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Look out, Britney.


Downtown's Broadway Theater District is another faded star that may be ready to stage another comeback after several failed attempts.


The area represents the largest concentration of pre-World War II movie palaces in the United States, with about a dozen historic theatres in the six-block stretch on Broadway from 3rd to 9th streets.


Broadway's backers base the latest hope for a revival largely on the repopulation of downtown. If retail and dining components can be added to a crucial stretch of the district, then a few of the old vaudeville venues can show performances and a couple of the movie theaters can again show films.


But there are big hurdles to overcome: parking is scarce, the area is blighted, and consensus has to be reached by the various property owners, who also have to finance the work.


And the work can be expensive. The vaunted 2001 Orpheum Theatre overhaul cost $3.5 million, and is the lone renovation among the storied group. The others are used as churches, a swap meet or even for storage.


"It's going to be a challenge because the demographic and dynamic has changed dramatically since the theaters were used," said Eduardo Martinez, economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "It's a thriving Hispanic area that focuses largely on retail for the Spanish-language immigrant community. Broadway is not the best location for art house theaters and for features.


"On the surface it doesn't look all too promising, especially without restaurants and other components theater crowds look for."


However, there has been some retail development in the area. And as many as 5,000 residents could move into new apartments along Broadway and on Spring and Main streets nearby, according to the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District.


What's more, a city parking study has recently been approved a step that could go a long way in convincing national chains to come into the area as business tenants.


Past present


The area is now home to a vibrant pedestrian and Latino-oriented retail district by day, but the sidewalks are largely desolate after dark, and have been for decades.


The corridor was once a thriving Depression-era entertainment district, home to movie mogul Sid Grauman's first Los Angeles movie palace, the Million Dollar Theater, opened on Broadway in 1918; others were already established. The Cameo and Arcade were both built in 1910; the Globe in 1913; the Rialto in 1917, and the Palace and Orpheum in 1926, for example.


The debut of Grauman's Egyptian and Chinese (1922 and 1927, respectively) theaters on Hollywood Boulevard pulled business away from the area.


Some of the vacant theaters have been used for filming in recent years, but supporters feel there are now opportunities to draw live entertainment acts to the venues, for performances that couldn't fill larger arenas like Staples Center.


Past efforts dating back to the 1980s have failed because there wasn't a residential population. Property owners were reluctant to spend millions to rehab theaters with few economic prospects.


"You can't dictate use; that vision has to come from the property owners themselves, and that had been something of a stumbling block in the past," said Ken Bernstein, the City Planning Department's Office of Historic Resources manager and former director of the Conservancy. "Now there seems to be some growing will and collaboration."


Also, legislation now allows property owners to write off the improvements within the district as a charitable donation a big tax bonus.


The Los Angeles Conservancy's goal, said Executive Director Linda Dishman, is that the theaters are protected as architectural structures, but also that they are used.


She acknowledged that not all the spaces could function as theaters again; though ideally all or most would be for some form of entertainment.


Some of the theaters have deep, once-lavish lobbies well-suited to development for retail or alternate uses, while others, usually the ones that opened earlier, have shallow lobby areas.


"The possibility of lobby spaces being turned into retail really does exist," Dishman said. "There's a good example of a theater being turned into a bookstore in Studio City with the Fox Theatre. The Tower Theatre could be very successful as a nightclub."


The Los Angeles Theatre, for example, has a large, ornate lobby, and there are already two retail stores on either of the venue side that operate independently of the theater.


"At the time during previous attempts, there was no city leadership focused on Broadway; it seemed to be a vacuum," Bernstein said. "There have been a number of positive developments since then. Increasingly the property owners are on board and ready to act in concert."

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