The opening of “King of Kings at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Photo courtesy of Bruce Torrence.
Still ready for its close-up, the TCL Chinese Theatre, originally Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, turns 90 on May 18, looking as glamorous and exotic as when it premiered on Hollywood Boulevard in 1927. Under construction for almost 16 months, the Chinese Theatre stands as perhaps legendary theatre impresario Sid Grauman’s ultimate masterpiece, a fabulous moving picture palace that outshines virtually anything produced by the Hollywood studio system.
While not the first film theatre devised and built by visionary Grauman, the Chinese Theatre represents the pinnacle of motion picture theatre construction, an atmospheric pleasure dome for the senses which still overwhelms with its unique beauty. Opening just two years before the start of the Great Depression, the theatre stands as a fascinating concoction of hallucinatory dream and kitsch, the ultimate symbol of success for those hoping to make it in motion picture business. Like the Hollywood Sign, the theatre acts as an iconic symbol for the city in which it was created, drawing people from around the globe hoping to soak up just a tiny bit of its special stardust.
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Sid Grauman, Charlie Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Conrad Nagel and Anna Mae Wong were among the celebrities at the groundbreaking for the Chinese Theatre. Photo courtesy of Bruce Torrence.
The Chinese Theatre sprang out of the imagination of inquisitive Sid Grauman. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana March 17, 1879, Grauman and his family immigrated westward in search of fame and fortune in entertainment. Ending up in Dawson City, Alaska during the 1890s gold strike, the Graumans survived by providing shows to lonely miners before making it to San Francisco and opening small theatres before the Great Earthquake of 1906 destroyed them. Quick on his feet, Sid located a moving picture projector and began showing films in a tent. The family quickly prospered and acquired several film theatres around the area before Sid decided to seek his fortune in the western motion picture capital, Los Angeles.
Obtaining finance through partnering with Famous Players-Lasky, who purchased the family’s San Francisco chain of theatres, the Graumans purchased the Rialto and constructed their first elaborate moving picture theatre in downtown Los Angeles in 1918, the Million Dollar. Sid introduced what became to be his calling card, the world famous “Prologues,” which combined dance, singing, and showmanship to provide a thematic introduction to the films. Over the next nine years, Grauman would go on to open other elaborate theatres, including the Metropolitan and his first Hollywood showplace, the Egyptian Theatre, the site of his first grand Hollywood premieres.
An early postcard of the Chinese Theatre.
By 1924, Grauman had sold his interest in the downtown theatres to Famous Players-Lasky and concentrated his full attention in Hollywood, running the Egyptian and conceiving of new schemes before selling out the Egyptian to West Coast Theatres but continuing management. The January, 22, 1924 Hollywood Daily Citizen reported that Grauman had relinquished control of the downtown theatres and planned to open two new elaborate theatres in Los Angeles and one in Long Beach to realize long time dreams “to compete with any cinema palace in the country.” Grauman departed for a long European vacation to visit theatres.
His long percolating idea began taking shape that fall. The September 23, 1924 Exhibitors Trade Review stated that master showman Grauman intended to construct a 2,500 seat theatre in Los Angeles. On November 2 in Chicago, he announced plans to construct a new Hollywood theatre to cost approximately $2 million. Thanks to the help of renowned Hollywood real estate man C. E. Toberman, Grauman had obtained property at 6925 Hollywood Blvd. between Sycamore and Orange, and obtained a demolition permit on July 19, 1924 to remove the L. C. Jones residence, which has also been purported to be the residence of Francis X. Bushman.
For the next year, Grauman bided his time, lining up financing and working with architect Raymond Kennedy of Meyer and Holler to devise a fantastical design. Meyer and Holler had designed the gorgeous Egyptian, and logically worked on the Chinese as well. Main architect Kennedy focused on the more delicate Chippendale style of Chinese architecture, as well as more imaginative designs.
Sid Grauman, who followed the Million-Dollar Theatre in downtown Los Angeles with the Egyptian and then the Chinese.
As usual, financing and construction matters took longer than anticipated to transpire. Film Daily announced Grauman’s elaborate plans to document construction on September 6, 1925. Grandstands would be constructed to allow journalists and the public to observe concrete pouring for the foundation, with a jazz band and other divertissements providing entertainment.
