September 18, 2019

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.