Friday, 23 September 2011

6712 Hollywood Boulevard: Sid Grauman's Egyptian Theater

(Photo by Qbans ~ February 7, 2009)
Image  courtesy of:


America's love of and fascination with ancient Egypt - known as Egyptophilia - has been shared by other countries, such as France and England, and harks back to the early part of the Nineteenth Century. The historian Blanche Linden-Ward, for one, has aptly written: “The Egyptian style captured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another ‘first civilization’ … They nicknamed the Mississippi the ‘American Nile’ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.” America's nod to the older civilization is, most tellingly, famously exemplified in  the  Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Every American holds in his or her hand a remnant of that Egyptophilia: on the back of every dollar bill, can be seen the Great Seal of the United States, featuring an abbreviated pyramid (with the radiant, all-seeing, omniscient eye of God elevated above it).

The style known as Egyptian Revival served two symbolic purposes. Firstly, ancient Egyptian motifs - like those of other ancient cultures, notably Greco-Roman art and architecture - suggest permanence, tradition and stability: the assurance of past experience and ancient wisdom summon to the contemporary mind  the solidity of well-built structures that remain standing through the ages, defying the ravages of time. Secondly, there was an opposite association with ancient Egypt: the culture’s secret, mysterious (and mystical) side, as represented by its near maniacal obsession with the hereafter. Indeed, the ancient funerary rites and rituals of the Egyptians were rigid to the point of superstition and every word uttered had powerful (and magical) connotations; every thing had its proper place and meaning - the aim of every action and utterance was to ensure the safe passage of the deceased into the presence of the gods and, from there, everlasting life. (That mysticism is evidenced in the rituals of the Freemasons, who heavily adopted Egyptian symbols; a few of America's prominent founding fathers, including George Washington, were Masons.) But Egyptomania comes in  waves - it waxes and it wanes; it ebbs and it flows at certain periods of time. America's enchantment with and attraction to Pharaohnic Egypt was not limited to the Nineteenth Century but re-ignited, anew, in the early part of the Twentieth. It would continue to resurface, as it traditionally had, in furniture, accessories and architectural detail, but also find a novel form of expression in a new genre: moving pictures.  (Source & quote: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008)

Pharaohnic head detail ~ Grauman's Egyptian Theater
(A good stylistic example of 20th Century Egyptian Revival - fused with another style, Art Deco)

Instigated by the November 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings and fueled by its dazzling artifacts, a revived Egyptomania took hold of and pervaded all aspects of design and decoration from product packaging and advertisements, automobile mascots, jewellery, fashion,  personal accoutrements, and Mummy-themed films. Film-makers were quick to capitalize on popular taste: Tut-ankh-Amen’s Eighth Wife and Tut-Tut and His Terrible Tomb, were both released in 1923.

But even before the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, the allure of the Nile had already captivated cinema audiences, and film producers obliged their demands: between 1908 and 1918, no less than five feature films about Cleopatra were made, including a reportedly steamy version starring the silent-screen star, Theda Bara in 1917. Theodosia Goodman (was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1885 and died in Los Angeles in 1955), better known to the world as the aforementioned Theda Bara” - a shortened version of Theodosia and Bara being pulled from the middle name of her Swiss grandfather, Francois Bar[r]anger de Coppet; “Theda Bara” was also an anagram for “Arab death” - was, in reality, a girl of Jewish heritage. Blonde-haired film vixens, such as Theda Bara, dyed their hair black, kohl-ed their eyes and, with the help of studio-spun publicity, fabricated stereotypically exotic tales about themselves entrenched in distant, fabled Egyptian pasts to satiate the  public's obsession with exotic glamour. (Sources: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008; Dawn, M.,, 1999)

