A theatrical dinner, not just popcorn - Sid Grauman

Whether you realize it or not, if shown a picture of Sid Grauman's Chinese Theater, you're almost certain to recognize it. Somewhere in hazy or not so hazy recollection you'll know there's some sort of ceremony involving hands and feet pressed in concrete that many famous movie stars undergo. The clear identification of the Chinese Theater with Hollywood and movies is a living testament to the work of Sid Grauman, a master showman who embodied the essence of Hollywood's Golden Age. It is a destination for over two million tourists yearly from all over the world, coming to share in that dream of a world where everyone is attractive, well-spoken, and the good guy almost always gets the bad guy in the end (or at least goes down in style). The Chinese Theater, by both exhibiting the luxurious roots of the film business and holding hundreds of monuments to current and past silver screen idols, is a central focal point for that sweet fantasy.

The Theater

Grauman had his start earlier in the movie promotion business. His family was its own small travelling entertainment business; following circuses across continental America and lightening the spirits of miners in Alaska. When the Gold Rush there petered out, the Graumans relocated themselves to San Francisco. They opened a vaudeville theater called the Unique in 1900 whose humble settings nevertheless attracted famous acts and loyal patrons due to strategic marketing. After seeing an early motion picture in 1902, Sid Grauman recognized the medium's vast potential and convinced his family to add movies to the theater's offerings. This proved to be a successful venture, garnering the theater still further attention until tragedy struck in 1906 with the San Francisco Earthquake.

Like the majority of buildings in the burgeoning town, the Unique was demolished by the quake. All that Grauman could salvage from the rubble was a single projector. Yet he turned this almost resounding defeat into a brilliant victory through quick wits and feverish resourcefulness. Grauman immediately crossed the bay into Oakland, obtaining a tent and film reels. Borrowing a wagon, he carried everything back to San Francisco and set up a tent theater with pews from the local collapsed church. In a hand-lettered sign above the official "Grauman's National Theater," the entertainer quipped with black humor, "Nothing to fall on you but canvas if there is another quake." Survivors flocked to the theater for an hour or two of solace from their tragic circumstances. For his services to the public morale, the San Francisco municipal government later awarded him an official commendation.

From these humble beginnings, Grauman erected a media empire unlike any Hollywood had seen before or since, the crown jewel of which was his Chinese Theater. In 1917, after the family had successfully expanded their tent theater into a line of vaudeville and movie houses around the bay area, they recognized the growing importance of Los Angeles as a center of entertainment and branched out into that city. Grauman struck a lucrative deal with Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures at the time, in which the movie studio bought his family's line of theaters in San Francisco and provided the financing for a new, gigantic theater in L.A. Initially named The Rialto, Grauman changed its title to Grauman's Million Dollar Theater. After all, he commented, "When I spend that much on a house, I want everybody to know it!" Opening on February 1, 1918, more than two thousand excited patrons were welcomed and several thousand more turned away due to limited seating.

The Million Dollar proved to continue as a lucrative enterprise long after its spectacular opening. Grauman followed it with two further lavish theaters, Grauman's Metropolitan Theater and Egyptian Theater, in 1923. By this time, he had perfected his technique of offering a "full theatrical experience," using his skill at showmanship to his full advantage in attracting movie-goers to his establishments. The theaters themselves were grandiose, filled with intricate architecture designed to embody the Age of Modernity in which Americans in the 1920s felt that had finally arrived. The seating capacities were enormous, capable of holding thousands, which presented an atmosphere of sophistication to a night at the movies. Grauman hoped to express that spending an evening with the stars of the silver screen was as cosmopolitan an activity as taking in an opera or orchestral production. Above all, however, Grauman's famous Prologues best set his theaters high above those of the competition.

To understand the Grauman Prologue, it helps to view the context of the movie industry at the time. Releases were spectacular affairs, fueled with a level of hype rivaled only by such modern movies as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace or The Matrix Reloaded. Since far fewer movies were produced, any new release was an exciting occurrence. Theaters would only play one movie for a period of weeks or months, much like having a season of performance for a theatrical drama or musical. Across the country, movie houses vied to be the first to host a new film, and focused all their energy on that particular film until they picked up a new release. Thus, to be competitive Grauman had to devise a method of uniquely suiting his theaters to each movie they played. His brilliant solution was the Prologue. A Grauman Prologue was a theatrical affair all to its self, with orchestras, elaborate sets, magnificent costumes, and casts numbering in the hundreds. A prologue would be performed before each showing of the movie, of which there would be two a day. The performance would be produced before-hand and tie directly into the movie, often with musical reinterpretations. For truly spectacular releases, the prologues could often last an hour before the film even began. Patrons of Grauman's theaters came to see the prologues as much as the movies themselves, providing Grauman with exactly the extra edge he needed to tower over his theatrical competition.

