Monday, March 16, 2015

Out & About--Hollywood's Historic TCL Chinese Theatre Still Takes Center Stage

As the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) fast approaches--March 26th to 29th--my thoughts once again turn to the historic stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that 26,000 fans take over for nearly a week.  It makes your mind spin to think of all the stars from the dawn of Hollywood who stayed and played there.  The center of all festival activity is the Roosevelt Hotel along with venues that include the Egyptian and Chinese Theatres.  In order to take in the latter in all of its glory and get even more excited for TCMFF, those with the TCL Chinese Theatre were gracious enough to offer me a private tour from their ultimate guide, Levi Tinker.  Levi is a fellow film fan who has been with the theater for 14 years and so loves the place that he lives a mere 2 minutes away.  He walks to work even on his days off to give tours--you can find all the info on how to take your own tour through this link and at the end of the article.  During our time together, he shared a wealth of information and many entertaining insights into the history of one of the most recognized places in the world.

Sid's Story

The fascinating history of the theater starts with the man behind it--Sidney Patrick Grauman.  While most know the name--after all, 'Grauman' preceded the names of the Million Dollar Theatre and Egyptian Theatre in addition to the Chinese--most still don't know the man.  He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on St. Patrick's Day (hence his middle name), but much of the origins of his story can be found way up north in the Yukon during the Gold Rush at the turn of the century.  At the time, news was scarce and newspapers rare, so a single issue could fetch as much as $50.  Sid himself discovered this when, as a paperboy, he sold a copy to a store owner who then began charging customers to listen to him read it.  It was at this moment that Grauman learned the value of entertainment and that people would pay almost anything for it.

Sid made the first of his money by organizing boxing matches among the miners, which further developed his knowledge of entertainment and showmanship.  When his time in the Yukon came to an end, his financial success allowed him to follow his family to San Francisco and set up business there.  He and his father bought the Unique theater and then the Lyceum as well.  Sid saw his first film in San Francisco and was immediately entranced by the innovation.  He and his father started with vaudeville in their theaters, even helping to establish the wide-reaching Northwest Vaudeville Company, and then later added in moving pictures as well.

But in 1906, the city experienced one of the great disasters of history--the San Francisco earthquake. Most lay in ruins as a result and it destroyed everything the Graumans (and others) had built.  As a sure sign of his resilience, Sid immediately looked for a working projector amongst the rubble.  He then repurposed some pews from a church for seating and erected a canvas tent over it all. "Nothing to fall on you but canvas if there is another quake," assured a sign at the entrance. According to Levi, it was the first business in San Francisco to re-open following the quake, and Grauman later received a commendation from the city for boosting morale during that difficult time.  Their tent theater would remain for two years while the family worked and built their business again.  

The Million Dollar Theatre

By 1917, the movie industry was firmly centered in Los Angeles.  The Graumans then had three San Francisco theaters--the New National, the Imperial, and the Empress--along with others in Northern California.  They wanted to move south, so they struck a deal with Paramount's Adolph Zukor to sell some of their properties and assist them with financing their new business in L.A.  Their first opening came in February 1918 with the Million Dollar Theatre, so-named because it allegedly took about that much to build.  It was one of the earliest and largest movie palaces in the country with over 2,300 seats.  They built the theater downtown on Broadway, which was the street that ran through the theater district of the city.  I love that it happens to be right across the street from the equally famous Bradbury Building.

The Million Dollar Theatre in the early 1920s (above)
and during my visit there in 2012 (below)

The Egyptian Theatre

At the time, the center of entertainment for the city of Los Angeles was downtown, but Grauman would be the one largely responsible for shifting things west to Hollywood.  His first move was to open the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in October 1922.  It was there that he held the first-ever film premiere, which was for Robin Hood and starred his good friend Douglas Fairbanks. Audiences paid $5 to be among the first to see a movie that cost $1 million to make. Of course the theater is famous for its exotic exterior and interior, which reflected the popularity of excavations in Egypt in the 1920s such as the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb.  