Horus ~ detail of a wall painting at Grauman's Egyptian Theater
(Photo by lumierefl ~ July 5, 2007)
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Designed by architects Mendel Meyer and Phillip W. Holler (of the Milwaukee Building Co.) and completed in eighteen months at a cost of $800,000 (and decorated by Raymond M. Kennedy), stood Sid Grauman's new, 1,771-seat (all on one level) Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard: among the first of many Egyptian Revival style theatres in the U.S. and probably the most spectacular rendition of this new craze, a hybrid-fusion of Theban-Art Deco” architecture. Coincidentally and, perhaps, fortuitously, the opening of the Egyptian Theater preceded the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb by a mere few weeks. Coupled together, these two events would ignite a veritable vogue for Egyptian-themed theaters across America during the 1920s (the Alexandria in San Francisco; the Egyptian in De Kalb; the Isis in Aspen; the Luxor in the Bronx [and its famous United Kingdom counterpart, the Luxor Cinema theatre in Twickenham, England]; the Nile in Bakersfield - these are only a notable few among them): from Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, Milwaukee, Ogden, and all the way to Utah; in California, aside from the theatres in Bakersfield and San Francisco already mentioned, San Diego, Sacramento, Pasadena, Oakland, and Glendale—all these cities erected their own Egyptian-styled theatres. “By the end of the decade, America would claim some four dozen gaudy and elaborate, fully Egyptianized theaters.” (Sources & quote: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008;, 2011)

Sid Grauman — impresario & builder of four of Los Angeles's most notable movie palaces:
The Million Dollar Theater, the Egyptian Theater, the Metropolitan Theater, and the Chinese Theater

Difficult to believe now, but the Hollywood district of downtown Los Angeles was a quiet, rural area back in the early part of the Twentieth Century. (The prevailing joke was that a cannonball could be fired down Hollywood Boulevard any time after nine o'clock at night and never hit a soul.) It was to breathe new life into that part of town - comprised mostly of fledgling film studios and sleepy lemon orchards - that a cluster of ambitious Southern California real-estate men, intent on development, decided that what the town needed was a movie theatre to help establish the area and act as an anchor for commercial development. To this end, real estate developer Charles Toberman partnered with Sid Grauman, the flamboyant movie exhibitor, to build Hollywood’s most spectacular movie palace (Grauman had previously built one of the first movie palaces in America: the lavishly ornate, 2,345-seat Million Dollar Theater which opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1918; it was the first of four theatres that Grauman would come to build). As a local paper reported, the original idea was, at first, for something Spanish “with an oriental influence.” But as it turned out, the cost of Spanish-Oriental décor proved too costly and the concept had to be abandoned in favour of something less extravagant. To save costs, Charles Toberman, the prime mover behind the theatre's construction, suggested that  by using concrete and plaster, big stone blocks, similar to those used in ancient Egyptian architecture, could be simulated and manufactured in a relatively inexpensive and effective manner.

Sid Grauman's Egyptian Theater officially opened on the night of Wednesday, October 18th, 1922. As the venue for the world première of Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood (tickets were five dollars), it was the original, first-ever Hollywood gala night. Fittingly, the newly installed Hollywood Egyptian Theatre Symphony Orchestra played the overture from Aida, Giuseppe Verdi's opera (first performed in Cairo, Egypt, in 1871). And, as the newspaper advertisements had promised weeks in advance, “every star and director in the motion picture industry” was there: speeches were given by seasoned film-industry veterans Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky (one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures), as well as the mayor of Los Angeles. The star of the movie, Douglas Fairbanks, attended with his wife, Mary Pickford, along with a bevy of other film stars, including John Barrymore and the Talmadge sisters (Norma, Natalie, and Constance) - all of whom strode down a long red carpet, which had been laid over the theatre’s extended courtyard and flanked on either side by crowds of fawning movie fans and photographers; the throngs of people could be seen branched out in all directions of the theatre. So was born the Hollywood “Red Carpet” première. To maintain exclusivity, Robin Hood was not shown in any other Los Angeles theatre for the remainder of 1922 and continued to be screened until the first week of April 1923. The Covered Wagon was the next attraction, followed by The Ten Commandments which premiered at the theatre on December 4th, 1923. This was followed by another Douglas Fairbanks movie, The Thief of Baghdad; all these films had long runs and, in fact, Grauman’s Egyptian Theater only played four movies in its first three years of operation. Additionally, Grauman also presented an elaborate live stage show  or ‘Prologue’ with each performance of the movies. (Sources & quotes: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008; Dawn, M.,, 1999;, 2011;, 2011)

