The Burbank Theatre
by Wes Clark
I was watching “I Was a Communist for the FBI” (1951) one night – yes, I have rather eccentric movie-watching habits – and was indulging myself in one of my favorite sports while watching old films: checking out the locations. A character in the film was shown walking down a big city street; a neon sign behind him said “BURBANK THEATRE.” Having been raised in Burbank, California and maintaining the Burbankia website, that got my attention! (I would later see the Burbank Theatre in the 1959 Sam Fuller film, "The Crimson Kimono.")
I did some Internet research and learned that the Burbank Theatre was located downtown in Los Angeles. I also asked my father-in-law (Don Bilyeu, Burbank High, Class of 1945) about it – he knew of it. He was aware of it having a shady reputation, being a burlesque house.
Some more research turned up that Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, once played the organ in the Burbank Theatre - adding considerably to its unsavory reputation. Perhaps the final step down in tone was that the house specialized in X-rated movies before being demolished in 1973 or 1974.
But why a theatre in downtown Los Angeles named “The Burbank Theatre?” I wondered. I got my answer in 2010 while reading some literature for the dedication of a statue of Dr. David Burbank, founder of the Southern California community that bears his name (shown above). David Burbank founded the theatre in 1893 as one of his many real estate investments. From the dedication pamphlet: “In 1893 at a cost of $150,000 Dr. Burbank opened the Burbank Theater on South Main Street in Los Angeles. The theater seated 2,000 and soon became the leading theater and opera house in Los Angeles.”
So there’s Burbank, California’s connection with the theatrical arts scene and, later, burlesque and porn in Los Angeles – the Burbank Theatre. One suspects that the building's later incarnation was not what Dr. Burbank had in mind for a place associated with his name...
Some photos of the Burbank Theatre at various stages in its existence (in 1937 the building received an art deco streamlined facade):