Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Egyptian Theatre, Where Grauman Put the ‘Show’ in Show Business, Turns 100

A postcard showing Sid Grauman and the Egyptian Theater, listed on EBay.

On Oct. 18, Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre turned 100 years old. Built and operated by legendary showman Sid Grauman, the spectacular theater introduced major Hollywood premieres and radio broadcasts as it became a mecca of entertainment for Southern California. The successful theater demonstrated the business and creative acumen of the shrewd exhibitor as he formed the template of the Hollywood premiere and its publicity possibilities by showcasing and expanding his creative genius.

Grauman absorbed showmanship from his theater manager father. Vaudeville’s obit called him “the father of continuous vaudeville…the first showman to establish himself after the great fire; also the first showman to adopt the large, luxurious theater for pictures.”


The 1926 opening of Don Juan at the Egyptian, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Grauman synthesized previous practices and techniques as he broadened the definition of film exhibition at his lavish Egyptian Theatre, employing prologues, orchestra, publicity at openings, and other special trappings virtually replicating all that he had practiced before.

Born March 17, 1879, in Indianapolis, Indiana to David and Rosa Goldsmith Grauman, Grauman spent most of his formative years in Kansas City, where his father served as a railroad and then steamship ticket broker and real estate salesman. Perhaps still struggling, father and son attempted to make it rich in mining at Dawson City, Alaska, in 1898 after the great gold rush there. Facing failure and learning a lesson about how lonely people would pay handsomely for entertainment, the family ended up in San Francisco with David once again serving as a ticket broker for the Seattle and Cape Nome Transportation Co. through the end of 1899 before the men determined to achieve their fortunes owning and managing theaters.

The elder Grauman opened the Lyceum Theatre in 1899, offering high-class vaudeville at low prices with outstanding showmanship drawing crowds. His son even devised entertainment for San Jose’s Unique Theatre, where a young Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle gained popularity, learning to mix high and low entertainment appealing to audiences. The family later opened the Unique and Novelty Theatres expanding on their initial ideas.

Sid Grauman sold the family’s Unique and Novelty Theatres in 1905 to move east and operate theaters in Scranton, Penn., and New York City, where he intended to book talent as well. Early in 1906 after disappointing results, Grauman returned to the city by the Bay to produce high-quality entertainment in the family theaters.

Like the unsinkable Molly Brown, nothing stood in the Graumans’ way. After the great 1906 earthquake and fire, father and son opened the National Tent Show Theatre on May 28, with shows combining high-class vaudeville and moving pictures and widely popular with devastated people trying to move forward. Taking over from his dad, Sid Grauman worked as managing director devising entertaining programs to lure paying audiences, combining live variety acts with short films.

A humorous look at the Egyptian in the Los Angeles Express.

Over the next decade, the family opened the lavish Imperial Theatre in 1909 decorated in what was called the Viennese style, giving an aura of class and respectability in its limited daily programs. They later opened the more luxurious Empress Theatre which shimmered like the show queen she was, with the largest electronic billboard for its time. It featured female ushers, a large orchestra offering concerts, large displays on the sidewalk, creative publicity techniques, red carpet lining the floors, establishing Sid as an imaginative and high class showman blending popular culture with fantastic entertainment that he would enlarge and perfect after arriving in Los Angeles. Starting with variety performers to introduce moving pictures, Grauman soon evolved programming highlighting themes, synergizing entertainment, and sometimes creating documentaries to further define subjects.

Sid Grauman soon devised the “Underground Chinatown” show for the massive Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, an immersive, entertaining show ahead of its time creating an exotic Chinese atmosphere, if not exactly what would be considered good taste today. Expanding their horizons, the family moved to the growing film capital of Los Angeles to construct show palaces, opening the luxurious Million Dollar Theatre in 1918 which primarily featured what would be called blockbusters or popular pictures today.

Grauman introduced artistic and atmospheric prologues enlarging on film themes or offering imaginative escape preceding the movie feature. Further expanding his policies of providing maximum entertainment at an affordable price, Grauman featured large displays on the the outdoor sidewalk, elegantly coiffed and shapely showgirls and cast members providing themed entertainment, and high-class performance of more classic arts like opera and classical music. While successful, Grauman always worked to grow his talents and opportunities as a top class producer of entertainment.

May 28, 1920, the Hollywood Citizen News trumpeted Grauman’s purchase of land at 6718 Hollywood Blvd. from T.B. Marshall to construct a first-class film theater, “as a picture palace, unique in interior and exterior appointments, and destined artistically to crown the development artistically of the domain of the Southwest in filmland.” Grauman determined to become the lead exhibitor in the new film capital, lured by real estate man Charles E. Toberman looking to make Hollywood a city of the first class.

The paper reported Grauman’s announcement that the theater would operate as a “national pre-release establishment,” which they stated as “another step toward making Los Angeles the capital of the exhibiting realm, with Hollywood offering the greatest opportunities to the public.” Grauman described it as “the most elegant of the type,” with oriental architecture predominating along with gardens, electric fountains, statuary, and a long entrance and forecourt from the street, creating a promenade. Like the Million Dollar, the theater would host a 35 piece orchestra along with a program containing “prologue, special stage acts, female ushers, short films and orchestra numbers,” along with Wurlitzer organ.

