Looking for Hollywood history and David Lynch’s Los Angeles: Part 5

DOWNTOWN L.A.

See an INDEX for this series of blog posts.

In this part: “Nite Owl Café” / Safety Last! / The door to Club Silencio / The Banks-Huntley Building / “Twin Peaks Savings & Loan” / The Tower Theatre / Hotel Barclay / Fire Station No. 23 / The Bradbury Building / The Million Dollar Theatre / The Second Street Tunnel / Union Station / Los Angeles City Hall / The Los Angeles Times Building / The John Ferraro Building / Los Angeles Central Library / Bunker Hill / Angels Flight / Double Indemnity’s opening shot / The final scene of Chinatown / The viaduct in Eraserhead / The Los Angeles River

“NITE OWL CAFÉ”

Just about every block of downtown L.A.—probably every block—has been filmed for a movie at some point.

I parked on a random block, with the first parking space I could find. Pulling out my iPhone, I checked the Google map I’d created with a list of movie locations.

By sheer coincidence, I’d parked right next to the restaurant where the Nite Owl Café scenes were filmed for L.A. Confidential. The café’s layout looked eerily similar.

“It happened to have, in the inside alley of the building right behind that restaurant, a bathroom that we could use for the murder scene,” L.A. Confidential production designer Jeannine Oppewall told Curbed Los Angeles.

SAFETY LAST!

Walking around downtown, I spotted a few of the buildings where Harold Lloyd filmed scenes for his classic 1923 silent comedy Safety Last!—famously featuring Lloyd dangling from a clock on the side of a high-rise.

Safety Last!

As John Bengtson documents on his Silent Locations website, the rooftop scenes in Safety Last! were filmed on several different buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

From the Silent Locations website: Three different Safety Last! rooftops for the closing scene, 548 South Spring Street, Third and Spring, and 908 South Broadway.

I saw three of the Safety Last! buildings:

THE DOOR TO CLUB SILENCIO

David Lynch has filmed at a number of places in downtown L.A., including three buildings on one block of Spring Street—within an area known as the Spring Street Financial District, a.k.a. “the Wall Street of the West.”

One of these locations is actually just the rear wall of the Palace Theatre—or as the faded paint on the wall calls it, the Palace Newsreel Theatre. Built in 1911, it was originally a vaudeville house called the Orpheum Theatre—not to be confused with another theater of that name built down the street in 1926.

The Palace Theatre faces Broadway, but Lynch used the wall facing a parking lot on Spring Street as the entrance to Club Silencio in his 2001 movie Mulholland Drive.

Images from Mulholland Drive

“Go with me somewhere.”
“It’s 2 o’clock—It’s 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“Go with me somewhere.”
“Sure. Now?”
“Right now!”

On the day when I visited, some trucks were parked in the lot, obscuring my view of that mysterious portal. And the alley next to the theater’s wall—where a taxi drives in Mulholland Drive, dropping off Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring)—was closed off.

(For their 1998 film The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen used the Palace Theatre’s fifth floor as the loft of Maude Lebowski, played by Julianne Moore.)

THE BANKS-HUNTLEY BUILDING

Directly across the street from that parking lot is the Banks Huntley Building, a 12-story art deco skyscraper completed in 1931. In Mulholland Drive, the director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is seen entering this building. In the film, it houses the offices of a company called Ryan Entertainment.

“This is the girl.”

After exiting an ominous and surreal meeting, Kesher uses his golf club to smash the windshield of a limo in the parking lot just south of the Banks-Huntley Building.

Here’s a curious thing about that scene: As Kesher (Theroux) walks in front of the Banks-Huntley Building, a parking lot is visible across the street. That’s the same lot that will appear later in Mulholland Drive as the entrance to Club Silencio.

A scene from Mulholland Drive

“TWIN PEAKS SAVINGS & LOAN”

South of the parking lot next to the Banks-Huntley Building—that lot where the limo’s windshield gets smashed—is the Majestic Downtown, a Beaux Art building that opened in 1924 as the Hellman Commercial Trust and Savings Bank.

David Lynch used the interior as the Twin Peaks Savings & Loan when he filmed the scenes in the last episode of Twin Peaks Season 2, showing Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) chaining herself to a vault (in what was supposed to be Washington state).

But the exterior won’t look familiar. Lynch apparently filmed the bank’s exterior on the Universal Studios Lot, according to Steven Miller’s Twin Peaks Blog.

In 2014, the former bank space inside the building became a nightclub called the Reserve, where you can see that vault from Twin Peaks. I did not get the chance to go inside.

Photo from the Reserve

THE TOWER THEATRE

After Betty and Rita are seen entering the neon-lit doorway for Club Sliencio in Mulholland Drive, the following scene shows them watching a dreamlike show inside that mysterious club.

Mulholland Drive

“No hay banda! There is no band! Il n’est pas de orquestra! This is all a tape recording. No hay banda! And yet we hear a band.”

Lynch did not film that interior scene in the Palace Theatre, however. He filmed inside the Tower Theatre, which is at the corner of Broadway and Eighth Street—just one block east and one block south of the spot where Lynch filmed the club’s doorway.

