Earl Carroll Theater – “Through these portals…”

In a continuing series looking at Hollywood restaurants where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:

Earl Carroll Theater

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 Theater at night

Earl Carroll Theater at night

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.”

Earl Carroll Theater bar

Earl Carroll Theater Bar

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…)

Earl Carroll Theater's Beryl Wallace postcard

Earl Carroll Theater's Beryl Wallace postcard

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?

Earl Carroll Theater statue with neon

Earl Carroll Theater statue with neon

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.

Earl Carroll Theater stairs

Earl Carroll Theater stairs

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.”

Earl Carroll Theatre color postcard

Earl Carroll Theatre color postcard

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About martinturnbull

The "Garden of Allah novels" blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author writing about the golden era of Hollywood in his series of novels set at the Garden of Allah hotel which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at www.martinturnbull.com and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
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17 Responses to Earl Carroll Theater – “Through these portals…”

  1. Jaye says:

    Great article, Martin. You really know how to bring a place back to life.

  2. vp19 says:

    Don’t forget the Wall of Fame on the outside…dozens of large concrete slabs autographed by celebs.

  3. Brooke Tucker says:

    I just found your site by accident!!! My mother, Sandra Jolley, was an Earl Carroll showgirl and left to marry my father, Forrest Tucker. I have several photographs of her in costume and always loved to hear the stories. She very much respected him as he didn’t allow any “stage door Johnnies” to pester the girls. Thanks for helping with memories. Cheers! Brooke Tucker

    • That’s very interesting that Carroll discouraged Stage Door Johnnies – that means he wanted what was best for his girls. But it’s a good thing that didn’t stop your dad! Thanks for stopping by, Brooke. It was very nice to hear from you.

    • Marla Wurmser Scheirmann says:

      I truly enjoyed your article. Thank you for keeping the memories alive. I have several photos of my mother, “Margaret Bryson” Wurmser working at Earl Carroll’s as a showgirl. She went on to be Loretta Young’s double (you couldn’t tell them apart).
      Brooke, I believe my aunt and uncle lived across the street from your family in the early 60’s. (Patterson). I wonder if our mothers met and talked about the good, ole’ days.

      • Thank you, Marla! I can only WISH I’d been around to see one of those wonderful shows. And if your Mom was a twin for Loretta Young, she sure must have been a looker! Thanks for stopping by.

      • Hi Marla – I am Loretta Young’s daughter-in-law and would love to connect and hear more about your beautiful mom and their friendship! I didn’t know about your mother until tonight when someone posted your mother’s photo on our Loretta Young Facebook page! You can contact me through the LY FB page or Llewisteg@aol.com. It would be a thrill to know you! Your mother must’ve been amazing!

  4. Doug Elson says:

    I attended a taping of Queen For A Day in the summer of 1960 with my sister and parents when the theater was called the Moulin Rouge. The theater still had a nightclub atmosphere even though it was converted to a TV studio. Coincidentally my father had been to the theater when it was the Earl Carroll Theater as a sailor during WWII, while he was stationed in Los Alamitos in Orange County. I remember as a boy looking through a program he saved, ogling over the showgirls pictured. I wish he had saved it!

    • Hey Doug, I wish he’d saved it too – then you could have scanned it and posted it online. I know plenty of people who would love to have seen an Earl Carroll program! Thanks for your note.

  5. phoenixwer@msn.com says:

    Anyone know what happened to all the autograph blocks from the celebrity wall?

    • According to my friend Philip Mershon from “Felix in Hollywood” they were removed in the late 1960s when the art collective “The Fool” came in to paint the exterior for the new Aquarius Theater. The were stored in the basement and, from what he’s heard, they were re-discovered down there in the late 90s and put up for auction (as individual pieces, not a collection). So they’ve gone out into the world which, on the one hand, is sad, but on the other, at least they haven’t been ground into dust for a sandbox somewhere!

  6. Bob Crutchfield says:

    As a young wanna-be actor in the 60’s I was taken to Earl Carroll’s for an evening by a visiting former boss from KXYZ Radio in Houston. I had left the station and moved to Hollywood in 1959. It was my one and only visit to that fantastic, but waning landmark. Shortly thereafter it became the Aquarius Theater for the LA premiere of “Hair” as I recall.
    I remember Marla telling about her mother being an Earl Carroll girl….and she was truly a beauty!
    What days those once were on Sunset and the Sunset strip with Ciro’s and all the clubs clear down to Larrabee where the famed Trocadero once reigned!

  7. Everyone seems to forget it was a rock club called the Kaleidoscope. They had the most beautiful round posters for their shows.

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