Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown
Sid Grauman & His Theatres
When the TCL Chinese Theatre opened in 1927 it was known as Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and some older Angelenos still call it such. Directly opposite, across the Walk of Fame, is the El Capitan Theatre, now owned by Disney, but when it opened in 1926 it was a Broadway style theatre that was part-owned by Grauman too. A block East is the magnificent Egyptian Theatre, which was the first great movie palace in Hollywood when it opened in 1922, and was also owned by Grauman. Sid Grauman played a huge role in the mythologizing of Hollywood, he was the master showman who was partly responsible for elevating the early movie stars into the pantheon of American royalty. The forecourt at the Chinese Theatre, with its hand and foot prints of Hollywood’s finest, is the U.S. version of Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. It’s a rare place, hallowed ground, where we too can make a connection with the ancient legends of celluloid. So, let’s take a look at this giant of Golden Age Hollywood.
In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) bio of Sid Grauman, and then tell you the history of the four theatres that he operated which are still standing. Each one has a unique story, that illustrates beautifully the life of their former owner.
Who was Sid Grauman?
Sid Grauman was born in Indianapolis in 1879, the only son of David and Rosa, Jewish performers on the vaudeville circuit. However, by 1897 the teenager was living in Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon, where his parents were looking to make their fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. Two things happened there that would go on to have a profound effect on him. Firstly, he watched his first ever moving picture in the small nickelodeon and, secondly, he saw for himself the huge financial potential of entertainment.
In later life he would often tell the story of a time when, running a small newsstand in the rambunctious ramshackle Gold Rush town, he sold a newspaper to a man who owned a saloon for the incredible sum of $50. The saloonkeeper then charged miners in the town an admission price to sit in the bar and listen to him read the news to them. The smart businessman made several hundred dollars in profit from the enterprise and young Grauman never forgot his lesson in seeing the big picture – he could have read the paper to the audience himself and made a fortune!
History hasn’t recorded whether he met Alexander Pantages, the other great Los Angeles theatrical impresario, who was running a brothel in Dawson City at the time (and making his first great fortune), but it seems very likely, the town wasn’t that big. Either way, they both seem to have come to similar conclusions about the money that could be made from live entertainment.
By 1899 the Gold Rush in Dawson City was over and the Grauman’s were moving South to San Francisco. Within a few years they were running a couple of theatres there, showing a mix of moving pictures and vaudeville, but by 1906 their fortunes were on the wane as they lost control of both of them just before the mighty earthquake of that year struck.
After the Great Fire of San Francisco had been extinguished it must have seemed at first that there was no way back for them, all the theatres in the city were gone. But Sid managed to rescue a film projector from the ruins. The Graumans further procured a big tent from an Evangelist preacher in Oakland and some pews from a destroyed church, and with those three elements only they created a new theatre on the site of his old one. Outside was a sign:
Nothing to fall on you but canvas if there is another quake!
It was a massive success and within a few years the Grauman family were at the top of the San Francisco entertainment scene, running no less than three theatres on Market Street, including the then largest in the city, the Empress. The Graumans soon began to experiment with mixed programs of flickers (movies) and ‘live flesh’ shows (meaning live theatrical), a typical evening consisting of seven one reel films and seven vaudeville acts.
It was during this period that Sid made the acquaintance of a young actor from London, Charlie Chaplin, who was appearing on his stage and became a lifelong friend. Another actor he became friends with in this period was Fatty Arbuckle, and in fact it was at Grauman’s office that Arbuckle surrendered to the police, when he was arrested by them in connection to the famous scandal.
He even dabbled in filmmaking himself, producing a documentary about the Barbary Coast neighborhood just as the dance halls, gambling joints and bars there were being closed down.
During the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 the Graumans created a large exhibit called Underground Chinatown, a representation of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was close to the new Republic of China’s own pavilion. The Grauman’s concession was accused of perpetrating racial stereotypes of the Chinese (such as opium smokers and sing-sing girls), but Sid’s interest in China likely dates from this time.
By 1917 the Graumans were looking at moving operations down to Los Angeles, as SF’s Southern competitor began to pull ahead of it, fueled by the relocation of many people and businesses there after the Great Fire of 1906, the discovery of huge oilfields below it and the explosion of the burgeoning film industry during the 1910’s. In 1918 the Grauman family opened the magnificent Million Dollar Theatre on the corner of Broadway and Third Street, the first great movie palace in the city, and soon Sid would be almost as famous as his film star friends.
