Tracking the release, 80 years ago, of James Whale’s Frankenstein, we circle back to Los Angeles, where the film was made, with its triumphal premiere at the RKO Orpheum in January 1932. By then, in a zigzag course across America begun in November ’31, Frankenstein had snowballed into a major box-office hit. Boris Karloff was wrenched from relative obscurity as a busy character actor — Frankenstein was just one of 16 films he appeared in for 1931 — to be touted as a full-fledged movie star and “the successor of Lon Chaney”.
Karloff himself finally saw the film when he attended a showing with his wife and friends at Oakland’s Orpheum in late ’31. Shortly thereafter, his newfound fame was confirmed when the RKO circuit booked him into a series of personal appearances, climbing onstage between vaudeville acts to introduce his film. What a thrill it must have been to see the film when it was new, with Karloff in person, all for 25 cents.
RKO’s Los Angeles Orpheum, where the film house records, cranked up the ballyhoo, proclaiming, “Not since Los Angeles was a pueblo has it seen such a sensation!” and adding a late night Spook Show’s “Ghouls… Weird Noises… Strange Lights!”, turning the evening's program into “A two hour reign of terror!” The ads warned that no one would be seated during the final reel, and a notice of “No children’s prices” indicated that the film was unsuitable for the very young. Nurses, of course, were said to be in attendance.
L.A.’s Orpheum was a movie palace that dwarfed all others in size and extravagance yet, despite big-name vaudeville performers and record-breaking runs by Dracula, Cimarron and Frankenstein, the Great Depression hit hard and the house was shuttered for a spell at the end of 1932. It re-opened in ’33 with new owners and would stay in operation until 2000 when its screen went dark and the massive stage was converted for live entertainment. Today, the Orpheum is still a premiere showcase for musicals and touring artists. Its sumptuous interiors are available for film shoots, standing in for classic movie palaces in such films as Barton Fink, Ed Wood, and most recently, The Artist.
Orpheum Theater photo gallery
L.A. Orpheum Theater website