Delijanis put historic theater district back in the spotlight


The classic Los Angeles Theater at Broadway and Sixth Street is not much to look at from the outside—situated alongside a host of busy retail shops, its sidewalk is lined with street vendors selling toys and trinkets. But upon entering the theater’s French Baroque-style lobby, with its 50-foot ceiling, grand staircase, plush red carpet, detailed fresco paintings, ornate marble fountain and crystal chandeliers, one is immediately transported to a bygone era of opulent, glamorous movie palaces.

Yet the newly renovated 2,000-seat Los Angeles Theater has come a long way after falling into disrepair over the decades and facing near demolition by its previous owner nearly 25 years ago. Luckily, the theater was saved from the wrecking ball in the early 1980s after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley asked the late Iranian-Jewish real estate magnate and philanthropist Ezat Delijani to purchase the historic property. Since then, Delijani’s Delson Investment Co. has gradually poured millions of dollars into renovating the Los Angeles Theater as well as purchasing and renovating three other historic movie houses—the Palace, Tower and State theaters—in downtown Los Angeles’ historic Broadway Theater District, the largest concentration of movie palaces left in the United States.

“My dad was always very grateful to this country for taking us in and giving him the opportunity to rebuild,” said Shahram Delijani, Ezat Delijani’s youngest son. “So, for him it was of the utmost importance to give back. The preservation of the Los Angeles Theater and our other theaters was one way in which he did.”

The Delijani family, which is private and typically avoids media attention, offered The Journal a rare and exclusive tour of the remarkable renovations they made to return the historic sites to their former glory.

“My dad knowingly and willingly made a great financial sacrifice purchasing, holding and preserving these theaters,” Shahram Delijani said. “He had the vision that these historic monuments would once again be used for something special, and we are seeing his vision coming to life with the transformation of Broadway.”

The Delijanis have also been actively involved in Los Angeles City Council member José Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway, a public-private initiative focused on revitalizing the historic Broadway district, located between Second Street and Olympic Boulevard, by 2018. At the same time, Ezat Delijani’s eldest son, Michael Delijani, along with other local properties owners, helped found the Historic Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) to fund street cleaning and increase security patrols in the Broadway Theater District, which features 12 movie palaces.

Since the Delijanis’ acquisition of the four theaters, the family has used them sparingly in an effort to maintain their prestige and beauty. In addition to permitting major television or film productions, including “Chaplin,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” “Cinderella Man” and “CSI: NY,” to use the sites, the family has also allowed select nonprofit organizations, such as the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, to host its events at the Los Angeles Theater.

Designed by Jewish architect S. Charles Lee (born Simeon Charles Levi) and built for independent theater operator H.L. Gumbiner in late 1930 and early 1931 at a cost of more than $1 million, the Los Angeles Theater was the most expensive and elaborate movie palace built at that time. When a lack of funds threatened construction, silent-film star Charlie Chaplin stepped in to provide the funding necessary to complete the theater in time for the January 1931 premiere of his film “City Lights.”

Three months after the theater’s opening Gumbiner declared bankruptcy, and the courts eventually transferred ownership of the theater to Fox Film Studios executive William Fox, who owned the land on which the Los Angeles Theater was built. After 50 years, the Fox family trust sold the historic building to Delijani’s Delson Investment Co.

The Palace Theater. Photo by Gary Leonard

The nearby 1,000-plus seat Palace Theater, also owned by the Delijanis, was built in 1911 as a vaudeville venue hosting famous performers, many of whom were Jewish, among them Harry Houdini and Sarah Bernhardt. Late last year, Delson Investment completed a $1 million renovation of the Palace Theater to bring the property back to its past glory. Restorations were made to the lighting fixtures, seating, massive wall murals, moldings, original tiles, carpets and wall coverings, Shahram Delijani said.

While final renovations to the Los Angeles and Palace theaters should be complete within the next six months, Shahram Delijani said more work is needed to properly restore the family’s Tower Theater, which is located two blocks north.