On October 13, 1925, Film Daily reported the formation of Grauman’s Greater Hollywood Theatre Inc. in Sacramento under the partnership of Grauman, United Artists executive Joseph Schenck, and producer Sol Lesser with $1 million in financing. The November 21, 1925 Moving Picture World called forthcoming construction of the Chinese Theatre “to make the finest palace of entertainment on earth… .” To creatively get things going, steel for the theatre’s trusses was feted at the new McClintic Marshall Company plant in south Los Angeles on Armistice Day, with Grauman and Chinese American actress Anna May Wong posing for photographs.
By December, financing plans had been finalized, with ownership split evenly between Grauman, Schenck, and West Coast Theatres in the construction of the Class A Theatre for $900,000. The December 16, 1925 Variety reported that Banks, Huntley and Co. submitted a $450,000 bond issue for the theatre, with some reports stating that the theatre would cost into the millions of dollars.
Newspapers across the country splashed stories regarding the elaborate groundbreaking at 7 pm on Tuesday, January 5, 1926, with 10,000 people coming to watch. Master showman Grauman lined up MGM actor Conrad Nagel as master of ceremonies, with Chinese bands and acrobats and prologue dancers from the Egyptian Theatres’ “The Big Parade” to perform in an elaborately staged Oriental garden flooded by spotlights and decorated with Chinese lanterns and banners. Chinese tea, cakes, and candy were served, before the ringing of large gongs announced the ceremony’s beginning.
Anna May Wong once again participated, this time in support of actress Norma Talmadge, Schenck’s wife. Talmadge lifted the first spadeful of dirt with a golden shovel and then pulled a level of a giant steam shovel to start excavation work. Thousands of exploding Chinese firecrackers completed the ceremony. Celebrities such as Louis B. Mayer, Schenck, A. P. Giannini, Charlie Chaplin, William Farrell of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and Dr. Wong Fook of the Chinese community attended, per wire reports.
A detail of one of the murals in the theater.
The February 6, 1926 Moving Picture World described construction plans for the 2,500 seat theatre, with an Oriental garden planned for the forecourt, and forty foot tall walls protecting it. The 40’ x 140’ stage would be one of the largest in the world, surrounded by a 65 foot tall proscenium arch. Fanciful Chinese sculpture and design would decorate interiors. Ticket prices for the flamboyant theatre would range from $1.65 to $2.50 and include Grauman’s legendary prologue before the two a day screenings. United Artists would now operate the theatre, as part of an original idea between Grauman, Schenck, and Shubert Theatres to open a chain of 22 movie palaces across the country. The Chinese would play top end “run” pictures intended to play for weeks or even months.
Grauman pulled his first permit March 29, 1926 for the theatre, with estimates of 109 tons of reinforced steel and 7,400 bbls of cement required for construction. Additional permits were pulled on July 16, to increase the size of the orchestra pit, stage doors, and for other alterations. The June 7 Los Angeles Times estimated that 800 tons of steel would be required for construction. On March 25, 1927, Electrical Products Corporation pulled permits to erect two vertical electrical signs.
While the Chinese was under construction, Grauman and Schenck joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and others to finance the building of the Roosevelt Hotel across the street, intended to serve as the abode for stars participating in premiere or special events at the Chinese. The Roosevelt opened shortly before the theatre.
Director Cecil B. De Mille at the premiere of “King of Kings,” the film that opened the Chinese.
Construction deadlines evolved over time, with optimistic projections of opening in late 1926 continually pushed back until May 18, 1927. In October 1926, Liu Yu Clung, a renowned Chinese scholar, appeared to examine approximately 46 models of statuary planned as decoration, all constructed by the model shop on the property devised by Meyer and Holler in order to study lighting and effect work.
On February 12, director Cecil B. DeMille and Grauman signed an agreement for “King of Kings” to receive its West Coast premiere at the opening of the theatre as work moved madly forward to reach May completion. By March, Grauman was ensuring secrecy on decoration by posting guards and barriers to prevent people from seeing the facade until the grand opening.
