It is a moody, damp Sunday morning, yet another day of what I’ve been told is May Grey and June Gloom. I walk through Hollywood, amazed as usual by the mixture of bedraggled homeless people and preppy Gen-Xers walking their dogs.
I am going on a behind the scenes tour of my new favorite theatre, the Egyptian. I wait in the main auditorium with five or so other people. They reminisce quietly with one another about going to movies in the old days with five cents for candy. They complain about the new days of overpriced concession stand items and violent slasher films. I am decades younger than even the most youthful of attendees here, but I find myself nodding along.
I look up at the grand and awe-inspiring ceiling. A giant relief sunburst against a teal blue sky covers most of it. Red, green and blue keep the gold from being too glitzy, and a giant winged scarab sits below it. Having always loved the mystery and splendor of ancient Egypt, I can’t get enough of it. Even if your tastes fall elsewhere, you can’t help but gasp.
We meet our tour guide, Mark Simon. He is a volunteer docent for American Cinematheque, the organization that owns and operates the Egyptian and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. As we walk through the theatre, he gives us an abridged (and yet in depth) history of the theatre.
The Egyptian was built in 1922 (replacing the lemon grove that grew there), right when the film industry really started picking up speed. In 1921, Nickelodeon theatres made 91 million dollars – that’s a lot of nickels. Eighty-four percent of international film production took place in Los Angeles at the time, though mostly downtown.
This was Hollywood’s first movie palace, and took 18 months to build.
The Egyptian opened on October 22, 1922 with the premiere of “Robin Hood,” and soon became the prestige theatre. Irving Thalberg took Norma Shearer to the opening of “The Gold Rush” on their first date. “Don Juan” launched its run here, and was the premiere of sound in all of California. Howard Hughes demanded that Grauman produce the premiere of his film “Hell’s Angels,” which was the largest premiere to date. Fans and attendees numbered up to 250,000, and was the inspiration for the final scene in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locusts.
Sid Grauman, visionary and showman extraordinaire, is the man behind the magic (thought Raymond Kennedy was the architect). He had originally made his money in San Francisco, but was lured to Los Angeles. He built the Million Dollar Theatre (still standing downtown) in 1918. He also built the Metropolitan at the same time as the Egyptian, which is still the largest theatre in California to date. It sits 2000 people. He also went on to open the Chinese Theatre down the road (a Kennedy design as well). As our guide said, the Chinese was the theatre for “quantity” (films being shown) and the Egyptian was known for the “prestige.”
The most hands on of bosses, Grauman ran the Egyptian for five years and only showed blockbusters. He made sure that the silent films were accompanied by a 25-30 piece orchestra. He was the national spokesperson for Wurlitzer organs, and had one in the Egyptian He was a pioneer in the use of klieg lights, using them to draw attention to the premiere events. Props from films filled the courtyard, and he hired extras from the films to appear in costume and often perform in opening pageants (staged by Grauman himself).
Mike Todd later bought the theatre, but sold it to United Artists. UA owned it for several years, but ended up selling it to the Community Reorganization group, who held on to it for several years, not having the funds to do much with it. With the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, the rush to restore it began. Homeless people had been squatting in the building and there was significant water damage. Community Reorganization sold it to the American Cinematheque for a single dollar, with the promise that the group would begin preservation efforts.
The firm of Hodgetts & Fung designed the project – “a preservation of surfaces.” While there was significant restoration, they focused on updating the theatre for the modern day while keeping as much of the structure and design as it once was. The sound system can be seen a few feet in front of the walls, in an effort to preserve them. The sunburst relief is the complete original, though the years of tar from cigarettes had to be cleaned away. The planters in the courtyard are new. The storefronts (which sold Egyptian tchotchkes for a mere two years) remain. Some of the original tile in the outside walls still remains, as does the fountain (though it no longer works). One of the lamps is also original, though, in a funny turn of events, no one knows which one. The Foundry apparently did such a good job restoring one and creating new ones, that we will probably never know which light is authentic.
Our guide described the theatre as “basically a big movie set.” There are false doors and stairs that lead to nowhere. A Bedouin guard would pace the roof announcing show times. The hieroglyphics mean nothing, but feature characters like Tutmoses being guided by the gods. My personal favorite is the border above the concession stand – it looks like the pharaohs ware watching movies, but they are really watching dancers and listening to music being performed. Many people think the choice of design was due to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb that very year – however, Howard Carter’s great discovery happened five weeks after the theatre opened.
Behind the scenes, we got to see some original furniture from the ladies’ room, and a mold that had been used for some of the decorative elements. I was allowed to stand in the singer’s box, where a performer would sing above the audience as they took their seats. We met with Paul Rayton, one of the projectionists. His technical knowledge of film is astounding, and you’ll be missing out if you don’t talk to him one of these days.
As our guide speaks about the downfall of Hollywood and the theatres in the area, I wonder if it is divine coincidence that I moved to this town just as it began to get cleaned up again. I’ve been on quite the screenings kick, going to any old movies that I can. To be able to see them in the authentic theatres is thrilling. The Egyptian, which seats 250 people today, has allowed me to experience early film noir and David Lean epics better than ever before. For a taste of old Hollywood, check the theatre out – and definitely go on the tour some morning. Even if you’re not crazy about anything pre-1990, you will find yourself feeling like a part of a time gone by.
The tour, which is followed by a screening of Forever Hollywood, is $10. For more information, and to purchase tickets in advance, visit the American Cinematheque at http://www.americancinematheque.com.