No major work is being done on the nearby State Theater, the fourth movie palace owned by the family. The property is currently occupied by the Iglesia Universal church under a lease signed by the building’s previous owners.

Prior to his death at age 83 last August, Ezat Delijani was able to see photos of the major renovations made to the historic theaters he had purchased during the last three decades, Shahram Delijani said.

Shahram Delijani said his family is proud to be involved in the preservation of the city’s historical landmarks and, more important, a part of the local Jewish community’s rich historical connection to downtown Los Angeles.

Local Iranian-Jewish businessmen first flocked to the downtown area in the late 1970s and early 1980s following their immigration to Los Angeles from Iran to work in the garment and jewelry districts. In addition to the Delijani family, nearly 40 Iranian-Jewish real estate developers have purchased or built buildings and other properties in downtown Los Angeles over the years, further solidifying the community’s influence in the area.

Many local Iranian Jews credit Ezat Delijani with not only transforming downtown Los Angeles’ different business districts but, more important, for his bringing a new sense of pride to Iranian-Americans of all faiths living in the city.

“Ezat Delijani defined what it meant to be a mensch and an honorable human being,” said David Rahimian, the Iranian-Jewish former special assistant to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “He tore down walls to give people a voice and gave many Iranian-Americans in our city the opportunity to earn a living through hard work and determination.”

Ezat Delijani was highly respected by the local Iranian-Jewish community for his philanthropy to Jewish causes and for helping to negotiate the purchase of Hollywood Temple Beth El in 1999 during his tenure as president of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation. For his longstanding involvement in helping to transform the historic Broadway Theater District, Ezat Delijani was also honored in 2009 when the city named the intersection of Seventh Street and Broadway after him.

City officials have long praised the Iranian-Jewish community’s entrepreneurial efforts in the revitalization of various areas within downtown and, in particular, the Delijani family’s focus on saving the four theaters on Broadway.

The Los Angeles Theater’s lobby, as featured on the cover, includes a marble fountain, crystal chandeliers, fresco paintings and a grand staircase. Photos by Gary Leonard

“The Delijani family’s investment in preserving the historic downtown theaters demonstrates their clear sense of civic pride and responsibility,” Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel said. “Their acquisition and repair of the theaters not only contributes to the economic development in the downtown area, but also protects historic buildings which will be enjoyed and appreciated by visitors and residents for years to come.”

City officials also said an array of entertainment companies, high-end hotels and new restaurants are looking to join the Delijanis by setting up new businesses in the district’s properties.

For their part, the Delijani family has plans to offer their two newly renovated theaters in the Broadway Theater District for various live events, such as music concerts, plays and pared-down operas, as well as leasing some spaces within the theaters for high-end restaurants and bars. At the same time, the venues will also host live events produced by the Broadway Theatre Group, an entertainment company headed by Shahram Delijani.

“Our primary goal is to reactivate these theaters so that people can experience them regularly and be proud that such monuments exist in our city,” Shahram Delijani said.

With their substantial real estate holdings in Los Angeles, Shahram Delijani said his family has a tremendous amount of reverence for the four historic theaters and will continue to maintain the buildings in the best possible condition for the benefit of the entire city.

“The interesting thing about owning a historic landmark is that you never quite feel like you own it; you are just a steward for the next generation,” he said. “It’s very humbling when you think of all the effort that went into developing these treasures, and because of my dad’s efforts, they will live on for future generations.”


For more information about the life of Ezat Delijani, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog, Iranian American Jews.

At Method Fest, It’s All About the Acting


 

When it comes to film festivals, Calabasas is far off the beaten path for the Sundance crowd. But there’s method to the madness of film lovers who beat a path to Calabasas in the first week of April.

The seventh annual Method Fest claims to be the nation’s only festival that specifically celebrates actors and their performances. This year’s lineup includes significant works with Jewish themes. There are films about the Holocaust, contemporary Jewish families and Israeli-Palestinian issues among the 25 feature films and 47 short films. The festival also features panel discussions, workshops and special events.

