This strange but well known landmark is something that many people have seen who either don’t know what it is or think it is something that it is not. I’m sure of it. Or not.
The “Theme Building” was built at LAX in 1961 and is a wonderful example of Mid-Century “Googie” architecture. I have always loved both Mid-Century and “Googie” and I note that the Wikipedia page for this building uses both of those terms. Googie architecture or style is used to describe all sorts of modern and space-age influenced architecture, signage, and interior motifs. Think Jetsons. A common theme is the use of the boomerang shape for ashtrays, serving plates, tables, and all manner of decorative patterns on almost anything.
In the nomenclature of movie-making, there is something called a “location shot”, which is a quick scene of a city skyline or some other noticeable landmark, serving to tell the audience that we are now in New York, or wherever. For example, two characters in a movie are having lunch in a Miami restaurant and the star says, “Well, I’m off to Paris on the next flight, I’ll call you in a few days….”. If the movie was following that character to Paris it would be common for the next shot to be of the Eiffel Tower or some other iconic view of Paris, before we then cut to that character stepping out of a taxi at his hotel or meeting with people in some office. In that spirit, this Theme Building has appeared in countless movies as part of the skyline at LAX. Many airports look about the same from a distant shot, but LAX is one of them that is instantly recognizable as long as you include this building in the scene. (The Denver airport would be another example of an instantly recognizable airport, thanks to the giant white tent-like structures that cover the main terminal.) Even the 1971 James Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever” features a quick shot of LAX, including this building, to establish that Bond has just flown into Los Angeles.
I don’t know what this building was used for originally, but from 1997 until the end of 2013 it was the home of Encounters Restaurant. It is not currently known who the next restaurant tenant will be. In years past when I was travelling a lot for work, I was in and out of LAX 2 or three times a year and was lucky to have been able to stop into Encounters several times. It was built like a spaceship sitting on a central column and with big spacy spider legs. You would enter a lobby at street level in the center column and then from there into a stainless steel clad elevator. Press the button for the restaurant and immediately spacy music would play as you went up. I remember the bar gun. If you ordered a ginger ale or your drink required a squirt of club soda, the bartender would grab this thing that looked like a ray gun form a science fiction movie. As he pressed the button to dispense the mixer, the thing would light up and make sounds out of an old Lost in Space episode. Naturally there were lava lamps on all the tables.
It is one of the coolest and strangest places that I have ever been. I hope that a new restaurant tenant can breathe new life into it.
Here is a link to the Wikipedia page for the Theme Building. If you google Encounters Restaurant LAX you will find all sorts of other information.
Also, here is a bonus picture of a coffee table I made years ago, not to toot my own horn but more to show an example of Googie style and the boomerang shape which has always entranced me.
The Working Stiff