The Four Grauman Theatres in Los Angeles
Four of the five theatres that Sid Grauman once operated in LA are still going and can be visited by the public. Two of them have regular programs of movies and entertainment, one has screenings several times a month and one is currently closed for renovations, but normally has a full program of screenings, film festivals and other events (since it’s run by the American Cinematheque).
1. THE MILLION DOLLAR THEATRE
The first theatre to be built by the Grauman’s in LA was this magnificent theatre in downtown’s Broadway Theatre District, seating the most patrons of any of them (at that time almost 2,500). It was one of the first movie palaces in the U.S., palatial theatres that had a large stage which was suitable for live shows, but which were intended primarily for movies.
One of Sid Grauman’s big inventions were his prologues – live shows, with dancers, singers, a full orchestra and sometimes comedians and other novelty acts. Often the prologue was in a style suitable to the movie being shown in the program, but at other times they were a whole separate show. For this reason the Million Dollar Theatre, so named for its fantastic price tag, had a full size stage and orchestra pit. This fact helps explain its remarkable longevity as an entertainment venue.
The Million Dollar opened on November 26, 1917, with the premiere of The Silent Man, a Paramount Studios western, and cinema goers, witnessing the beautiful new theatre, were awestruck. The Spanish Baroque/Churrigueresque exterior and office tower above were designed by Albert C. Martin, founder of today’s A.C. Martin architecture firm and by Spanish sculptor Joseph Mora, who created the whimsical, historic and fantastical designs on the façade.
As patrons entered the theatre they would have been awed by the enormous, lavish, murals (with 24CT gold leaf), that covered the interior and were designed by the theatre’s architect, William Lee Woollett. The pictures told the story of The King of the Golden River, an environmental parable by John Ruskin, since Sid’s vision was that the theatre itself would tell a story.
David Grauman died in 1921 and Sid decided to invest heavily in a new theatre he was building in Hollywood itself (which would become the Egyptian Theatre), so he sold the Million Dollar the following year. Nevertheless the theatre’s story was only just beginning. In the 1930’s there was a refit, when it closed for nearly two years and business seems to have steadily declined. However its luck began to change with the Second World War, as the stage at the Million Dollar Theatre enabled it to find a new use as a venue for Jazz concerts.
With around 150,000 African Americans arriving to work at newly opened defense industry factories in Southern California – and many neighborhoods being red-lined and unavailable for housing them – nearby Little Tokyo became home to a huge African American population, its previous Japanese American residents having been relocated to concentration camps in 1942. For a time the neighborhood became known as Bronzeville.
The factory workers living there had a significant disposable income for entertainment, but were unwelcome at white suburban theaters. However the Broadway entertainment strip was within easy walking distance from Little Tokyo/Bronzeville – especially its northernmost outpost, the Million Dollar Theatre. It was returned to use as a venue for live entertainment, which was news enough in the entertainment industry to prompt newspaper articles in places as far away as Pittsburgh. Top-notch acts of the day were booked to grace the stage, including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday, the Nat King Cole Trio and Cab Calloway.
By 1950 many of Little Tokyo’s Japanese Americans were returning and its African American residents were relocating to the South Bay. So what did The Million Dollar Theatre do now? It adapted itself to a new influx of arrivals and became a Spanish-language movie theatre, returning to its early format, offering first-run films and variety acts (in this case mostly Mexican). Cantinflas himself appeared on the Million Dollar stage during those years. The burgeoning Latino population in the area kept the theatre running successfully until 1993, when a church organization leased the theatre, again finding an apt use for its stage, for its religious services.
What of the Million Dollar Theatre now? The offices above the theatre have long since been turned into loft apartments (back in 1999). There are regular screenings and events at the theatre and I don’t feel too concerned about whether the Million Dollar will find a way to survive and stay relevant into its second century of existence. It always has.
Sid’s other downtown venue, Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre on Pershing Square, was the largest movie palace ever built in Los Angeles, with an incredible 3,600 seats (including 2,000 on its balcony). It opened in January 1923 with an event that apparently drew 30,000 people, but Sid had sold it by 1924. The Metropolitan had no live stage unfortunately and, ultimately, it would be demolished in 1961 to make way for an office building.
2. THE EGYPTIAN THEATRE
The next Sid Grauman theatre was the first one that he developed without his father, and was also his first in Hollywood itself. It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Egyptian Theatre had on Hollywood, meaning the neighborhood and the industry. For its grand opening on October 18, 1922, it hosted the first ever red carpet premiere for the historical epic Robin Hood, starring Sid’s good friend Douglas Fairbanks. Red carpets were previously reserved for the coronations of monarchs, but this event marked the birth of a new royalty, the ‘A-list’ Hollywood superstar. The theatre, with its iconic fantastical design, was also a huge influence on one of its young patrons, Walt Disney (there is a replica of it at Disneyland).