In a region where film festivals proliferate on just about every street corner, the Method Fest has a distinct name that conjures up images of intense thespians engaged in bizarre rituals. In fact, the acting techniques pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theater director, essentially taught performers to draw from their own experiences and emotional memory to create characters grounded in psychological realism. Known as “The Method,” Stanislavski’s teachings have been re-interpreted by most of the major acting schools, including those founded by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner.

“Acting has finally become a craft and an art,” acting teacher Lorrie Hull said, “thanks to modern psychological discoveries and the dedicated men and women who have explored, taught, directed and used acting techniques that lead to truthful, believable behavior.”

Hull has written extensively about Method acting and will be conducting a workshop on the Meisner Technique at The Method Fest.

“Actors no longer need to depend on the fickle muse of inspiration,” she said.

The event’s main attraction is the cinema itself. Though not a Jewish film festival, a number of offerings have compelling Jewish-related themes.

“The Tollbooth,” written and directed by Debra Kirschner, explores a recent art school graduate’s relationship with her traditional Jewish parents and two sisters. As Sarabeth Cohen struggles as an artist in New York City, one of her sisters announces she’s a lesbian and the other has married a man who can’t seem to earn a living. Originally conceived as a modern-day “Fiddler on the Roof,” the film evolved into a hybrid autobiography.

“It definitely became a slice of life based on many of my own experiences,” Kirschner said. “I also really wanted to explore what it means for progressive, feminist women to have a Jewish identity.”

Another film, “Aryan Couple,” written and directed by John Daly, tells the tale of a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family that signs over its fortune to Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler in exchange for safe passage to Palestine. Based on a true story, the film centers on a crucial dinner party and lacks the dreary lighting and graphic details of suffering that’s generally associated with Holocaust flicks. Instead, there’s a focus on individual relationships, beautiful scenery and a depiction of Himmler as a relative gentleman in comparison to the infamous Adolf Eichmann and his Nazi cronies.

“I didn’t want this to be a typical Holocaust film,” Daly said. “I wanted to set the film in the spring and have beauty all around as a backdrop to the Nazi horrors.”

Daly’s film stars Martin Landau, but the majority of the actors are not household names. “It’s great that this is a festival that celebrates fresh faces, faces that you don’t see in every film,” he says.

The festival has been put together by executive director Don Franken, who, seven years ago, partnered with a couple of independent filmmakers to celebrate “what we feel are the core ingredients of film: great acting and strong stories. We felt that so many films were going the way of special effects [with] actors simply strolling through their performances,” Franken said.

Franken remains a passionate advocate for “those great independent films that never get out into the marketplace. The purpose of this festival is to give those films exposure,” he said.

That’s the hope of Matthew Klein, who co-wrote and stars in “Breaking the Fifth,” which makes its premiere at the festival. Klein’s film tells the story of an eccentric playwright trying to resurrect his career.

“You never know who’s going to see your film and where it’s going to go next,” Klein said.

“A lot of the larger film festivals are now allowing themselves to be manipulated by the studios,” he added. “What I like about The Method Fest is that it’s embracing the bare bones art of filmmaking and giving talented people who don’t have the big agents a chance for exposure.”

As for the future, co-founder Franken hopes that The Method Fest will eventually be considered a “destination festival, like Sundance, where people camp out for a week. We feel we have the right theme,” he said. “Because what do people remember most about a film? Sensational acting.”

The Method Fest runs from April 1-8 at select theaters in Calabasas. Tickets can be purchased in advance at (800) 965-4827 or at www.ticketweb.com Screening times and other information about the festival can be found at www.methodfest.com.

 

7 Days in the Arts


SATURDAY

Start off the year with a little Jewish “Kumbaya” down in Tustin. Dale Schatz leads Congregation B’nai Israel in an Alternative Shabbat that promises to be “just like camp, but without the bugs!” So go on. You know you’ve missed those Debbie Friedman classics.

Noon-5 p.m. Movie screening at 1:30 p.m. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

SUNDAY

More Jew music today, this time of the Eastern European variety. Cantor Hershl Fox performs a matinee concert titled, “Let Us Sing Yiddish!” sponsored by the resilient Los Angeles Yiddish Culture Club. Refreshments will be served. 2 p.m. $4-$8. 8339 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (310) 275-8455.

