GRAUMAN’S CHINESE THEATER
The Most Famous Slab of Concrete in the World
It’s hard to argue against the claim that Grauman’s Chinese Theater is the world’s most famous movie house. It’s been famous since it opened in the 1920s and is probably the most-visited tourist site in Los Angeles (outside of Disneyland.) But for all that fame, hardly anybody these days knows or remembers much about the guy who gave it its name.
Sid Grauman was born in 1879 to David Grauman and his wife, Rosa Goldsmith, a pair of theatrical performers. So showbiz ran through Sid’s veins, literally and from the get-go. When he was still a young man, his father took him to Alaska to prospect for gold during the Klondike Gold Rush (late 1890s.) That plan didn’t work out so well, but Sid noticed that newspapers were scarce and could command up to a dollar a piece. Grauman told a story about a storeowner who purchased a newspaper from him for $50. The shopkeeper then read the paper aloud in his store, charging admission to local miners. Grauman Life Lesson #1: People Willingly Pay Handsomely for Entertainment.
Sid and his father began organizing events like boxing matches, which paid them well and although they didn’t strike gold, their entrepreneurial activities made them a darn sight better off than most of the prospectors. Sid’s father’s sister became ill and he left the territory to care for her, leaving Sid in Alaska for a time. His parents settled in San Francisco and Sid joined them there in 1900.
It was in San Francisco that father and son entered the theater business. Before long, they opened the Unique Theater on Market St. in which those new-fangled curiosities, motion pictures, shared the bill with vaudeville acts. They then opened the Lyceum, giving Sid a wealth of experience on how to run theaters. Grauman Life Lesson #2: More Is Better.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 put a dent in Sid’s career, but not for long. The Graumans managed to cobble together surviving remnants: a projector, some pews from a destroyed church, and housed them all in a large tent out front of which the Graumans posted a sign: “Nothing to fall on you but canvas if there is another quake.” The reassuring sign must have done the trick because it kept them going, and the years following the quake, the Grauman theatrical empire continued to grow.
By 1917, the Graumans decided to relocate to L.A. They approached Adolph Zukor (who would go on to be the owner and founder of Paramount Pictures) convincing him to buy their San Francisco theaters and also to assist them with financing their theater business in Los Angeles.
In short order, they opened the Million Dollar Theater in downtown L.A. which opened with the premiere of The Silent Man (a William S. Hart picture) on February 1, 1918. A year after opening the theater, Grauman introduced “prologues” to the bill, which were live stage presentations designed to enhance the film that would follow.
Unfortunately, Sid’s father died in 1921, before he could see the results of their next project, the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, just down from the Hollywood Hotel. This was a time when the public was captured by all things Egyptian so it seemed like a good theme to go with. (This must have seemed an especially good choice when the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered the next year, 1922.) For quite a while, it was some poor sap’s job to dress up like a pharaoh and climb onto the roof of the theater and announce to passers-by the times of the next showings.
The Egyptian opened on October 18, 1922 for the premiere of Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks. The movie had cost a then-staggering $1 million ($200,000 more than it cost to build the Egyptian itself) so the producers wanted maximum publicity for its first run. Thus, they invented a whole new concept: the ritzy Hollywood premiere. (It’s hard, these days, to imagine a Hollywood without ritzy premieres.)
With the success of the Egyptian, Sid Grauman set his sights on topping himself and, in keeping with the public fascination in that era with international themes, he chose to go Chinese.
It took 18 months and $2 million to build Sid’s greatest triumph. Authorization had to be obtained from the U.S. government to import temple bells, pagodas, stone Heaven Dogs and other artifacts from China. Poet and film director Moon Quon came from China, and under his supervision Chinese artisans created many pieces of statuary in the work area that eventually became the Forecourt of the Stars. Most of these pieces still decorate the ornate interior of the theatre today. The theater opened May 18, 1927, with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. But without an accidental mishap, it might never have become the world-famous theater it has been for much of its 80-plus years.
There have been a number of stories about how the footprints and handprints came to be a tradition at Grauman’s Chinese, most of them fabrications designed to add to the allure of the legend, such as the one most commonly quoted about actress Norma Talmadge stepping into fresh cement as she got out of her car while visiting the theater.
The true story is that Sid walked across the theater’s forecourt and was scolded by the foreman for ruining the freshly-laid cement. Sid called Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge to come to the theater at once to add to his blunder. After all, who’s going to yell at Mary Pickford, right? However, the cement was nearly dry, and the impressions were too faint. In April, just three weeks before the completion of construction, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were invited back to formally place their hand- and footprints and signatures in the center of the theater’s forecourt. A few days later, Grauman had Talmadge make similar impressions next to those made by Pickford and
Fairbanks. Knowing that the theater’s grand opening was to occur on May 18, 1927, Norma Talmadge scribbled that date above her signature instead of the actual date she made the impressions. Thus, a decades-long tradition was born which cemented (pun intended) the theater’s fame ever since. Grauman Life Lesson #3: Associate With Celebrities Whenever Possible.
Variations of the tradition started appearing, including
- the eye glasses of Harold Lloyd
- the cigar of Groucho Marx
- the magic wands of Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint
- the facial profile of John Barrymore (reflecting his nickname “The Great Profile”)
- the legs of Betty Grable
- the fist of John Wayne
- the knees of Al Jolson
- the ice skating blades of Sonja Henie
- the noses of Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope
- the hoofprints of “Tony”, the horse of Tom Mix, “Champion”, the horse of Gene Autry, and “Trigger”, the horse of Rogers
- the guns of Western stars William S. Hart and Roy Rogers
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell had their cement ceremony on the same day and wrote across the top of both squares: “Gentlemen prefer blondes!” (Not coincidentally, this was the name of the movie they both starred in which was opening the following month.) Marilyn dotted the “i” in her first name with a large rhinestone, but the gem was later chiseled out of the cement by an overzealous tourist and has since been replaced (a couple of times) with a glass chip. It is said that Marilyn proposed putting her bottom in the cement, and suggested that Jane Russell immortalize her famous top there as well but, predictably, that idea was nixed.
Of course, it helped that a very long list of movies held their premieres there. In 1939 over 10,000 spectators showed up for the world premiere of The Wizard of Oz, and in 1977, Star Wars began its ascent to the most successful motion picture to that date. In 1944, 1945, and 1946 the Academy Awards ceremonies were held at the Chinese Theatre, which is always an effective way to plant your name in the minds of the public.
In 1929, Sid Grauman sold his share to William Fox’s Fox Theatres chain, but remained as the theater’s managing director until his death in 1950. By then, his Chinese Theatre had become an icon of Hollywood and in 1968, it was declared a historic and cultural landmark in 1968. So well-known was its name that even when, in 1973, it was purchased by Ted Mann (owner of the Mann Theatres chain) and changed its official name to Mann’s Chinese Theater, hardly anybody called it that. It was Grauman’s Chinese Theater regardless of who owned it. In the wake of Mann’s 2000 bankruptcy, the theatre was sold in 2000 (to a partnership of Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures).
Thankfully, in 2002, the original name was restored to the cinema palace as it damn well should because there can only ever be one GRAUMAN’S CHINESE THEATER.