Standing in the middle of the historic Orpheum Theatre, Steve Needleman is surrounded by d & #233;cor so lavish it almost hurts your eyes. There are ornate chandeliers, each laden with 240 lights that shine like candles. There is the original shiny gold leaf that sparkles from the towering ceiling that looms over the theater opened in 1926. The lavishness clearly reflects the roaring era that immediately preceded the Great Depression.

Workmen bustle as they put the finishing touches on refurbishing the heavy birch wood doors near the entranceway and the yellowing marble walls in the foyer.

When Needleman and his crew finish renovating the 75-year-old theater, located in the historic core of Broadway in downtown L.A., the 2,040-seat facility will be a prime venue for concerts, film festivals, movie shoots and an array of theatrical productions.

It might also be a catalyst for fulfilling the long-held goal of converting a tawdry six-block section of Broadway, now filled with bargain-basement clothing stores and jewelry shops, into a busy night spot filled with dance clubs, bars, coffeehouses, restaurants and theaters. It is the hope of Needleman and others that the Orpheum will attract the growing number of residents moving into the area's new trendy apartment buildings and airy lofts.

"I see the Orpheum being the first of many theaters and spots open at night on Broadway," said Needleman, whose father, successful local garment entrepreneur Jack Needleman, bought the beaux-arts theater at 842 S. Broadway in 1964. It is one of dozens of historic commercial buildings that the family acquired in downtown L.A.

The 46-year-old Steve Needleman, a man given to practical shoes and monogrammed white shirts, is one of dozens of investors, entrepreneurs and designers throwing their energy into developing a host of restaurants, nightclubs and entertainment venues in downtown Los Angeles.

Needleman is spending millions of dollars to fix up the Orpheum, whose roof-top sign with hundreds of blazing light bulbs hasn't been lit since World War II. Now that a $30,000 renovation of it has been completed, the sign will soon once again illuminate the downtown scene.

Pride of ownership

Needleman clearly takes pride in showing off the opulent old movie palace to visitors.

"My biggest pleasure is when I bring in the preservationists who have seen these theaters on Broadway," Needleman said. "This is the first (theater on Broadway) to actually be renovated and brought into first-class condition for stage production."

Ironically, the Needlemans tore down another historic movie house in 1990. The California Theatre, built on Main and Eighth streets in 1918, had turned into a gathering place for the homeless and prostitutes. It was leveled by a wrecking ball, and the site was turned into a parking lot, which since has been converted into a two-story retail building.

But Needleman looks upon the Orpheum with different eyes.

"I think there is a tremendous piece of history here," he said, showing a visitor around the historic structure that once had more than 20 dressing rooms for the various vaudeville acts that played on the large stage.

But Needleman is no mere preservationist, he's an entrepreneur looking to make some money.

"I think there is a demand for this type of venue," he said. "There are not that many 2,000-seat theaters available to the public that are not already tied up to concert promoters. Also, the movie industry can use this for filming for a week to 10 days at a time."

Needleman's renovation of the historic Orpheum plays well into the plans of several other preservationists and downtown boosters who want to change the historic core of Broadway into an entertainment zone where the dozen historic theaters would be revived into hot spots for concerts or plays. Nearby nightclubs would then provide a place for dancing the evening away.

Initiative for Broadway

That's the goal of the Nighttime Broadway Initiative, a proposal to expedite permitting so that an assortment of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and coffeehouses can sprout along Broadway between Third and Ninth streets.

The idea was hatched by two lawyers who got together for dinner one night last summer and talked about L.A.'s need for an area where people could walk from one place to another for dinner, dancing and drinking without traveling miles from one place to another.

"I've always thought that we who live in Los Angeles don't have an entertainment center for grown-ups where there is dancing and music, where you can go for the evening, get out of the car and walk from place to place," said Allan Abshez, a land-use attorney who grew up in Los Angeles but fondly remembers his days living in San Francisco. He and his wife would go out to dinner and then walk over to a dance club in North Beach and then go to another club or a coffeehouse. "In L.A. everything is spread out."

Abshez and Roger Landau, a bankruptcy attorney who is currently serving as a city planning commissioner, met for dinner and talked.

"Allan came to me and explained his vision of what L.A was missing and what it could be," Landau recalled. "Allan bent my ear about how cities had developed an entertainment use in the historic core of their cities."

Speeding up permits

Landau quickly supported the idea and met with Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues at the L.A. Conservancy, which for years has been waging a battle to save the historic theaters on Broadway. One of the impediments that had to be resolved, Bernstein noted, was getting permits processed quickly enough for business owners to open clubs and restaurants.

With that in mind, Landau met several months later with the mayor's staff to discuss revitalizing Broadway.

On May 8, the L.A. City Council approved a motion to start the planning process for the entertainment zone, which must ultimately be approved by the Planning Commission and City Council.

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