Everything reflected the Egyptian theme--
even ushers wore costumes that made them match the motif 
(below, with Sid in back row with hat)

The facade of the Egyptian Theatre during one of my many visits there in 2011 (below)

The Chinese Theatre

Equally appealing in the Art Deco era was the exoticism of the Orient.  Grauman went on something of a world tour at the time that led him to China and "he was most impressed with the beauty and grandeur of Chinese architecture," Levi told me.  Sid then went about finding the right people who would bring his dream theater to life.  Of course it had to start with funding, and this came from friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (who were also his partners in the Roosevelt Hotel) as well as Howard Schenk.  And Sid once again employed the firm of Meyer & Holler, who had worked on the Egyptian, to build this movie palace.  It was they who brought in talented architect Raymond Kennedy, who could have been a movie idol himself (see below), to make the plans.  In fact, 99% of all sketches of the architectural features that were developed for the theater are due to Kennedy (one of his original sketches above). 

The opening of the Chinese Theatre took place on May 18, 1927--a mere three days after the Roosevelt Hotel opened across the street (perhaps this is some of what lends itself to one of my favorite apocryphal anecdotes about the place, which is that an underground passage for the stars once connected the two buildings).  Knowing the showmanship of both Sid Grauman and Cecil B. DeMille, it seems only appropriate that DeMille's King of Kings would be the first premiere at the Chinese. Thousands of fans lined Hollywood Boulevard all the way to Western (quite a distance for those who don't know L.A.) just to see the stars pass by in their limousines and watch klieg lights illuminate the night sky.  It was such a scene that the National Guard was on stand-by for crowd control and in case of any emergency.  

Needless to say the event was sold out, even with tickets costing $11 (approximately $150 today) for one of the theater's 2,200 seats.  The evening started at 8 pm with a full stage show--called "Prologue of the Scriptures"--that went on for 3 hours. These shows were standard at Sid's theaters and would be part of the movie-going experience until 1939.  His background in vaudeville led him to create 'Grauman's Prologues' with dancers and other acts that thematically related to the featured film, and this would entertain audiences for 2-3 hours before a screening.  

In the instance of King of Kings, though--when DeMille was used to controlling everything and being the center of attention--the director was furious.  He was convinced that making the audience wait until 11 pm to see his picture--and not leaving until the wee hours of the morning--would negatively impact his reviews.  As a result, he vowed to never do a premiere at the Chinese Theatre again. However, he quickly changed his tune.  What he discovered was that every review in the papers the next day was a rave, and critics commended producers for entertainment beforehand that enhanced their appreciation of the picture.  This is all part of Sid's legacy and what he taught the studios--the value and potential of premieres, including stunts and merchandising relating to the movie's theme, and the excitement that came from stars walking the red carpet.

The Hand and Footprint Ceremony

One of the reasons that the Chinese Theatre remains so famous today, and even surpasses its sister the Egyptian, is its legendary hand and footprint ceremonies.  Even now stars long to be immortalized in cement in the theater's forecourt.  There are several stories on how this first occurred and they all seem to start with someone accidentally stepping in cement.  Some say it was Sid himself. The TCL Chinese Theatre officially attributes the event to Norma Talmadge (shown below when they did it again as an official ceremony).  Many, though, love to give credit to Sid's friend Mary Pickford who, in some versions, even calls to convince him it's the marketing stunt he needs to really put the theater on the map.  In any case, the first group of inductees included those closest to him--Norma, Mary, and Doug, who all actually did their handprints on April 30th and postdated them for the opening in May.  The others who round out 1927 are Norma Shearer, Harold Lloyd (who also left the imprint of his famous glasses), western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix (and his horse), Colleen Moore, Gloria Swanson, and Constance Talmadge.  Sid's mother is there, too--the only non-celebrity to receive the honor--though her ceremony did not take place until 1940.

