This place needed an enormous stage because the cast featured a chorus of 60 girls–that’s right: SIXTY GIRLS! On stage! At the same time! Who wouldn’t want to see that?
If this wasn’t enough, the place also featured 6200 feet of blue and gold neon tubing, 30 foot columns of light flanking the stage, and a ladies room decked out in soft peach lamb’s wool. For the investors and members of the Inner Circle, a $1000 membership guaranteed a lifetime cover charge and a reserved seat. Clearly Earl Carroll was not the type to do things by halves.
And the locals knew it. By 1938, America had crawled its way out of the depression, and Hollywood was approaching the peak of its powers (the following year, 1939, would see the release of Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, The Women). The town was awash in money and the locals wanted and needed a place to spend it.
The list of first-nighters at the opening of the Earl Carroll Theater is a who’s who of late 30s Hollywood, and includes Clark Gable & Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Sonja Henie, Bob Hope, Betty Grable, Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, Robert Taylor, Constance Bennett, Daryl Zanuck, Jackie Coogan, Franchot Tone, Errol Flynn, David O. Selznick, Louis B Mayer, Dolores del Rio, Edgar Bergen, Jack Warner, WC Fields, Don Ameche, Walter Pidgeon, Jimmy Durante. And that was just the first night.
The place was a smash hit from the opening night, through the rest of the 1930s, the war years–it had special priced shows to accommodate the war-effort swingshifters–and into the post-war years. It all sadly came to an end, however, when Earl and Beryl died in a plane crash in June of 1948, and the place closed for business. It later opened up as the Moulin Rouge which featured Vegas style shows and lasted into the 1960s. These days it’s the “Nickelodeon on Sunset” Studios where it’s been home to twelve of the Nickelodeon cable channel West Coast production of live-action original series.
In a city known for its penchant to tear down any building older than fourteen minutes, it’s terrific that this building is still around but, for my money, the no-doubt talented stars of iCarly, Unfabulous, and Kenan and Kel (whoever the hell they are) are no match for “the most beautiful girls in the world.”