Hollywood's very first red carpet première:
Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood ~ 1922
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A 1923 postcard showing the forecourt of Grauman's Egyptian Theater, Hollywood's first movie palace.
(The Covered Wagon [1923] is advertised on the right)
Image and source: Cezar Del Valle (Theatre Posts) ~

The theatre stands on Hollywood Boulevard to this day, a bold combination of fanciful, grandiose Hollywood movie set designs (Cecil B. DeMille's famous Biblical epics come to mind), ancient architectural elements and, before the stock market crash seven years ahead on October 29th, 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression that followed,  kitschy optimism - all melded seamlessly together. That sense of fantastical Egypt can still be discerned in contemporary themed hotels and restaurants; most notably, the 1993 Luxor Hotel  (built in the form of a pyramid) and (non-stop) Casino in Las Vegas—an audacious and  direct, if albeit flashy, descendant of the Egyptian.
(Source: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008)

Part of a painted mural in the forecourt with gods, pharaohs & hieroglyphs
(Photo by David Calhoun [FranksValli] ~ August 1, 2010)
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Forecourt mural of the Egyptian Theater
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(The above three photographs are by hollywood90038 ~ March 25, 2011)
All three images are courtesy of:

Inside and out, the theatre's décor was, itself, theatrical and anything but restrained: hieroglyphs and cenotaphs; animal-headed gods and pharaohs; Anubis jackals and winged scarabs; bas-relief sphinx heads—all these motifs covered nearly every surface inch of the Egyptian. And, looming majestically above it all in the centre of the ceiling and over the theatre's proscenium, an overpowering pierced-and-gilded sun-disk through which organ music flowed into the auditorium. Nor were the theatre's restrooms spared from the Egyptian motifs prevalent throughout the theatre and featured what one critic could only describe as “fascinating Egyptian decorations done in the soft reds, blues, and yellows in which this early nation [Egypt] delighted.” The screen itself, one of the interior’s few unadorned surfaces, was framed by four, giant, heavy-set pillars, their surfaces painted and decorated in the traditional Egyptian manner of papyrus plants, and topped by a pair of massive, receding lintels. “Earlier theaters had had Egyptian elements, but this was ancient Egypt given the full, unabashed Hollywood treatment.” In 1924, Art and Archaeology declared that Grauman’s Egyptianis not made up of grotesque statues, sphinxes, pyramids, and meaningless signs in lieu of hieroglyphics, but is a replica of real Egyptian art and architecture.” (Source & quotes: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008)

Above, the enormous ceiling sunburst over the Egyptian-themed proscenium indicates the location of the organ loft, as it originally appeared in the 1920s.
Image courtesy of:

Nicknamed “Little Sunshine” by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Louis B. Mayer, Sid Grauman was one of those rare figures in Hollywood who are genuinely loved - an exception in a town famed for its fickleness. Grauman would go on to build yet a fourth movie palace of extravagant exoticism just three blocks west of the Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard - a tourist attraction and another one of Grauman's historic Hollywood landmarks - the Chinese Theater. In 1933, a Los Angeles Times columnist summed up Grauman's buildings thus: “Some think the theaters he has built and decorated are the world’s most magnificent monuments to bad taste, and others find them the most beautiful and soul-satisfying they have ever seen … Sid may go in for barbaric splendor, but, anyway, it’s splendor.” Sid Grauman died in 1950. (Source & quote: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008)


The forecourt as is it appeared in 1924
(Douglas Fairbank's 1924 movie, The Thief of Baghdad, is advertised on the right)
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Film crew in the forecourt of the Egyptian Theater ~ ca. 1926
(Photo courtesy of Jessie Rosenfeld [JBRosenfeld1991] ~