Norma Talmadge with Sid Grauman (above)
leaving the very first hand and footprints in cement

Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Gloria Swanson is another in the group from 1927
to leave hand and footprints at the Chinese Theatre

World Premieres and the Academy Awards

The Chinese Theatre has been a first-run theater since its beginnings with Sid Grauman and it continues under TCL today.  After it opened with DeMille's King of Kings (1927), it has been famous for the number and extravagance of the premieres it has hosted.  From the 1930s, premieres included everything from 1930's Hell's Angels (with bi-planes flying overhead) to 1939's The Wizard of Oz (where the forecourt was divided into Kansas on one side and Oz on the other).  It also included two of my favorites from Marlene Dietrich--her American debut in Morocco (1930) and the equally stylish follow-up Shanghai Express (1932).  You'll find a reminder of the latter film currently displayed in the theater's lobby--an original Travis Banton costume complete with feathers.

In the 1940s, the theater was possibly most famous for hosting the Academy Awards from 1944 to 1946.  It was a huge deal as it was the first time a theater had ever been the venue.  All others prior to the Chinese Theatre had been hotels--first the Roosevelt in 1929, and then alternating between the Ambassador and Biltmore until 1943.  It was appropriate that one of Sid's theaters was given the honor since he was a founding member of the Academy.  He was also so instrumental to film history that he was the only theater owner to be given an honorary Oscar in 1949 for his contributions to the industry.

Additional big premieres in the 1950s included Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the 1960s included Mary Poppins (1964), and the 1970s included Star Wars (1977).  Apparently, the crowds for Star Wars were so heavy that they had to replace the carpets in the theater that year.

Again, one of Grauman's lasting legacies is that of the Hollywood premiere.  He taught the studios the value of producing an event before the film was shown that would leave a lasting impression with audiences.  Joan Rivers may have been the first to ask "Who are you wearing?", but Grauman was the one who gave us the red carpet in the first place.

May 27, 1930 premiere of Hell's Angels--
the National Guard was once again on stand-by because of the huge crowds-- 
the film's star Jean Harlow would leave her hand and footprints in 1933

April 29, 1932 premiere of Grand Hotel--
see the amazing video below for all the star arrivals who were asked to sign a hotel register

Joan Crawford with then-husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. at the Grand Hotel premiere...
Joan had already left her hand and footprints back in 1929 (Doug wasn't invited to do the same)

August 15, 1939 premiere of The Wizard of Oz...
the film's star Judy Garland had her handprint ceremony with Mickey Rooney that same year

1944 Academy Awards--
Hosted by Jack Benny, Casablanca won Best Picture,
and significant as it was the first year that supporting actors got Oscar statues (not just plaques)
as well as the first year bleachers were offered to fans watching the red carpet

1946 Academy Awards--
Co-hosted by Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart, The Lost Weekend won Best Picture,
and significant because statues were gold-plated again after the plaster ones done during WWII

1946 was the year that Joan won the Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945),
but didn't make it to the Chinese Theatre because she was "sick" in bed

"Protests" at the June 26, 1953 premiere of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
where Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell had their handprint ceremony as well

Taking a Tour of the TCL Chinese Theatre

The forecourt of the stars is protected by 40' high curved walls and copper-topped turrets...
the Chinese Theatre itself is 90' high with a bronze roof
and a 30' high dragon carved in stone between two coral red columns

The columns are topped by wrought iron masks

Entering the theater's bronze doors, we are reminded of its new owners--
it is now the TCL Chinese Theatre

Hard to say what you first see when you enter the majestic theater lobby...
if it's the carpet, it is hand-woven in China,
reproduced based on swatches and images of the original,
and built to stand the heavy foot traffic

If it's the lights that draw your attention, some are replicas of Chinese incense burners
that early in the theater's history even released fragrant smoke to evoke a mood
(though cigarette smoking has never been allowed anywhere inside the theater)