While maintaining and promoting his three already successful theaters, Grauman launched himself into the project that would prove an epoch to his career. He wasted no time in leveraging his legendary showman status to start pumping up the hype for his new theater. The groundbreaking ceremony alone was an extravaganza, employing the entire cast of one of his theater's prologues to hang banners and parade around the neighborhood in which it would be constructed. Grauman invited actors Norma Talmadge, Conrad Nagel, and Anna May Wong (for a little ethnic flavoring in concert with the theater's theme) to perform the opening ceremonies, taking the first digs with a golden shovel. From January 5, 1926, construction of the Chinese Theater began.

The architectural firm Meyer & Holler was contracted to build the Chinese Theater, with John Beckman leading its design team. After pouring over more than twenty-thousand photographs of Chinese art, architecture, costuming, and furniture, a direction was decided upon. The theater was to represent an exquisite palace from the Ming Dynasty era of Chinese history. It would not, however, authentically reproduce this style, which was judged to be too oppressive. Rather, it would be done in a Chippendale style that would approximate Ming Dynasty Chinese architecture and design. Just exotic enough to fascinate, regal enough to impress, but not foreign enough to offend.

The most eye-catching aspect of the theater's outward appearance was an immense, jade-roofed pagoda which stretched ninety feet into the sky. Ornate octagonal columns supported the edifice, which served as the main entrance to the theater. Curving around the entrance to either side were two forty-foot walls which enclosed a courtyard filled with palm trees. The gated effect these walls provided gave patrons the impression that they are crossing from the mundane world into a fantastic dream world hundreds of years into the past and thousands of miles across the world. Greeting patrons as they entered the main building were two authentic Ming Dynasty lion dog statues which Grauman had bought and imported from China. The interior began with a lavish lobby surrounded by walls painted with mythical figures and designed to look like paper screens. Beyond the lobby came the auditorium itself. The space had a seating capacity of over two thousand, including a huge balcony in which fancy private booths were also available. The centerpiece of the space was a giant chandelier of bronze designed to appear as a paper lantern. Pseudo-Chinese design dominated in every aspect, from the carpets to the seats to the stage curtains, keeping the fantasy of being in some other world in tact. The theater itself was as much a draw as the movies it showed.

After two million dollars spent in financing and a frantic year of construction, the Chinese Theater was ready to open on May 18, 1927. The opening film would be the feverishly hyped scriptural reenactment, The King of Kings. An estimated fifty thousand people packed the area around the theater in an attempt to glimpse the arrival of the celebrity patrons who packed the theater that night. Mary Pickford opened for the theater at ten o'clock, but The King of Kings did not actually begin playing until eleven. Before it came a long tableaux entitled The Glories of the Scriptures employing a cast of two hundred and personally produced by Grauman. The movie was an epic affair itself, and the audience did not leave the theater until about two a.m. Despite the long running time, The King of Kings was a massive success, the perfect beginning to the world famous Chinese Theater.

The Chinese Theater established itself as a Hollywood icon with great haste. Viewers flocked not only for its spectacular running performances and grandiose surroundings, complete with ushers costumed in elaborate mocks of Ming Dynasty theater robes, but also came to get daily parts as extras in the Grauman Prologues. Since all they really needed to do was mill about in order to lend atmosphere, every day people were picked out from a crowd at the back door according to the costume sizes they fit. The regularly paid and contracted dancers and singers would quickly guide them through the motions and let them out on stage. This frivolous excess signified the times, when America inhabited its own untouched dreamworld of pleasure and wealth that seemed to never end. Like the blissfully unaware people who visited it, the Chinese Theater would face a rude awakening at the end of the 1920s.