The Tower Theatre building is also where Lynch filmed the Mulholland Drive scenes where Theroux’s character is seen staying inside a run-down place called the Park Hotel.

Years later, Lynch returned to the Tower Theatre, using its interior as a location in the third season of Twin Peaks (or, as many people call it, Twin Peaks: The Return). This was the otherworldly space occupied by a character known as the Fireman (a.k.a. the Giant) and Señorita Dido. On his Twin Peaks Blog, Steven Miller analyzes where Lynch filmed these scenes within the building.

Twin Peaks publicity photo by Suzanne Tenner

The Tower Theatre opened in 1927, designed by S. Charles Lee with a blend of French Baroque, Moorish, and Spanish design elements. The theater originally had a Vitaphone horn behind its screen, protruding through the building’s rear wall into the alley.

On October 5, 1927, the Tower screened a sneak preview of The Jazz Singer, one night before its official premiere at New York City’s Warner Theatre. See the Los Angeles Theatres blog for a detailed history of the Tower Theatre, along with many examples of movies where the theater is visible.

Motion Picture News, December 28, 1929

The Tower stopped showing movies in 1988, and the building has not generally been open to the public in recent years. So I was stuck on the outside, unable to see those spaces inside where Lynch filmed those incredible scenes…

The Tower Theatre’s website includes some photos of the interior…

Tower Theatre website
Tower Theatre website

When I was standing outside the building, I didn’t know why it had construction walls and scaffolding around it. I’ve since learned that the Tower Theatre is under renovation. In August 2018, Apple announced its plans to convert it into a store and event space.

“Apple has the original blueprints for the Tower and will use them along with photographs and other records to restore original theater highlights such as murals, decorations and a leaded-glass window over the entrance,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Apple released an artist’s rendering of what the Tower Theatre space will look like after it reopens as an Apple store (at some date in the future, not yet announced). I hope some of the architectural details seen in Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks will be visible inside the store.

Artist’s rendering from Apple

HOTEL BARCLAY

Mulholland Drive includes a brief shot showing the Hotel Barclay—which is supposed to the building where a character named Ed (Vincent Castellanos) has an office.

“Look at my digs. Times are tough, bro.”

This is where a criminal named Joe Messing (Mark Pellegrino) kills Ed and steals his “famous black book” (“the history of the world in phone numbers”). After the killing-theft goes seriously awry, Joe makes his getaway via the fire escape.

The building, at 103 West Fourth Street, opened as the Van Nuys Hotel in 1897. A 2017 article at Curbed Los Angeles documents the hotel’s long history of “gruesome slayings and bloody accidents.”

“It is still a low-income residence and seems to be stubbornly resisting the gentrification that is going on all around,” Curbed noted.

A historical plaque on the opposite corner notes that Woody Guthrie often played his folk music on the streets here.

FIRE STATION NO. 23

Built in 1910, the fire station at 225 East Fifth Street was the Los Angeles Fire Department headquarters for a decade. The building’s decor was so ornate that critics called it the “Taj Mahal” of firehouses. The impoverished area surrounding Fire Station No. 23, which closed in 1960, is known as Skid Row.

David Lynch filmed the death row scenes for his 1997 movie Lost Highway inside this fire station.

“Shit. That wife killer’s looking pretty fucked up.”

The building also appears in Ghostbusters, Big Trouble in Little China, The Mask, Flatliners, National Security, and other movies.

In 2018, Curbed Los Angeles reported that the city of Los Angeles plans to turn the old fire station into an art center. “Each year this building has been subject to vandalism, rain damage, and other deterioration,” project manager Neil Drucker said. Some Skid Row activists spoke out against the proposal.

THE BRADBURY BUILDING

The Bradbury Building was near the top of my list of things I wanted to see in L.A. Watching the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, I was fascinated to see how this building’s skylight-illuminated interior has appeared in many different movies over the years. The 99% Invisible podcast also devoted an episode to the Bradbury Building, calling it “arguably the biggest architectural movie star in all of Los Angeles.”

In Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, the Bradbury feels spectral, with beams of light shining down from an advertising zeppelin through the skylight. It’s where the replicant designer J.F. Sebastian (played by William Sanderson) lives, along with a menagerie of his mechanical creatures.

Blade Runner

In the commentary on the Blu-ray of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Scott recalls: “The Bradbury Building I was told was a cliché, and millions of TV series had been made in it. Eventually, I just stopped listening.”

The Bradbury Building’s exterior is nice, but nothing all that remarkable.

But, oh that interior!

Gold mining millionaire Lewis Bradbury had the building constructed in 1893, hiring a draftsman named George Wyman. According to 99% Invisible’s Avery Trufelman, Wyman was inspired by a passage in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, an 1887 novel that predicted what the world would be like in the year 2000:

“It was the first interior of a twentieth-century public building that I had ever beheld, and the spectacle naturally impressed me deeply. I was in a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above. … The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior.

