By: Derek K.
Date: December 29, 2019
storie-dtail-img4_sd4_1.jpg To ring in the roaring 2020’s in Los Angeles, you might plan to hop on the metro and head to Grand Park for some family fun, or to your favorite rooftop bar for some grown-up libations. Perhaps, if you are feeling a bit more risqué, you’ll get dressed to the nines for the 8th annual Prohibition NYE party at Union Station! If this is your speed, you would have fit right in at one of Los Angeles’s premiere New Year’s Eve party venues in the late 1800’s: the Merced Theatre.

Founded in 1781, by the 1860’s Los Angeles started making the transition from a rough and tumble Wild West town to a budding city, teeming with prosperity. This new affluency supported new cultural establishments like the Merced Theatre, commissioned by furniture maker and mortician William Abbot. Built and designed by architect Ezra F. Kysor in 1870 (who also designed the famous Pico House Hotel next door the same year), the Merced is the oldest standing performing arts building in all of Los Angeles.

Abbot had his mortuary in the basement, his furniture store on the first floor, and lived on the third floor with his wife Maria Merced Garcia (the theater’s namesake) and nine children. The second floor housed the opulent 400-seat theater space that connected to the Pico House. The theatre’s first performance took place on December 30th, 1870 with a New Year’s Eve event the following night. It became known for local live music, satirical theater pieces, minstrel shows as well as classical and musical works performed by touring theater companies.
storie-dtail-img5_sd5_2.jpg Due to bigger and grander theaters opening in the area and a bout of smallpox, the Merced was forced to close its doors in 1877. That darn smallpox will get you every time! The Merced struggled to find new long-term tenants. Finally, a new company, which produced satirical burlesque shows under the umbrella name “Victorian Sex Clubs,” moved into the space. Around the turn of the century, the Merced became known for its Masked Balls and New Year’s Eve parties that were a debaucherous safe haven for all. This was especially true for the LGBTQ community who, with the help of masks, found the freedom to mingle and indulge in cross dressing. Unfortunately, this freedom wasn’t to last. As the city grew, law enforcement tightened its grip on what they considered immoral, and masquerades at the Merced and across the city were soon axed.

Throughout the 1900’s, the Merced Theatre building was used as a boarding house and a variety of commercial ventures. It became a California Historic Landmark in 1935, and was renovated in the ‘60’s and ‘80’s.

A visit to El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument’s museums can offer great insight into the beginnings of the city and its diverse culture as a whole. Join us on our LA’s Beginnings tour to explore this area further! As for the future of the Merced Theatre building, there was a proposal to become the new home of the City of Los Angeles public access TV station Cityview, Channel 35. The revamped space would have a studio, admin offices and a theater space for presentations and town hall meetings. Hopefully, one day soon, we will see Los Angeles’ oldest theater structure put to good use in a way that the community can engage with it.

Happy New Year!... And here’s to the roaring 2020’s!

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