When the Great Depression hit, Grauman's personal fortune of six million dollars was lost in a single day. He had a chance to withdraw at least some of his investments before they entirely devalued, but because he often kept late nights he had always instructed his agents not to phone him before the afternoon. They could not reach him in time. He took it in stride, but difficult times still faced Grauman and the Chinese Theater. Throughout the Great Depression the theater was forced to close several times, though under Grauman's skillful management it always reopened. New showtimes were added, reserved seating was eliminated, promotion was toned down to reflect the more somber times, but most disappointingly to Grauman, the prologues had to go. With them went a Golden Age of Hollywood, an innocent revelry in the magic of film that would never truly return.

Post-Depression operation of the Chinese Theater was a more mundane affair. Several movie studios owned stakes in the theater, always retaining Grauman in an advisory capacity as much out of respect for him as his showmanship. The breakup of the studios under federal regulation in 1959 ended their control over the theater, which fell into the National General Corporation's possession. They sold it to Ted Mann, who invested a great deal of money into rennovation and renamed the theater to Mann's Chinese Theater, much to the chagrin of many L.A. residents. After much of the original decor was lost to various modernizing alterations such as the introduction of CinemaScope, there were concerns that the building's kitschy, but well loved architecture might be altered by later owners. The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board designated it a historic monument in 1968. Besides the introduction of modern refinements such as THX and two smaller adjacent theaters called the Chinese II and III, the Chinese Theater has remained as a glorious testament to a more fanciful time in America's history.

The Forecourt and Footprints

While the Chinese Theater itself is a visual icon for Hollywood, what attracts millions of tourists each year to its courtyard is not the datedly 'exotic' architecture, but rather the footprints of the American movie stars idolized around the world. The cement blocks within the Chinese Theater's masonry walls were inspiration for the equally renowned Hollywood Walk of Fame. They have allowed the Chinese Theater to continue as a symbol of Hollywood and the Silver Screen long after its viability as a movie house faded.

The origin of the footprint ceremony is not entirely known. It was known to involve Grauman and the actors Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, who participated in the opening ceremonies, but their accounts are contradictory. One account tells that Grauman came up with the idea after seeing someone carelessly step in wet cement as he was meeting Pickford, another says that he observed chief mason Jean W. Klossner putting his imprints in the cement at the construction site, another that he made the accidental imprint himself. Pickford insisted that she had come up with the idea after seeing her dog Zorro run across a newly poured cement driveway. Some accounts have attributed the idea to Grauman's publicist Harry Hammond. Grauman himself says that he accidentally stepped in concrete at the work site and immediately summoned Talmadge, Fairbanks, and Pickford to record their own footprints. This last version is actually unlikely; the three actors were famed for their busy and inflexible schedules and Grauman was likewise famed for spinning tall tales (being a showman, naturally). The truth of the ceremony's origins will probably remain unknown.

The overseer of the ceremonies was master mason Jean W. Klossner. Descended from a long line of French masons, he used a special chemical formula for the concrete which he guarded jealously even unto his death. It allowed the concrete to be pliable for up to twenty hours so that mistakes could be corrected if the star felt necessary, and once set the concrete proved extremely durable. An eccentric man, Klossner fancied himself the artiste, often arriving to the ceremonies in painter's robes and with a burette. He and Grauman got into several spats over the course of Klossner's service (mostly about payment), but Grauman and the managers that followed him were forced to retain Klossner until the mason's death in 1965. All non-Klossner squares always cracked. He never shared the secret of his concrete's concoction, but those that followed him could approximate it easily enough with modern synthesized chemicals.

Until his death, Grauman made all decisions concerning which stars would be allowed to make their imprints. While a significant criteria was predicted staying power, most decisions were made for promotional reasons. Stars who had new releases playing at the Chinese Theater tended to get invited to make their marks on its forecourt. After his death, a committee chosen by each subsequent owner/s of the theater would make the decision.

The Stars

Below is a full listing of the stars who had their hands (or other appendages) imprinted in the forecourt of the Chinese Theater. Following their names are the dates of their imprints and the messages (if any) they wrote.

Sources used:

Endres, Stacey and Cushman, Robert. Hollywood at Your Feet. Los Angeles: Pomegranate Press, Ltd., 1992
Recent Hollywood Events - http://www.seeing-stars.com/Calendar/CalendarPast2.shtml#Chinese

Given that this writeup is rather long, the difficulty of fully proofreading it is several times that of a normal writeup. I may have missed something. If you notice any typos, spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, or even just awkward phrasings, please by all means inform me.

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