There were many talented artists who were involved with the design of the Chinese Theatre, and one was actor Keye Luke (above).  Most fans know him from film (the Charlie Chan series of the 1940s, e.g.) and television (the Kung Fu series of the 1970s, e.g.), but he was also an impressive artist. In addition to doing smaller projects like pressbooks for films such as 1933's King Kong, he also did an enormous one for Grauman. He is the one who painted the two wall murals we all admire when we enter the lobby of the Chinese.  This talent was utilized afterward by the studios as well--he did many of the matte paintings for westerns and other movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Luke's wall above the concession stand (above) and wall above the exit doors in the lobby (below)...
the paintings are original and have never been touched up, 
only lovingly cleaned and cared for each day (using scaffolding when needed)

There are many original costumes currently on display in the lobby,
including one of Walter Plunkett's iconic gowns for Gone with the Wind (1939)...
many mistakenly insist that the film had its premiere at the Chinese

Walking into the auditorium of the theater remains a thrill
due to the mood that Grauman created for his theater audiences

This is a view of the auditorium from Sid Grauman's private box high above the theater...
the curtain is a replica made from an image of the 1927 original
that was scanned into a computer, enhanced, enlarged, and heat transferred onto swaths of fabric
(the entire process took 2.5 years)

The ceiling of the auditorium is equally fascinating and layered with Hollywood history.  It was handpainted in 1927 with stencils created by John Beckman, who also did set design for films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) in addition to murals in places like California's Avalon casino.  Supposedly the ceiling tells the story of a young boy who becomes a prince and ends with him fighting a dragon.  Though Levi and others have not officially verified this, he did say that Chinese delegations have offered their own confirmations when they toured the theater.

Poet and film director Moon Quan is another of the talents who contributed to the artistry of the Chinese Theatre.  He oversaw the artisans who created statues throughout--from the forecourt to the auditorium.  The one below was made onsite and is done in "bronze-like" material.  Many other items for the theater were imported directly from China--such as temple bells, pagodas, and the stone Heaven Dogs that guard the front doors--and it all really gives the building its authentic feel.

The light fixtures are all original--
only change are the LED lights they use now, which not only don't have to be changed as often 
(a full 7 hour process is needed, including using a catwalk) 
and, like the ceiling lights, they can change color to enhance the theater's mood

Inside the theater's two projection rooms--one holds the Christie projectors (above) 
and the other holds two mammoth IMAX projectors that are dismantled piece-by-piece after use
(TCM brings in even more options depending on the technology needed for the films they screen)

The ladies' lounge is one of my favorite parts of the theater.  This is one of those spots where you can really get goosebumps because literally everyone has been here.  Janet Gaynor.  Judy Garland.  Lana Turner.  Marilyn Monroe.  It also has seen actresses like Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, and Emma Stone today.  Not only do women use it as a restroom, but it is also set up with lights to do makeup on actresses when they film here or have handprint ceremonies.  Even the men sometimes use it for that purpose as they don't have an equivalent space.

Almost everything in this room is original, too.  The makeup tables.  The waste baskets.  The stools (though they've been re-upholstered).  The fixtures.  The floor heaters.  The two-pronged outlets.  The frames around the mirrors (the mirrors themselves get cracked and sometimes have to be replaced). Even the butterflies on the wall are from 1927--when they re-paint the room, they tape off the butterflies to keep them protected.  Only the ceiling and carpet aren't original, though the carpet's design is certainly in keeping with the rest of the theater.  The lotus blossom is to offer us peace and prosperity on our journey.

Heading back upstairs to the lobby takes us by the side hallway that seems steeped in mystery
due to its red light from Chinese lanterns brought back from China in 1926-1927

Along the side lobby, you can find one of the theater's three original wax figures,
apparently good luck, especially before a film production, if you rub the face or shoulder...
the chair is also original and one of the pieces from Sid's 1923 trip that inspired the theater 

Artistry high on the wall above the wax figure (above)
and secret writing from people who built the theater even higher up in the corner of another wall

Back in the lobby, you'll see several stunning film costumes--
a Travis Banton from Shanghai Express (1932, above), 
a Travilla from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and
still others that include two from Jean Louis (1946's Gilda and 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie)