On April 30, 1927, Sid Grauman hosted America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford and dashing action hero Douglas Fairbanks in the first hand and footprint ceremony in the theatre’s forecourt, with photos sent by wire across country. Grauman announced that he hoped to obtain the prints of Hollywood’s major stars to decorate the theatre’s exterior before the theatre’s opening, but only Norma Talmadge’s ceremony beat the May 18 premiere.
Motion Picture News saluted Grauman on May 11, 1927 for the upcoming opening of the Chinese. They noted how Grauman was the first to recognize the importance of the organist in accompanying silent films, the first to introduce trousered usherettes, the first to use the overhead spot, creating the prologue, and the like.
Grauman’s Chinese was featured in Variety.
Hollywood businesses joined in to celebrate the Chinese Theatre’s opening. The May 13 Los Angeles Times noted that the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and its Retail Merchants’ Bureau heartily joined in, hoping to promote their own businesses with a week long list of celebrations. Each agreed to decorate their own buildings, street lamps, electric poles, cafes, hotels, and the like in Chinese decoration, along with street parades, floats, night celebrations, bands, orchestras, and all street lights the length of Hollywood Boulevard in the main business district to be turned into Chinese lanterns for the week. A gigantic dragon more than several hundred feet long would also take part in the parade.
The Wednesday, May 18 ceremony sold out within two days of its announcement at $11 per ticket, one of the highest ever. It dazzled the thousands of people outside the theatre, 22,000 lining the sidewalks 10 deep. Huge spotlights crisscrossed the sky as stars arrived for the grand opening to walk the red carpet and be interviewed by radio. A veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood participated in the grand ceremonies, included the Chinese actor Sojin and San Francisco Mayor James Rolph.
A gorgeous color program promoted the theatre’s opening and the “King of Kings” premiere. Striking Oriental drawings decorated the pages, along with detailed and hyperbolic descriptions of the theatre. A pagoda like box office sat in the forecourt with bronze roof aged to the color of green jade to match that of the main theatre. Stone dragons and statues graced the exterior walls of the theatre, with the massive front doors flanked by gigantic red lacquer columns. The 2,200 seat auditorium “gives the impression of entering a gigantic shrine of the time of the Five Emperors…” and a giant chandelier in the form of a Chinese lantern hung in the massive lobby.
Mary Pickford waves from a biplane promoting Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
The fireproof curtain was described as replicating twin doors of an immense lacquered cabinet, opening to a stage four times the size of the average Los Angeles theatre. Power and lighting for stage shows operated from its own power plant. Furnishings were provided by Barker Bros. Oriental shop, including cow horn lanterns. Per the May 11 Variety, “The decorating scheme of the house is a color symphony based on the dominating color of Chinese art, red, interpreted in ruby, crimson, pale scarlet and coral lacquer, with complementary hues to to provide contrasting values… .”
Before the prologue, director Fred Niblo introduced D. W. Griffith as master of ceremonies, who then introduced director Cecil B. DeMille to describe the film. MPPDA director Will Hays said a few words before introducing Mary Pickford, who rang a bell to announce the curtain and start the prologue, which was supposed to start at 8:30 pm, but started late to arrivals having difficulty wading through the crowds. 200 people participated in the “Glories of the Scriptures” prologue, accompanied by the Chinese 100 piece orchestra, and Pryce Dunlavy Jr. at the mighty Wurlitzer organ, performing the score created by Dr. Hugo Reisenfeld. The 24 minute prologue focused on events in the Old Testament and included a dance sequence by Theodore Kosloff and his dancers and 125 performers for the first scene alone.
In the August 13, 1933, Lee Side of L.A. column, the otherworldly nature of a Grauman house was described. “…When you enter a Grauman house, you know you are leaving the world of reality behind and entering the world of make believe.” Still a stupendous achievement in architecture and atmospheric design, Grauman’s Chinese still enthralls all who enter its doors in search of superior and wondrous motion picture entertainment.
Hollywood Heritage will host a 90th anniversary celebration of the Chinese Theatre on May 1. Tickets are $20 to $50.