By the mid-1940s (1944, to be precise), the Egyptian Theater came under the aegis of MGM Studios and featured MGM-produced films exclusively; once again, it became a first-run premiere house. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, just as Hollywood movies were beginning to be taken seriously as an art form worth considering study and preservation for future generations, the original picture palaces, including Grauman's (and other contemporary theaters of the day), began to be razed to the ground. As was the case with the Egyptian, those theaters fortunate enough not to be demolished, had their details stripped down or painted over in an effort to modernize and update them to more current tastes of the time as well as to accommodate new audiences. (Of the forty to fifty Egyptian Revival cinema theatres erected in the 1920s, only a handful remain standing; much of their original interiors have long vanished.) For its part, in 1955, the Egyptian lost its two mammoth lintels, its two sets of painted pillars, and the pair of sphinxes that had once stood guard on the sides of the theatre; this “re-purposing” was done in order to install a large enough screen - 75 feet wide - to accommodate the Road Show presentation of Fred Zinnemann's 1955 sensational hit musical, Oklahoma! which had its presentation at the Egyptian on November 17th. Furthermore, the Egyptian’s once-painted walls were covered with yellow curtains so that all that remained visible of the original design was the sun-disk ceiling - a last reminder or glimmering hint of its once-glorious grandeur. (Sources & quotes: Handy, B., Watch Like an Egyptian,, January 29, 2008;, 2011)

Other acclaimed Hollywood movie premieres and engagements featured at the Egyptian included: South Pacific (May 21st, 1958, and was shown for more than a year); Ben Hur (November 24th, 1959 - it ran for two years); King of Kings (October 12th, 1959); Mutiny on the Bounty (November 15th, 1962); The Cardinal (December 19th, 1963); My Fair Lady (October 28th, 1964, and ran for more than a year); Hawaii (October 12th, 1966); Funny Girl (October 9th, 1968;  Funny Girl was the last of the long Road Show presentations); and The Poseidon Adventure (December 14, 1972). The World Premier (in 70mm) of Marooned was held December 12th, 1969. (Source:, 2011)

(Close-up detail of the renovated & spectacular ceiling sunburst)
The ceiling was pierced within the sunburst to allow the organ's sound to flow into the auditorium.
(Photo by Eric Gardner [Hollywood Histor Tours] ~ January 9, 2010)

Nonetheless, Grauman’s Egyptian escaped the fate of so many other theatres of its time and was restored and re-opened in 1999 after a six-year renovation. As with many neighbourhoods, areas and cities at the time, Hollywood Boulevard had experienced a decline in the 1980s and early 1990s, due mainly to an economic downturn; the Boulevard fell into disrepute and many storefronts went vacant. Then, in 1992, the Northridge earthquake caused further damage to the theatre and the Egyptian was finally closed shortly thereafter. A few months prior to the earthquake, the City of Los Angeles had purchased the theatre  so that it could be re-opened again; ownership of the theatre was transferred to the American Cinematheque - an industry-sponsored film preservation group - for the nominal price of $1.00. (From 1949 until it closed in 1992, United Artists were the operator of the Egyptian Theater. In 1969, the previous 75-foot wide screen was replaced by an even wider 90-foot curved screen. United Artists also added two small auditoriums in what had been a store on the east side rear of the theatre. During the 1970s, 20th Century Fox movies were showcased. In its last years, United Artists were operating the Egyptian as a last-run discount movie house with a $1.50 admission price.) (Sources: Warner, B.,, November 1, 1998;, 2011)


Undated ~ ca. 1940s [?]