All costumes, including Dorothy's blue gingham dress by Adrian for The Wizard of Oz (above, right)
will still be in the theater for audiences during TCMFF

And so here ends our journey of the Chinese Theatre.  My only heartbreak is that I could not share absolutely everything with you that I learned in my research or conversation with Levi.  Sid's numerous practical jokes.  Sid's poker games with Greta Garbo in his office at the Chinese (complete with flattering lighting just for her).  Sid's love of hotels--he lived in the Ambassador, though never the Roosevelt, rather than buying his own home.  Sid's love of late nights--hotel operators were not allowed to pass calls through to him until noon no matter what.  But I particularly loved his generous spirit and how he gave so many stars their starts, such as Myrna Loy who began as a dancer at this very theater.  

Without question, Grauman should be remembered for so many things that we take for granted today in the movie industry.  Movie start times, for one.  Once upon a time, people just wandered into theaters whenever they wanted.  It was Sid who first let people know what the screening schedule was for the day and sold tickets for certain start times.  Then there was the red carpet experience, which first started at the Egyptian Theatre and carried over to the Chinese.  And then there were the over-the-top premieres, which Hollywood originally questioned and then took over producing themselves when Sid sadly passed away in 1950. They learned those events were something they couldn't live without.

Besides learning more about Sid himself, the Chinese Theatre did not disappoint.  Though I have been there many times before, there was something quite magical about this visit and really felt as though I was walking on sacred ground.  I got goosebumps when Levi parted curtains near the projection rooms to reveal Sid's private box that we sat in to admire the theater.  It was the first time I had been there since the renovation, too, and I could have not been more impressed with how TCL protected and preserved the history of the theater as they brought the new technology in.  Everything is absolutely stunning and I look forward to watching my first feature in it during the TCM Classic Film Festival.

I offer my heartfelt thanks to Levi Tinker and all those associated with the TCL Chinese Theatre for your warm welcome and sharing your time and knowledge with me.  Even more thanks are below.

If you'd like to take your own tour of the TCL Chinese Theatre, they are available 7 days a week and usually start around 10 am--click here for more information and to buy tickets.

Until soon...

Huge Thanks

Levi Tinker

More Thanks

Jerry Brown and the rest of staff at TCL Chinese Theatre

Sources for More Information and Historic Photos

American Cinematheque
Bison Archive
LA Confidential Magazine
Los Angeles Conservancy
Mary Mallory
Alicia Mayer
NBC Los Angeles
Vanity Fair

All modern photos taken by Kimberly Truhler for GlamAmor


Marline said...

Kimberly, your piece here is above-and-beyond. The research is impressive, as is the passion and clarity with which you share most everything that you learned from your generous guide. I never knew about Keye Luke, who has always been a favorite. When I sit in the Chinese now, I'll have a fuller, deeper appreciation. Many, many thanks for taking the time to craft such a beautiful piece.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you, Kay! My goal was to make you feel like you were there, and to give you an even greater appreciation for the place when you are there in person (which you will be in about a week!). I thought I knew a lot about the Chinese Theatre, but now I REALLY know it. It's a very special place that's even more special now.

Joel Williams said...

Amazing much great history from these two movie houses!!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you so much, Joel--happy you had a chance to stop by! And doesn't it just get you even MORE excited for the festival next week? I know that being at the Chinese Theatre will mean even more to me now. :) See you soon!

Silver Screenings said...

This was an amazing piece, Kimberly. The process of duplicating the curtain in the Chinese Theatre sounds fascinating. If it took over two years, there must have been some challenges, but the result is stunning.

I love the idea of a Ladies Lounge – it shows how much thought went into the planning of the theatre.

Also, thanks for posting the footage of the hotel "registry signing", which is a BRILLIANT publicity move. (It seems every woman had fur of some kind on her coat?) I especially liked this exchange:
Q: Did you ever stay at a Grand Hotel before?
A: I don't know. I have to go home and check my towels.

Thanks so much for combining all this history for us. I feel like I've actually been inside the theatre!

Kevin said...

Great article Kimberly!

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