MONDAY

This afternoon and evening, a Jerusalem teacher who leads classes about the three mitzvot for women offers wisdom on the spiritual component of making challah. She’d rather us not print her name here, but what you should know is this is more than just a cooking class. Small groups of women gather in homes to learn the power of challah-making as a way of connecting with God.
1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Hancock Park residence. (310) 839-0613. pesa613@hotmail.com

TUESDAY

Do they know their group name means “towel” in Hebrew? Hard to say. But one thing Magevet clearly does know is a capella. The Yale University Jewish a capella group performs an all-ages concert of Hebrew music this evening at Kehillat Ma’arav.

7 p.m. $5 (adults), Free (children 18 and younger). 1715 21st St., Santa Monica. (310) 829-0566.

WEDNESDAY

PBS makes the point today that English is most definitely not our national language. “Do You Speak American?” airs this evening on KCET, and follows Robert MacNeil around the United States as he investigates the varied jargon and dialects that make up our melting pot – from New England’s Havahad yahds to South Carolina’s African-influenced Gullah (with subtitles).

8-11 p.m.

That ’70s Fro


Where can you see all-in-good-fun Jewish stereotypes spoofed alongside 1970s kitsch, such as waterbeds, fondue parties, disco, leisure suits and bad perms? Check out the movie remake of the ’70s cop series, "Starsky & Hutch," Hollywood’s latest TV overhaul, which stars Ben Stiller as uptight but righteous David Starsky.

The Jewish cop is so intense, he’ll destroy cars to catch a purse snatcher; apparently, he’s overcompensating due to a weird Jewish mother complex (his late mom was a revered cop). The film spoofs Jewish custom when he places a donut, rather than a rock, on her grave.

Many of the other laughs stem from his odd-couple pairing with Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson (Owen Wilson), a charming, rule-bending blond (read: WASP) slacker. If the story unwinds like "a romantic comedy between two straight men," according to director Todd Phillips, it’s clearly an interfaith romance, a marriage of opposites.

When a corpse washes up on the beach, the gung-ho Starsky pounces on the case; Hutch suggests they push the body back "and hope it floats to the next precinct." During a visit to "ghetto snitch" Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg), Hutch requests a cocktail; Starsky wants "seltzer with a little lime." Hutch chooses bland undercover disguises; Starsky hams it up as in-your-face "Morrie Finkel, of Finkel’s Fixtures," whose shag is fiercer than Farrah Fawcett’s.

Eventually the partners narrow in on cocaine wheeler-dealer Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), who is part-wannabe mobster, part-nouveau riche suburban Jew. His family’s upcoming simcha is more tsuris-provoking than Starsky and Hutch: "Like I don’t have enough problems," he kvetches to an associate. "My daughter’s bat mitzvah is turning into a total nightmare."

The nightmare escalates when the cops crash the bat mitzvah at Feldman’s faux Tudor estate, where the reception is one of those garish ’70s affairs (Feldman’s wearing pink polyester with his yarmulke).

The Jewish Stiller, for his part, was drawn to the film because as a kid he idolized the streetwise, chutzpahdik Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser). "Every Jewish kids’ hero," he has said.

Growing up in New York, the dark-haired Stiller would pretend to be Starsky while some blond kid on the block was Hutch.

Starsky’s Jewfro is the butt of a joke in the movie when Hutch sneers, "Why don’t you go get another perm?"

The Jewish cop’s reply bristles with indignation: "For your information, my hair is naturally curly."

"Starsky & Hutch" is in theaters now.

The Pacifist Who Fought Hitler


Early in the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a rising young Protestant minister and theologian, was asked by his twin sister to speak at the funeral of her Jewish husband.

Bonhoeffer consulted his church superiors and refused. Later, tormented by his decision, he asked himself, “How could I have been so afraid? I should have behaved differently.”

