Photo: Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre Credit: Larry Harnisch/LADailyMirror.com
Movie theatre impresario Sid Grauman took Los Angeles by storm in 1917, when he arrived from San Francisco. The Grauman family owned and operated many important film theatres in the city by the bay, and the young Grauman moved to greener pastures. What better place to establish moving picture palaces than in the city where film studios were moving their centers of operation? After establishing the Million Dollar Theatre downtown, Grauman announced in 1921 plans to move to the center of the thriving film world, Hollywood.
Hollywood possessed neighborhood picture shows, but nothing as elaborate as the Million Dollar. Sid decided to go all out in decorating the new theatre, after traveling the world and observing theatres in New York. On November 4, 1921, he told Edwin Schallert, film reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, that he hoped to open the Hollywood theatre in February of 1922. It would be more elaborate than the normal theatre, and possibly show first run features. “An Egyptian garden is to be one of the main attractions at the new Hollywood Theater. The interior decorations will be in keeping with this outward scheme, and particularly effective will be the colorful lighting plan.”
As Bernadette M. Sigler and Kevin Stayton state in their 1990 book, “The Sphinx and the Lotus: the Egyptian Movement in American Decorative Arts, 1865-1935,” Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was the first documented use of a complete Egyptian decorative scheme inside and out. “Supposedly based on temple ruins at Thebes, the exterior boasted crouching sphinxes and Egyptian head pilasters.” The massive proscenium arch framing the screen was surrounded by massive columns, and sitting above the arch rested an elaborate “winged scarab Khepri.” Conceived in 1921, it opened in 1922, fortuitously aligning with Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt in November of that year.
Architects Meyers and Holler’s thematic building suffered delays in construction, not opening until the fall of 1922 at a cost of around $800,000. This allowed Grauman time to train the many ushers and usherettes attired in Egyptian costume, as well as workers similarly attired to act as sentinel atop the building. The world premiere of Douglas Fairbanks film’ “Robin Hood” would highlight proceedings. Engraved plates with the stars’ names would be placed at the seats at which they sat, a permanent reminder to future patrons of the stars who attended the theatre.
Grauman inaugurated new policies before opening the theatre. He announced on October 7 that the Egyptian would be the first theatre on the West Coast to reserve seats for every performance. Patrons could buy tickets downtown at Barker Brothers’ music department two weeks in advance, or by calling the theatre at Hollywood 2131, 2132 or 2133. Two complete shows ran daily, a matinee at 2:15 pm and an evening screening at 8:15 pm. Afternoon prices ranged from 50 cents to $1, and evening shows cost 75 cents to $1.50. Every show would feature an elaborate staged performance including musical accompaniment. As the October 8, 1922 Los Angeles Times noted, “Each production will be preceded with a prologue in keeping with the atmosphere of the story, in which players who appeared in the picture will be seen in their identical roles.”
The theatre’s prologue promised to be the most elaborate Los Angeles one yet, featuring a replica of the giant Nottingham Castle set, and the $150,000 costumes worn in the film also used in the prologue, called the “Nottingham Castle Pageant.” More than 200 people were employed in the cast of the prologue. As an added bonus, composer/director Victor Schertzinger composed a score for the presentation.
Director Fred Niblo acted as master of ceremonies for the premiere, with Los Angeles Mayor Cryer, Rupert Hughes, Jesse L. Lasky, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s George Eastman, and builder Charles Toberman making speeches, along with actor Charlie Chaplin. Cecil B. DeMille presented Sid Grauman with a laurel wreath on behalf of the Hollywood film community. Floral arrangements honoring Grauman and his theatre decorated the forecourt.
Edwin Schallert raved over both “Robin Hood” and the theatre in his October 19 Los Angeles Times review. “A panorama of fantasy, a magic pictorial procession, a gay, dashing pageant of daring exploits and chivalric deeds, seen through the mists of legends and lighted by the moonbeams of romance, “Robin Hood,” the long-awaited, the clarioned, unfurled the radiant tapestry of its presence last night in Hollywood…The theater which Mr. Grauman has built in Hollywood deserves attention, because it is the setting for the play. It is a true theater of the picture type–one in which taste dominates. There is nothing of garishness about the interior. There is naught to distract the eye from the shadowy stage which is the playhouse raison d’etre… .”
Both inside and out, the site highlighted Egyptania. The walls of the auditorium featured hieroglyphics, with the ceiling painted to resemble the night sky. The constellations would change as the lighting effects altered and shifted. The forecourt featured oriental shops down its promenade, with an Egyptian village replicating one by the Pyramids, attracting attention. Rug makers and other artisans intrigued filmgoers.
Writer Morrow Mayo quotes from an original Egyptian Theatre program in his 1932 book “Los Angeles.” “Nestled beneath the empurpled hills of the cinema capital of the world, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, as an internationally famed palace dedicated to Thespis, conjures visions of ancient Egypt in all its triumphant glory. This temple of art is a replica of a palace of ancient Thebes, profusely embellished with Egyptian hieroglyphics, drawn from the monuments to the Theban kings, and presenting the symbolic stories of the gods and goddesses of the Nile. At night it glistens in the aura of brilliant lights. The facade of the theatre presents huge Egyptian columns surmounted by a massive strut of stone. Along the top of the walls, all day long, silently promenades a Libyan sheik in the garb of the desert. Entering the great foyer the visitor is greeted by beautiful girls as usherettes, dressed after the manner of handmaidens of Cleopatra. The auditorium is surmounted by a great dome from which hangs an enormous chandelier of Egyptian design, all wrought in colors of gold with golden iridescent rays emanating from an ingenious system of concealed lights, giving the effect of a colossal sunburst.”
Both the theatre and “Robin Hood” dazzled audiences. The film continued on for months, augmented by special promotions at the theatre to goose sales. The November 26, 1922 Los Angeles Times described one such promotion, in which patrons used their reserved seat coupons after seeing the film to gain admission to the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, the only way citizens were allowed on the lot.
The Egyptian Theatre still features an eclectic array of programming each week, in the same auditorium in which Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin sat for the grand opening of “Robin Hood.” While the forecourt is now crowded and cramped from the hamburger restaurant and tour company booth, the front of the theatre still promises a mecca of movies inside. The American Cinematheque, now based at the theatre, promises an elaborate 90th anniversary celebration in October featuring a screening of “Robin Hood.” May Hollywoodites continue patronizing this temple of film for centuries to come!