In historic West Adams, inside a classic movie theatre, you can visit a 360-degree, hand-painted mural of Shenyang, China that hearkens back to a style of entertainment before the birth of film.
The Panorama — Entertainment of Yesteryear
Before the days of cinema, escape rooms, and virtual reality, people would flock to panoramas. These intricately painted displays offered fully immersive views of faraway places and fantastical settings. Panoramas were a major draw at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (better known as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair).
Although the subject matter varied from panorama to panorama, the overall experience of each was quite similar. After walking down a dim hallway and climbing a narrow set of spiral steps, you’d emerge onto a viewing platform where a stunning 360° painting enhanced by a series of 3D faux-terrain sculptures would transport you to a different time and place.
Over the decades, the popularity of the panorama as entertainment and art waned, and today there’s only one place to enjoy the majesty of the panoramic art form in the United States. That’s the Velaslavasay Panorama, right here in Los Angeles.
Early Days of the Velaslavasay Panorama
The Velaslavasay Panorama first opened on Hollywood Boulevard in 2000 inside the Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda, once home of the Chu Chu Chinese Restaurant (demolished in 2004; today it’s home to the Metro at Hollywood Senior Apartments).
The first panorama the Velaslavasay ever displayed launched in 2002. This was The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes, an imagining of what the landscape of Los Angeles might have looked like in 1792. It was painted by the Panorama’s Founder and Artistic Director Sara Velas, who used the oldest photos she could find on file at the Los Angeles Library for reference.
This painting honored its roots in Los Angeles — “Valley of the Smokes” is a Native American name for the Los Angeles Basin. But it also honored the historic roots of the panorama as an art form — the first exhibited panorama (a depiction of Edinburgh, Scotland created by Irish artist Richard Barker) opened that same year in London.
Effulgence of the North
After the Hollywood location was demolished, the Velaslavasay Panorama relocated to the historic Union Theatre in West Adams. Velas painted a new panorama, Effulgence of the North, for the occasion. This epic vista transported viewers to a stark Arctic landscape glowing under a vivid Aurora Borealis.
In addition to the Arctic imagery, the Effulgence of the North included atmospheric sound and lighting that ran through a 30-minute cycle, creating a very relaxing experience as one sat and listened to the cracking ice and whistling winds as the light changed from day to night.
Velas’s homage to the age of Arctic exploration era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries opened in July of 2007 and ran for more than ten years until September 2017.
The Nova Tuskhut is a holdover exhibit that accompanied the Effulgence of the North. It showcases a period-accurate re-imagining of an arctic trading post typical of something you’d encounter in a Jack London novel — the Velaslavasay claims it’s the only Arctic trading post in the lower 48 states.
The small room is decorated with a miniature diorama of the Arctic landscape as seen through the hut’s window along with numerous location-specific artifacts such as snowshoes, goggles, a potbelly stove, spartan bed, old-time medicinals, and a plethora of other tools useful to the Arctic explorer.
The Velaslavasay Panorama’s newest showing, the venue’s third, is its most ambitious and accomplished yet. Titled Shenjing Panorama, this new painting showcases a view of Shenyang, China during the years of 1910 to 1930 as seen from a central vantage point just southwest of the city’s Mukden Palace.
Expanding on the immersive elements included in Effulgence, the Shenjing Panorama experience includes a mesmerizing melding of light and sound on a 40-minute cycle. As the day progresses, you can hear the noises of the city and the voices of its residents and they go about their business.
Shenjing Panorama is also the first panorama not painted entirely by Velas. Instead, it’s the result of a six-year collaboration between the Velaslavasay Panorama’s artists and a group of Chinese master panoramists, Li Wu, Yan Yang, and Zhou Fuxian. China has seen a resurgence in the panorama as an art form in the past few decades, but Shenjing Panorama is the only work of these artists on display outside of China. It’s also the first-ever U.S.-Chinese panoramic collaboration.
The 90-foot canvas was painted entirely in Shenyang where much of the work took place in an non-insulated school gymnasium. When the painting was completed, it was brought to the United States via cargo plane. It first opened to visitors in June 2019.
Union Theatre Building
The Union Theatre, which has been home to the Velaslavasey Panorama for the past 18 years, is an historic theatre built in 1910. In the mid-1930s it was known as Louise Glaum’s Little Theatre at Union Square, where silent movie queen Louise Glaum hosted a playhouse and acting school for a few years before it became a theatre again. In 1953 the Tile Layers Union Local #18 moved into the building and made it their own until the sometime in the 1990s, which is why the building displays some fantastic and distinctive tilework.
On top of the Union Theatre building, floating above the restored neon sign, is one of the Velaslavasay Panorama’s hallmarks — the same orange ball that used to sit atop the Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda, the Panorama’s first location.
In addition to the panorama proper, the Velaslavasay Panorma also includes a screening room and an outdoor patio space filled with lush vegetation known as the Gardens of the Illustrious Pacific Ring. Along with abundant vegetation, the garden includes numerous mini-features such as the Isle of the Penglai and the Pavilion of the Verdant Dream.
Visiting the Velaslavasay Panorama
Because of the era we live in, to take in the sights offered by the Velaslavasay Panorama, you must buy tickets in advance. These are available online and cost $7 per person.
If you want to support this great venue and help preserve the panorama as an art form, consider becoming a member of the Velaslavasay Panorama Enthusiast Society, which offers discounts on tickets (making admission a mere $3), invitiations to special events, and more. The Velaslavasay Panorama can also be rented as an event space.
- 1122 W 24th (at Hoover), West Adams
- GPS Coordinates: 34.034352, -118.284712 [ Google Maps ]
- what3words: ///lame.nerve.tame
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