Interestingly, the original design for the theatre was completely different – it was Spanish Mission, not faux Egyptian. That was a popular style in Southern California at the time, but Sid decided to capitalize on the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was making newspaper headlines around the world. That’s why the roof tiles on the Egyptian are a mis-match with the rest of the theatre, Sid had already bought them for the previous design and he wasn’t going to waste his money, so they had to be worked into the new masterplan!
Funnily enough Sid was once again ahead of the game, as King Tut’s tomb wasn’t discovered until a month after the Egyptian Theatre opened. But either way it kicked off a new craze for Egyptology, with many elements of Ancient Egyptian design being worked into the new architectural style that was becoming all the rage, Art Deco, such as chevrons and sunbursts.
The Egyptian Theatre was the first movie palace in Hollywood, so it quickly became the prime venue for the new event that Sid Grauman had invented, the red-carpet movie premiere. The forecourt was perfect for hosting them and was regularly called into action for such events during those years. Before then films cycled in and out of theaters according to local popularity, but movie studios quickly realized the benefits of this special event and the enormous publicity that it could generate for their products, with a public eager for any glimpse of a real movie star. To understand how relevant that is, even today, consider that during the actors strike in 2023 the Hollywood studios preferred not to release any movies, because the stars are unable to walk the red-carpet during a labor dispute.
When film-goers arrived at the Egyptian they would be able to enjoy a show-before-the-show in the forecourt, with fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, jugglers and other entertainers doing their thing. Once they entered the temple like structure they wouldn’t just grab some popcorn and hurry into the auditorium, they would take their seats for the prologue, a Las Vegas type show, with massed ranks of dancing girls, a full orchestra and often circus elements.
All of these features helped justify the high prices at the Egyptian, where a ticket could cost as much as a then-incredible $1.50! Nevertheless business was good for its first three years, when the theatre only showed four movies during that entire time – Robin Hood, The Covered Wagon, The Ten Commandments and The Thief of Baghdad.
By 1927 Sid’s interest had turned to another theatre he was about to open just two blocks East, at Hollywood and Highland, and he sold his interest in the theatre to Fox West Coast Theatres (part of Twentieth Century Fox Studios). The Egyptian Theatre then passed through the hands of two other major Hollywood Studios – MGM and United Artists – before the American Cinematheque bought the theatre for $1 in 1998. And then spent $15 million fixing up the by-then rundown property.
In 2020 the new-Hollywood-Studio-kid-on-the-block, Netflix, bought the Egyptian and began a program of renovations to return it to its original design. At the time of writing it is still closed, but it’s due to reopen in 2023. If you visit, be sure to pop-in to Musso & Frank Grill, almost right opposite. It’s been the top Hollywood eatery to the stars for over a hundred years.
3. EL CAPITAN THEATRE
Sid Grauman collaborated with his partner on the Egyptian Theatre project, Charles Toberman, for what was at the time the largest ‘legit’ theatre in Hollywood, with almost 1,500 seats. The opening production at El Capitan was a play starring the great Gertrude Lawrence, in May 1926. Other famous actors to have enjoyed using its seven luxury backstage dressing rooms included such luminaries as Clark Gable, Buster Keaton, Joan Fontaine, Jackie Cooper, Henry Fonda and Rita Hayworth.
By 1937 Sid had long since sold his interest in El Capitan and it was converted into a movie theatre. Just a few years later, in 1941, it hosted the world premiere of Citizen Kane – mainly because no other theatre owner in Los Angeles would screen the movie, since they were so afraid of being sued by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate the movie was “allegedly” based upon.
Later El Capitan was owned by Paramount Studios, before coming into the possession of another Hollywood (industry) behemoth, The Walt Disney Company, its current owners. There was a plan to divide the theatre in half and create two more modern auditoriums out of the one, but when work on the conversion commenced it was found that many of the original features were still there, hidden away beneath an unsympathetic 1942 remodel. Therefore the plan was changed and Disney spent $6 million restoring El Capitan to its original glory (with modern seating, affording the slightly larger modern American a more comfortable chair), which is how you can see it now. As such it has a menu of Disney films, as well as hosting premieres and other theatrical events.