It was perhaps the only time that Bonhoeffer’s natural human fear trumped his moral courage in fighting the Nazi ideology, a stand for which he finally paid with his life.

The acts and religious beliefs of perhaps the most principled German Protestant voice during the Hitler era are woven together in the 90-minute documentary, “Bonhoeffer,” opening Oct. 10 at two Laemmle theaters.

His complex theological thoughts, which emphasized the interconnectedness between traditional Christianity and secular action, might give some viewers pause, but the path leading to his martyrdom is marked by astounding feats of conviction and daring.

Bonhoeffer took the ultimate step by joining the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. But unlike his fellow conspirators in the army officers corps, whose chief aim was to save German honor and lives, the theologian made the persecution of the Jews the main spur for his resistance.

As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer, 26 at the time and a lecturer at the University of Berlin, became one of the first churchmen to criticize Hitler as a “misleader” who “mocked God.”

Bonhoeffer was profoundly influenced by a year spent at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during which time he befriended the Rev. Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and absorbed some of the black congregation’s emotional faith and social and political activism.

Despite his Nazi opposition, Bonhoeffer largely escaped Gestapo detection until the spring of 1943, when he helped 14 Jews flee to Switzerland and was subsequently linked to a resistance cell embedded in the Abwehr, the German army’s intelligence bureau.

One month before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was led naked to the gallows at the Flossberg prison and hanged. Devout to his last breath, his last words were, “This is the end of me, but the beginning of life.”

“Bonhoeffer” opens Oct. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.

Baddest Heeb Nails Down Distributor


After months of distribution hell, the Jewsploitation spoof “The Hebrew Hammer” will burst onto the large and small screens this Chanukah season. The saga of Mordechai Jefferson Carver (aka the “baddest Heeb this side of Tel Aviv”) debuts on Comedy Central Dec. 8 before moving to theaters courtesy of Cowboy Pictures.

A preview screening, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, takes place at the University of Judaism Oct. 9, followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Jonathan Kesselman and actors Adam Goldberg and Peter Coyote.

An homage to 1970s “blaxploitation” flicks such as “Superfly,” the farce tells of an Orthodox stud (Goldberg) who battles Santa’s evil son (Andy Dick) to save Chanukah. The film is Kesselman’s response to Hollywood’s “nebbishy and neurotic depiction of Jews,” he said. “Just as blaxploitation films exaggerated the hell out of black stereotypes to take away their power, the Hammer exaggerates every Jewish stereotype.”

While “Superfly” snorts cocaine off a crucifix, Carver sniffs antihistamines off his chai. When Santa pushes bootleg copies of “It’s Wonderful Life” on Jewish kids, the Hammer arranges for videotapes of “Yentl” to hit the streets.

Getting the comedy into theaters proved a mission worthy of a real-life Jewish superhero. Despite the warm reception at Sundance and other 2003 film festivals, potential buyers called the film “too Jewish, too ‘niche,'” Kesselman, 28, said.

“A lot of people were afraid of the racial Jewish tone of the movie, which is the nature of our little beast,” said producer Josh Kesselman, the director’s brother. “If a buyer leaves your screening saying he’s offended, he’s probably not going to distribute your film, and we had a few of those.”

While the director was “distraught and baffled” by the critique, he persisted and, after pounding the Hollywood pavement for eight months, he and his producers hammered out a distribution deal. Sources told Variety the Comedy Central deal could be worth $1 million; a possible TV series and a movie sequel is in the works.

“So now I’m finally relaxing,” Kesselman said. “Very few independent films air on national TV before going to theaters, so even people in Wyoming and Nebraska will be aware of the film.”

And how will those non-Jews respond to the Hammer?

“They’ll laugh,” he said. “The movie is a broad comedy. You don’t have to be a rabbinical student to enjoy it.”

The UJ event, moderated by Journal Editor-in-Chief RobEshman, will be held Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. $10 (including a dessert reception). Fortickets, call (310) 476-9777 ext. 473. For more information about the film,visit www.thehebrewhammer.com   — Naomi Pfefferman, Arts & Entertainment Editor