It’s hard to capture the Bradbury Building’s essence in a still photograph. Here’s a video I took as I entered the structure’s atrium:

In his Blade Runner commentary, Ridley Scott recalled making the Bradbury Building look desolate and spooky during a nighttime shoot: “The mucking up of this building to make it look deserted was very simple, because I only dressed where you see: little bits of water on the ground. Bits of rubbish that could be easily swept up afterwards. So you don’t need to do much, you don’t need to trash the whole goddamn building. … We were cleaning up rubbish as we went, so we could leave that night.”

Blade Runner

In Blade Runner, the Bradbury Building’s entrance is flanked by large columns. “I said, ‘I need something in the street to make it weird,'” Scott recalled. “… So we just stood it up in the front door, shot it that night, and took it away.”

THE MILLION DOLLAR THEATRE

The Million Dollar Theatre, which opened in 1917 and still stands across the street from the Bradbury Building, is visible in Blade Runner.

THE SECOND STREET TUNNEL

I took a walk through downtown’s Second Street Tunnel, where Ridley Scott filmed some scenes for Blade Runner.

“I had them go in and they just blasted it with water,” Scott recalls in his commentary track for Blade Runner: The Final Cut. “… We just hit it with water and let it dry out and just brought the car down the middle, and it kind of looked futuristic. And glittered like diamonds.”

This tunnel is also where the car repossessors led by Harry Dean Stanton’s character Bud confront their rivals, the Rodriguez Brothers, in director Alex Cox’s 1984 film Repo Man.

LOS ANGELES UNION STATION

In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen observes:

“As the major gateway to Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s, it has been a location for many movies and a favorite site for movie kidnappings. Through its corridors and grand lobby have passed gangsters, drug dealers, political protesters, Munchkins, even an alien in heat disguised as a railroad conductor. Yet Union Station hasn’t always played itself. It was a police station in Blade Runner.”

LOS ANGELES CITY HALL

Los Angeles City Hall was the city’s tallest building from its completion in 1928 until 1964, and it can be seen in numerous films and television shows, from the original Dragnet series and Mildred Pierce to L.A. Confidential. It’s destroyed by Martians in 1953’s War of the Worlds.

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BUILDING

An art deco building from 1935, it stands a block away from the spot where an earlier Los Angeles Times Building was destroyed in 1910—in a bombing that killed 21 newspaper employees. The newspaper moved out of this building in 2018. Some movies and TV shows have been filmed inside. It’s where David Lynch filmed the Twin Peaks Season 3 scenes set inside the office of Duncan Todd (Patrick Fischler), which is supposedly in Las Vegas.

THE JOHN FERRARO BUILDING

This modernist 1965 high-rise houses the headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power—and appears prominently in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

LOS ANGELES CENTRAL LIBRARY

BUNKER HILL

Once again, I will quote from Los Angeles Plays Itself:

“The movies loved Bunker Hill. The lords of the city hated it. Rents were low, so it put the wrong kind of people too close to downtown. Bunker Hill became a target for slum clearance or urban renewal. They had to destroy it in order to save it.”

“The new Bunker Hill looks like a simulated city…”

ANGELS FLIGHT

The Angels Flight funicular railway has appeared in many movies over the years. The one currently in operation is at a different location from the original one, which ran from 1901 to 1969.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY‘S OPENING SHOT

The opening shot of Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity
South Olive Street and West Fifth Street

THE FINAL SCENE OF CHINATOWN

The climatic scene of 1974’s Chinatown was filmed on Spring Street south of Ord Street in the Chinatown neighborhood, which is just north of downtown L.A.

Chinatown

Comparing my photo of that block with the movie, I now realize that I was facing the wrong direction. There’s one building you can see in both photos: the one with several curved arches on its façade. It’s on the left side in the movie, but the right side in my photograph. I was facing north. Apparently, the camera in Chinatown was facing south.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

THE VIADUCT FROM ERASERHEAD

An image from Eraserhead
510 South Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles

THE LOS ANGELES RIVER

After catastrophic floods in the 1930s, Los Angeles officials and the Army Corps of Engineers completely encased the Los Angeles River’s bed and banks in concrete.

It became an iconic location for movies. Scenes were filmed here for Point Blank, Repo Man, Grease, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Dark Knight Rises, To Live and Die in L.A., Drive, and All Quiet on the Western Front (which disguised it as a European battlefront during World War I).

I stopped to take a photo of the river from the bridge on Seventh Street, looking north. In the distance, you can see Sixth Street, where the old bridge is being dismantled and replaced with a new one featuring a wavy design.

Continued in Part 6.

See an INDEX for this series of blog posts.

In this part: “Nite Owl Café” / Safety Last! / The door to Club Silencio / The Banks-Huntley Building / “Twin Peaks Savings & Loan” / The Tower Theatre / Hotel Barclay / Fire Station No. 23 / The Bradbury Building / The Million Dollar Theatre / The Second Street Tunnel / Union Station / Los Angeles City Hall / The Los Angeles Times Building / The John Ferraro Building / Los Angeles Central Library / Bunker Hill / Angels Flight / Double Indemnity’s opening shot / The final scene of Chinatown / The viaduct in Eraserhead / The Los Angeles River

Photos by Robert Loerzel unless noted otherwise.