A large curved Todd A-O screen was installed for the Roadshow engagement in 70mm of Oklahoma which had its West Coast Premiere on November 17, 1955. The installation of the huge 75-foot wide screen led to the demolition of the elaborate original Egyptian-style proscenium lintels.
Source & two images above are courtesy of:

Behind the estimated $21-million dollar restoration was American Cinemathique, which uses the refurbished Egyptian as a showplace for its year-round program of film classics, retrospectives, previews of new works, and experimental films. The renovation kept the original Egyptian exterior but added two state-of-the-art screening rooms to the interior. (The palm tree lined forecourt, for example, was restored to its original grand state.) New sound, lighting, and projection systems were installed with the intention of preserving, as closely as possible to its original condition, most of the theatre's original Egyptian-themed structural and decorative elements. A new, modern theatre was built inside the original shell. In fact, as just noted, it is two theatres in one: the main theatre, named for philanthropist Lloyd E. Ringler, is  a 616-seat area for general presentations with a 53-foot wide screen that is 27 feet in height; within the same space, a completely-enclosed 78-seat screening room named for donor Steven Spielberg, is situated downstairs for special showings to industry insiders and other selected audiences. Each theatre has its own, complete projection room (with dimming controls).
(Sources: Warner, B.,, November 1, 1998;, 2011)

The renovated stage of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater as it is today.
Images courtesy of:

In a 1998 interview, Richard Mort, project manager for Amelco Electric (an electrical company experienced in restoration projects of historic buildings and older theatres in the Los Angeles area), hinted at the difficulties posed by the historic nature of the building and was quoted as saying that the renovation of the Egyptian Theater was more challenging than usual: “We've had to route conduits without breaking walls...without disturbing any of the original construction and decorative elements, many of which are being carefully restored. In some cases, we've had to use old ventilating tunnels under the main floor for conduit routing... Even though there is a great deal of new interior construction, we've had to be particularly thorough and cautious in routing conduits without damaging many of the designated historic walls, floors or ceilings.” (Source & quote: Warner, B.,, November 1, 1998)

Entrance to Grauman's Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, California
A Western Publishing & Novelty Co. postcard showing Grauman's Egyptian Theater ~ ca. 1930s

The east wall
(Photo by Steve Minor)

(Photo by Wieland Van Dijk [lamagordo] ~ September 15, 2011)
The above image is courtesy of:


The replicated & restored lanterns of Grauman's Egyptian Theater
(The above two photographs are by lumierefl ~ July 5, 2007)
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(Photo by Alan M. Pavlik  ~ August 18, 2009)

(Photo by Mary [marypcb] ~ October 4, 2009)

The somewhat dusty pair of sentinel Anubis jackals on watch

Part of the painted ceiling - detail
(The two photos above are by Loren Javier ~ August 9, 2009)

The Box Office
(Photo by Derick Snow [snoweyes] ~ February 28, 2010)
The above five images are courtesy of:


Other examples of Egyptian Revival cinema theatres

Vista Theater - Los Angeles, California

Above, the Box Office of the Vista Theater

The Vista Theater screen
(At 4473 Sunset Drive, Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles)
The four images above are courtesy of:

The Egyptian Theatre - DeKalb, Illinois
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The ticket box office of Peery's Egyptian Theater

Detail of the painted ceiling of Peery's Egyptian Theater
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Alexandria Theater - San Francisco, California
(Photo by David Paul Morris / Special to The Chronicle)
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(Photographs by Robby Virus ~ November 25, 2009)
The above two images are courtesy of:

The Egyptian Theater - Boise, Idaho

(Photo by Greg Sims ~ March 14, 2007)

Exterior architectural detail
(Photo by Jenny Horning [jennyray1] ~ January 3, 2010)

(Photo by Scott Scriven [scottscriven] ~ May 31, 2009)
The above three images are courtesy of:

The above three images are courtesy of:

Column detail
(Photo above by Jenny Horning [jennyray1] ~ January 3, 2010)

(Photo above by mattypantaloons ~ August 18, 2010)

(Photo above by Jenny Horning [jennyray1] ~ January 3, 2010)

The Proscenium

Scarab detail over the Proscenium
(The two photos above are by mattypantaloons ~ August 18, 2010)
The above five images are courtesy of:


Egyptian motifs courtesy of:

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