In 1949 director John Claar established the Century Theatre Group, backed by a group of investors that included Hollywood heavyweights Frank Capra, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable, Hedda Hopper, Loretta Young, Fred MacMurray, Joel McCrea, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck and others. The company took a 20-year lease on a lot on La Cienega Boulevard and converted a machine shop on the property into a state-of-the-art theatre, with a 48 by 30 foot stage, a 35 by 25 foot proscenium opening and, a relative rarity in its day, an electrical system wired for television production.
The Century Theater launched with “The Fabulous Invalid,” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Other productions followed but by 1951 the building was being used by KTTV, Channel 11 for broadcasting live television. Two years later, it was acquired by Maurice Schwartz, a mainstay in New York’s Yiddish theatre. He changed the name to the Civic Theatre and presented Yiddish plays, mostly in English.
In December 1958 the Players Ring organization took over operation of the Civic. They opened by moving their long-running production of “A View from the Bridge” from the Players Ring to the new larger venue. This was followed by “Be an Angel” (1959), a comedy about putting on a Broadway musical, starring Kathleen Freeman. Next was Arthur Miller’s adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” (1959), starring James Whitmore and Sally Kellerman.
Other noteworthy productions included “Conversations at Midnight” (1962), an adaption of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and two one acts by Edward Albee, ”The Death of Bessie Smith” and “The American Dream” (1962), with former child star Jackie Coogan and Margaret Hamilton, best known for her role as the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”
The Ring group had a successful run at the Civic but by 1964 they Levitt and Thorpe had relinquished the space. It was acquired by Cy Warner, a well-known jazz club impresario who, with Bob Hope and Art Linkletter, had opened the Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills in 1963. Renamed Warner Playhouse, the theatre reopened with the comedy, “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad,” which had played for 47 weeks on Broadway a year earlier.
The following year producer Gene Persson brought a production of two one-acts written by LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and directed by the actor Burgess Meredith to the Warner from New York. “Dutchman,” an intense expressionistic drama about racism and sexuality starring Sheree North and Paul Winfield – winner of the Best Actor Oscar for “Sounder” in 1973 – and “The Toilet,” which dealt with both racism and the then-taboo topic of homosexuality had caused a sensation when it premiered at the St. Marks Playhouse in Manhattan a year earlier.
Word about the radical nature of the show had preceded it, and it sold out from the start. But what sold in Hollywood in those counter-culture days was not always acceptable to the Downtown establishment. The LAPD closed the show and brought obscenity charges against the company – charges that were rejected by the city attorney’s office. Police then attempted to close the theatre on the technicality that Cy Warner had allowed his license to lapse.
Cecil Smith, a Los Angeles Times theatre reviewer, described the legal maneuvers as “strictly from Hicksville, unworthy of a major city.” Smith noted that the plays had “been performed in Stockholm, New York, Bonn, Berlin, Vienna without incident … marvelously performed here, perhaps the best production they’ve had anywhere. Admittedly, their language is raw and ugly, even repulsive, but it is the natural language of the tales he chooses to tell.”
The Times and other newspapers ran reviews of the show, which were generally favorable, and included it in daily calendar listings. But the papers refused to run advertisements, citing a policy against promoting salacious entertainment. Led by Paul Winfield and Sheree North, hundreds of actors and theatre workers, First Amendment advocates and others protested the advertising ban at the L.A. Times headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
The show went on despite the harassment, and the house was sold out every night it played. It closed after 18 weeks, and the company moved to San Francisco.
In July East-West Players, a newly formed Asian-American theatre group that is still active today, brought their production of “Roshoman” to the Warner Playhouse. Later that year actress Eleanor Powell announced she was forming a repertory group to perform at the Warner Playhouse. The board of directors included Arthur Kennedy, John Raitt, Ruth Warrick, Cy Warner and others. The company apparently never went into production, however.
On May 5, 1966, the Warner Playhouse earned a place in rock ‘n roll history when the Doors played a 2 a.m. gig there. It was a propitious moment in the band’s career. They were at the end of a four-month engagement at the London Fog on the Sunset Strip and within days would be hired by the Whiskey a Go-Go, a much higher profile showcase that would put them on the path to fame.
In September Ted Thorpe, who by then had left the Players Ring, opened “The Zulu and the Zayda” at the Warner. Directed by Jeb Schary, the son of former MGM studio executive Dore Schary, and starring then-unknown Yaphet Kotto, it ran for six months, helping to put Kotto on the map in Hollywood.
The Warner found itself in the crosshairs again in 1968 when it booked another underground show from New York. Titled “The Beard,” the Downtown establishment was particularly outraged by a scene in which a Billy the Kid – played by Dennis Hopper in the first few weeks of the run – performed oral sex on Jean Harlow, live on stage.
The LAPD shut down 14 performances in a row. “The police would come in at the end of the play, walk backstage and arrest Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid after they’d had a standing ovation from the audience,” remembered the playwright Michael McClure. After each arrest a liberal benefactor would post the actors’ bail.
Once again the scandalous publicity attracted young Hollywood in droves. The show sold out night after night. On Feb. 26, however, an arsonist set fire to the Warner and three other structures in the area. The damage was repairable, but “The Beard” moved and played out its run at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood.
Andy Warhol produced a film version of the “The Beard” in 1966, starring Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov, but it was never released.
The theatre changed hands after the fire damage was repaired. By the early 1970s it was operating as Ciné Cienega, showing X-rated fare. Today the building houses a restaurant called Poppy.