I was born in the 1960s. Around here, nostalgia doesn’t mean vaudeville, it means old television shows from the 1970s. Except when THAT turns out to be vaudeville.
The other day we went back and watched the 1974 pilot of The Rockford Files, an amazing piece of television for numerous reasons: the writing, acting, direction, the locations…and especially one location in particular. In several scenes Los Angeles private eye Jim Rockford (James Garner) stops into this bar/ theatre (I forget why…he’s tailing somebody, something like that). It’s not really like a night club, which would be the more typical type of live entertainment venue for the day…it’s much more like an old vaudeville or burlesque house. And in the background of the scenes that take place in the theatre you see several interesting variety acts: some trained dogs, a wire walker, a bunch of chorus girls, etc. A sign in front of the theatre reads: “Mayfair.” Naturally I became curious!
Fortunately this is the age of the internet and such mysteries don’t remain mysteries for very long. Caution: this is a story with a sad ending!
The venue in question opened on Wilshire Blvd as the Santa Monica Opera House in 1911. It originally presented silent films and vaudeville.
In 1973 Milt Larsen of the Magic Castle took it over and renamed it the Mayfair Music Hall. He presented variety theatre there for nearly a decade. So the vaudeville we saw on The Rockford Files was — ironically — a new thing at the venue at the time (it has been strictly a movie cinema for many decades by that point). Eubie Blake, Mousie Garner and Beatrice Kay are among the famous folks who performed there during its time as a neo-Music Hall And guess what? It turns out that the Mayfair is also the same theatre where Mel Brooks shot the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene in Young Frankenstein!
Todd Robbins performed at the Mayfair back in the day. He shares this memory:
It was a great place. They had a small resident company of performers that included the late Marcia Lewis. Sketches were written by Milt Larsen and Jackie Gleason’s head gag writer Snag Werris. They had an MC, a Chairman. At one time it was Bernard Fox (Dr. Bombay from Bewitched). The Dow also featured a couple of variety artists, often being old vaudeville performers. I did a couple of shows there doing comedy magic. It was a great place. Milt closed it down when he opened his Variety Arts Center in downtown LA.
Sadly, the Mayfair was damaged in the 1994 L.A. earthquake, and after years of neglect, it was finally torn down in 2010 — just months prior to the 100th anniversary of its construction.
For more info on the Mayfair Music Hall:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.