Inside the $6M Makeover of Hollywood's Historic Veterans Post

Courtesy of Taiyo Watanabe; Courtesy of American Legion
The Post 43 auditorium today; The auditorium in 1929, when the building opened. From 1984 to 1993, it hosted the immersive play 'Tamara.'

The American Legion's Post 43, where Ronald Reagan was a member and Clark Gable and James Cagney hung out, spruces up with a redo, including a state-of-the-art theater in time for awards season.

An experiment is unfolding at the American Legion Post 43 building on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, the old-school haunt where veterans and stars would break bread, toss back bourbon and chomp on cigars (and where Angelenos often park for Hollywood Bowl events).

Finishing touches are being put on a $6 million renovation of the 89-year-old Egyptian Revival building, which boasts a Japanese cannon in its front yard, an old speakeasy in the basement and, now, a state-of-the-art movie theater that rivals any in the city. While the primary mission of Post 43 — to be a sanctuary for L.A.'s veteran community — remains, the theater transforms it into a useful event space just in time for awards season.

"The sound was remarkable, and sitting in that theater is really impactful," says David Boreanaz, who attended a Post 43 screening of the season two premiere of CBS' SEAL Team. "It rivals the DGA theater [for sound]." Founded in 1919 by World War I veterans who worked in film, Post 43 has significant Hollywood bona fides. Ronald Reagan was a member, and Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Charlton Heston were regularly spotted hanging out at the bar or shooting pool. "You feel this energy of past souls and Hollywood nostalgia," says Boreanaz. "It's great that it's back in action because not too many people are aware of that space."

That will soon change. In addition to the 480-seat theater (outfitted for digital projections as well as 35mm and 70mm film), electricity, cooling and heating have been upgraded and there are several newly redesigned event spaces. An art deco bar sits on the building's south side and a second event-ready room on its north. Together with the outdoor deck, those spaces can accommodate up to 1,500 people.

"We didn't want to just be a time capsule," says Fernando Rivero, a Post 43 board member and lieutenant commander in the Navy reserve whose day job is as a trailer producer for FX. "We wanted to be relevant, to appeal to new and young veterans."

It was Rivero, along with April Luca, co-founder of Design Division, an event planning and design firm, who spearheaded the renovations (funded by a U.S. Bank loan and a fundraising push). Events so far include a kickoff for L.A. Fleet Week in August that was hosted by Mayor Eric Garcetti, also a Navy reservist.

L.A. is home to the U.S.' largest community of veterans — around 300,000. Post 43's relevance has ebbed and flowed over the decades, and the place has seen several intergenerational leadership struggles. Rivero, who served in Afghanistan, pulled off his own coup in 2014 and has tried to modernize the organization — in the process doubling the membership to 1,200 (veterans pay annual fees of $35). As it continues to welcome veterans, Post 43 hopes to generate enough event revenue to avoid the fate of dozens of other Legion buildings across the U.S. that have been forced to close. "It was existential for us. We didn't want this to become a West Elm or some nightclub," says Rivero. "This is our home."

The new Post 43 extends an L.A. tradition of renovating historic buildings while adding new and often Hollywood-facing functionality. Witness the Marciano Art Foundation's 2017 launch in a former Masonic Temple and, in 2013, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts' incorporation of the Beverly Hills post office. Post 43's second phase of renovations, including an update of the vast downstairs hall, will get underway in the next year.

But even as the building spruces up, relics of past eras are readily on view. The original sign on the women's second-floor restroom remains untouched, and while the stencil on the door is fading, it's still legible. It reads: "Dames."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.