Sid Grauman was a showman. Originally starting out promoting boxing matches in the Yukon and then moving on to Vaudeville in Northern California, Grauman eventually made his way down the coast to Los Angeles.
It was here that he would open 3 movie palaces, the most famous of which Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is arguably the most iconic movie theatre in the world.
The Million Dollar Theatre
Located at 307 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, the Million Dollar Theatre is considered to be the first movie palace in the United States. It opened in on February 1, 1918, containing 2,345 seats and a 30 piece orchestra.
The first movie shown at the theatre was The Silent Man which had it’s premiere there. Some of the biggest stars were in attendance including United Artist founders Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.
The 12 story building was designed by famed Los Angeles architect Albert C. Martin Sr. The exterior facade was done in the flamboyant decadence of the Churrigueresque (Ultra baroque Spanish style) movement by Domingo Mora. Some of the accoutrements added by Mora included bison heads, longhorn skulls, and girls in unique poses.
The actual theatre housed with this building walls was designed by noted theatre architect William Lee Woollett. A great deal of the interior elements were inspired by the 1841 English fairy tale titled King of the Golden River by John Ruskin. The organ grilles feature images from the book.
The immense, 110-foot-wide balcony in the auditorium was an engineering marvel. Because of a shortage of structural steel during World War I the balcony was supported by the world’s first reinforced concrete girder.
As interests in the theatre waned over time the Million Dollar Theatre transitioned into a Vaudeville and big band mecca in downtown L.A in the 1940s. In the 50s it would feature Spanish language performances. Later it would serve as a church before being closed to the public in 2008.
The exterior of this building is featured in Blade Runner and the interior of the theatre is featured prominently in The Artist.
The Egyptian Theatre
Located at 6706 Hollywood Boulevard it opened in 1922. For this theatre, Grauman teamed up with real estate developer Charles Toberman. This theatre cost $800,000 ($10,396,720 in 2020 dollars) to build and took 18 months to complete. Construction began in 1920.
Like the Million Dollar Theatre, it was originally supposed to have more of a Spanish theme. However, because of the Egyptian craze that had captured the imaginations of the public of the day, it was decided to change the theme.
Architects Meyer & Holler designed the building, which was constructed by the Milwaukee Company. Raymond M. Kennedy in charge of the small, decorative details.
The Egyptian was the site of the first-ever “Hollywood Premiere”. The public could buy tickets to the event for $5 (about $77 in 2020). The movie was Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks and it took place on October 18, 1922. The movie ran at the theatre until April 1923.
Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre only played four movies in its first three years of operation. Robin Hood was followed by The Covered Wagon, The Ten Commandments, and The Thief of Bagdad.
Each performance at the theatre featured an elaborate live-action prologue performance. The cost of admission varied by the time of day and ranged between 50 cents for a matinee and $1.50 for an evening show. The seating capacity was 1,771 when completed.
When Grauman left in 1927 to build the Chineses Theatre across the street and a few blocks to the west it became a second-run theatre. That changed in 1944 when it became a first-run theatre exclusively for MGM.
In 1955 a large curved screen was installed to accommodate 70mm presentations, the first of which was Oklahoma which premiered at the theatre on November 17, 1955. Other 70mm premieres that took place at the theatre included: South Pacific, Ben Hur, King of Kings, Mutiny on the Bounty, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, and The Poseidon Adventure.
By the early 1990s Hollywood had declined and so did the Egyptian. It closed in 1992. 4 years later it was sold to American Cinematheque and restored to the tune of $13 million dollars
In 2020 the theatre was sold to Netflix for an undisclosed amount.
The Chinese Theatre
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is located at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard. Construction began in January 1926 and it opened on May 18, 1927, with the premiere of The King of Kings.
Once again Grauman teamed up with Toberman, Kennedy, and Meyer & Holler to build and design the theatre. The cost of the theatre was $2.1 million (about $31 million in 2020). Grauman partnered with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Howard Schenck in the enterprise.
The capacity of the theatre is only 932, the smallest of Grauman’s palaces.
The U.S. government had to authorize the import temple bells, pagodas, stone Heaven Dogs and other artefacts from China. Chinese artisans created many pieces of statuary in the work area that eventually became the Forecourt of the Stars under the supervision of Moon Quon, a Chinese film director of the age. A considerable amount of these pieces still decorate the ornate interior of the theatre today.
The Chinese Theatre is 90-feet tall, wrought iron masks top its two gigantic red columns which support a bronze roof. Between the columns hovers a dragon carved from stone and guarding the entrance to the theatre along with 2 giant Ming Dynasty Guardian Lions brought from China in 1926.
The theatre’s forecourt serves as a Mecca to the stars of yesterday and today and is fortified by 40-foot high curved walls and copper-topped turrets.
During construction, Grauman hired Jean Klossner to develop an extremely durable concrete for the forecourt of the theatre, which became synonymous with the handprint and footprints of Tinseltown’s biggest names. There are a number of disputing stories about the origin of this tradition.
On April 15, 1927, the first 4 people to be immortalized in cement were Norma Talmadge, Sid Grauman, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, though the order is in dispute.
Originally Grauman told the story that Norma Talmadge stepped in the cement by accident and that he was inspired to turn it into a novelty. In 1937 he changed the story.
“I walked right into it. While we were building the theatre, I accidentally happened to step in some soft concrete. And there it was. So, I went to Mary Pickford immediately. Mary put her foot into it.”
Accounts also vary as to whether Fairbanks or Pickford was the second celebrity to be immortalized in concrete after Talmadge.
There are over 200 handprints, footprints, and autographs outside the theatre. The most popular is Marilyn Monroe, the handprints are black due to the number of people that have put their hands there.
Grauman sold his interest in the theatre in 1929 to the Fox Theatre chain. A few months later Howard Hughes pleaded with Grauman to return to the theatre as managing director for his movie Hell’s Angels. Grauman agreed and stayed in this role until his death in 1950.
The Academy Awards were held here from 1944-46. This was the first location to hold the ceremony that was not a hotel.
On September 9, 1955, the I Love Lucy episode “Lucy Visits Grauman’s” was filmed at Ren-Mar studios. This was the episode where she steals John Wayne’s footprints. In addition to Wayne’s, the footprints featured in the episode belonged to Gloria Swanson, Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, Joan Crawford, Harold Lloyd, Gary Cooper, and Trigger the horse.
In 1968 the Chinese Theatre was declared a national landmark. 5 years later the theatre was sold to Ted Mann and Grauman’s was changed to Mann’s in its title. In 2000 Paramount and Warner Brothers bought the theatre. 2 years later they dropped Mann’s name and changed it back to Grauman’s.
In 2007 the theatre was sold to the CIM Group and 4 years later they sold it to Chinese Theatres LLC.