4. THE TCL CHINESE THEATRE
The last theatre to be built by Sid Grauman is far and away his most famous. Opening on May 18, 1927 the theatre was called Grauman’s Chinese Theatre at the time (until 1973 and from 2001 to 2013). Why use a Chinese style for the the theatre? It’s highly likely there were different factors at work. Sid’s life as a young man in San Francisco, where the concept of adding Chinese flourishes and elements was invented, was undoubtedly a key element, but it was also just a continuation of his desire for a sense of exoticism. Movie theatres were to be places of fantasy, where we could leave our normal, pathetic, insignificant lives behind, and enter a new world.
New Chinese American star Anna May Wong put the first rivet into the steel structure of the new theatre (completing her personal journey from nearby Bunker Hill to the very heart of Hollywood) and a buyer was despatched to China, where several artifacts and statues were bought to adorn the facade and can be seen to this day (the Heaven Dogs are Ming Dynasty). The interior of the theatre was lavish in the extreme and seated almost 2,000 patrons on a single rake. As usual with Grauman’s theatres, there was a full sized stage, in order to facilitate his famous prologues.
Of course the Chinese Theatre is most famous now for the hand and footprints of famous people in the entertainment business, primarily those working in the movie industry. The very first celebrity to have their feet immortalized in this way was Norma Talmadge, a huge silent movie star – that you’ve almost certainly never heard of – who was the lead in The King of Kings, a biblical epic which opened the theatre.
The story goes that Talmadge accidentally trod in some still-wet concrete when walking up to the theatre for the premiere. Sid, ever the consummate showman, realized that this was some kind of sword from the stone moment and decreed that from that moment forth celebrities would be so commemorated. That, at this new temple to the Hollywood Gods, we would literally worship at the feet of these deities.
And so it has continued down the ages to this day…
Except that Sid told at least four different versions of this story during his lifetime – and he should have known the truth. It’s my opinion, to add a fifth theory into the mix, that while visiting his good friend Chaplin, whose film studio was only a couple of blocks South of the Chinese on La Brea, he saw a concrete impression Chaplin had made of his own feet at the entrance. To back my theory up I can point out that Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford gave impressions of their feet a month before Talmadge and it wasn’t accidental – as you can see in the photo below.
But seriously, who cares? Divine intervention or a PR genius recognizing gold when he saw concrete, it was still Sid that did it. Usually there are several unveilings every month which you can attend, more information here. There are about two hundred celebrities to be commemorated in the forecourt. Including a ton of people you have heard of.
The benefits of his always insisting on having a good-sized stage were once again realized in the 1940’s, when the theatre hosted the Oscars several times (1944-6). It was also the first theatre in the world to have true air-conditioning.
The Chinese Theatre quickly became the theatre to hold Hollywood film premieres and its fame spread far and wide. When Sid retired in 1930, Howard Hughes persuaded him to come back to organize the premiere of his new movie, Hells Angels. Soon Sid was back in his front office, running the theatre, which he did until his death.
The Chinese is still an extremely popular place to have movie premieres. Famous films to open there include Raiders of the Lost Ark, all the Star Wars films and Titanic. The theatre interior was restored a few years ago to its original design and is a magnificent place to watch a feature film, there are also six other screens in a multiplex addition, inside next door Ovation Hollywood. The auditorium now holds just under a thousand seats and has one of the biggest IMAX screens in the world. In 2013 TCL (Theatre China Ltd, a Chinese cinema chain) purchased the theatre’s naming rights – so now it really is a Chinese Theatre, or more accurately a Chinese Chinese Theatre.
Sid Grauman’s Legacy
Since 1921 Sid had lived at the glamorous Ambassador Hotel, which was home to the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, frequent venue of the Oscars Ceremony. However, perhaps feeling the end was near, Sid moved into Cedars Sinai Hospital for the last six months of his life, although he only slept there and would go out every day from morning to night.
When Sid died in 1950 it was reported in newspapers all over the world. He was – and is – referred to as Hollywood’s Showman and he’s one of the best examples of that special quality that Los Angeles seemingly has to inspire people here to reimagine the world. To dream – and to make those dreams literally reality. There is a full size recreation of the Chinese Theatre at Disney World in Florida and it’s a fitting tribute from one showman to another, acknowledging the debt that Walt owed to Sid’s inspiration.
I feel sure that when Sid reached the Pearly Gates a red carpet had been rolled out in his honor.
This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.
We visit all of Sid Grauman’s theatres (and several others) on our LA in a Day tour, which starts in Hollywood at 10 am daily.
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