Stories the next month reported Meyer and Holler as architects and their Milwaukee Building Company as contractors for the proposed $450,000 theater. Perhaps Grauman faced fundraising issues, as it was October before stories declared construction would begin shortly, with the theater, now “Spanish type, with an oriental influence,” to feature a reflecting pool in the courtyard. Spring 1921 stories finally declared the official groundbreaking date of Saturday, May 7 at 2 p.m. for the $600,000 2000-seat playhouse. Special amenities would include men’s smoking rooms, children’s nurseries and women’s lounges.

By Oct. 18 opening day, newspapers described that soft colors in Egyptian hieroglyphic motif would decorate the first-run theater inside and out, with both heating system and air cooling system installed. The 150-foot-long tiled entrance court would feature a fountain and miniature shops on one side. Ahead of its time in promoting Egyptian style architecture and up to date with earthquake standards of the period, the Egyptian featured a sphinx and decorative busts filling the lobby and walls, with a deep red carpet with hieroglyphic borders covered the lobby. An opening spread called the ceiling as “a dome of a celestial sky..set with the myriads of blazing jewels of the heavens, in pure gold, over with radiates a colossal sunburst of golden iridescent colorful rays…” Twenty doors “of green-gold bronze” opened from the forecourt into the lobby.

Grauman would operate his Hollywood Egyptian theater more as a legitimate stage enterprise, with only two shows daily and all seats reserved, with prices ranging from 50 cents to $1 at the matinee and from 75 cents to $1.50 in the evening, similar to their previous management of theater programs. Each screening would open with an elaborate prologue with up to 100 performers and films would be accompanied by a large orchestra with furnishings decorated in “green bronze, copper and gold,”providing an elegant touch. Usherettes in Egyptian costumes seated guests and costumed guards stood watch on the roof. Larger than life exhibits and displays filled the forecourt of the theater during the full run of each special, more elaborate than any he had devised before. These lush details demonstrate Grauman’s intention to give audiences great value for their money, with the show truly starting on the sidewalk.

Grauman told The Evening Express on Oct. 14 that his mother “knew how to add harmony to the psychic dreams of her husband and bring forth their perfection of art through the medium of her son’s mind and its accomplishments.” He hoped to maintain her high quality, vowing that “the chief purpose of his life is to translate into accomplishment the inspiration he has received from those who gave him life.” The creative genius provided his special touch, designing each prologue with the same quality and attention to detail as any top Broadway production.

Thousands watched as the exotic $800,000 Egyptian Theatre opened Oct. 18 to a full house of 2,000 with Douglas Fairbanks’ romantic spectacle Robin Hood and film director Fred Niblo serving as master of ceremonies before speeches by Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer, writer Rupert Hughes, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky and Charlie Chaplin. Fairbanks and his superstar wife Mary Pickford were unable to attend, but virtually every other cast member appeared, performing in the Notthingham Castle Pageant wearing their original costumes from the film after a selection of arias from Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.

Renowned violinist and composer Jan Sofer served as first director and conductor of the Egyptian orchestra, helping introduce middle-class audiences to high-brow symphonic music. Frederick Burr Scholl acted as first organist on the theater’s massive Wurlitzer. Renowned choreographers Fanchon and Marco shaped many of the dances in Grauman’s over-the-top prologues, and such gifted designers as Erte and Adrian designed costumes once each for these spectaculars. Unfortunately, the projectionists, perhaps the true stars of the exhibition business, discovered that entering the projection booth was perhaps an afterthought, as they were forced to enter it from the roof.

Only five weeks after opening, Grauman sold half-interest in the theater to West Coast Theatres, Inc., an exhibition company, while the theater maintained his name as branding symbol to attract audiences. Grauman perhaps actually needed to sell part of his interest in order to pay back bank loans, as a copy of a syndicate funding letter with Cecil B. DeMille from 1920 states that Grauman would pay off any construction costs exceeding $250,000. One of the first to truly understand the importance of establishing a brand of quality and culture, Grauman’s name often headlined theaters for a while after he sold them off to management companies and moved on to devise ever more elaborate dreams.

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre demonstrated Hollywood’s ascension as the United States’ moviemaking capital, with the theater royally hosting epics by the industry’s top stars in the 1920s, when Hollywood Boulevard served as the West Coast version of New York’s Fifth Avenue. The Egyptian’s opening night could logically be described as Hollywood’s first premiere, with the lavish premiere night spectacular for The Big Parade in 1925 actually serving as the moviemaking capital’s official first premiere, even broadcast over the radio.

Grauman truly became Hollywood’s showman with the opening of his Egyptian Theatre, gaining prestige and power in the film town that would assist in the creation of his masterpiece, the Chinese Theatre and his participation in the building of the Roosevelt Hotel. An expert player in promoting both himself and his theaters, Grauman inaugurated publicity practices followed to this day. Grauman demonstrated the “show” of show business in luring customers to film theaters, while constructing an auditorium that remains both showplace and perfect screening room.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Architecture, Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory, Preservation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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