Thursday, January 17, 2013

Grauman's - what's in a name - and Movie Palaces

Grauman’s isn’t Grauman’s anymore. One of the most famous – if not the most famous - movie theatres in the world will not be called Grauman’s Chinese Theatre anymore. As you may have heard, the naming rights to the movie palace on Hollywood Boulevard have been sold to the Chinese (at least the Chinese part is appropriate) TV maker, TCL. TCL stands for ‘The Creative Life’ the company’s slogan. The theatre with the foot- and hand-prints of movie stars in its foyer will now be known as the TCL Chinese Theatre.

This is not the first time that the theatre was known as something else. For a number of years, the theatre was part of the Mann Theatre Chain (now bankrupt and out of business) and was known as Mann’s Chinese Theatre. At least the corporate name was that of the theatre chain which was consistent with the practice that many theatre chains in the early years of the 20th Century had of naming individual theatres after the chain. There were Fox and Paramount Theatres everywhere.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The invidious move to name almost everything after corporations seems ever-present. Is there a major league sports stadium anywhere in the country that is not named for a corporation?

In Denver, for many years the local baseball team, the minor league Denver Bears played in Bears Stadium. That stadium became Mile High Stadium and the newly minted Denver Broncos began playing there in 1960. Now of course, we have Sports Authority Field because Mile High was torn down and a new stadium built. Originally, the new stadium was known as Invesco Field, named for the now failed and defunct financial services company. Ahh, the vagaries of business and naming rights in the corporate world.

We also have Coors Field where the Colorado Rockies play and the Pepsi Center home of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche. The Rockies originally played at the old Mile High and the Nuggets began life and played for many years at McNichols Arena, a swell location and facility that stood right next to Mile High. It was torn down so as not to compete with the Pepsi Center – ‘The Can’.

So it goes. Many performing arts complexes now also wear a corporate logo as arts organizations seek sources of revenue beyond grants and ticket sales, but I think it is unfortunate. I don’t mind so much when a major donor makes a significant gift and some part of a building or complex is named for the benefactor – The Sie Film Center, for instance - at least it is a person or persons.

But back to the Chinese Theatre.

Sid Grauman built the theatre in 1927. He had been successfully operating the nearby Egyptian Theatre since 1922 and wanted to expand to take advantage of the demand of patrons for movies. Grauman’s partners in the venture were silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It opened with Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The King of Kings.

Sid Grauman sold his share of the theatre to the Fox Theatre Chain in 1929 but stayed on as the managing director of the theatre until his death in 1950. The Fox Chain was owned by Willam Fox of the Fox Film Company which eventually became 20th Century Fox. Many of the Hollywood Studios had their own movie theatres.

The Egyptian and Chinese theatres wwere part of golden age of the movie palace. In the years of the early Twentieth Century grand theatres were built for the express purpose of showing movies. Many of these theatres were built in an ‘exotic’ style and named to reflect that style. The Egyptian and Chinese were typical examples.

The Egyptian Theatre is just down Hollywood Boulevard from the Chinese. The Egyptian theme and d├ęcor of the theatre was chosen because of the excitement at the time of the discoveries of ancient Egyptian artifacts such as King Tut’s tomb. There were other theatres around the U.S that mimicked the Egyptian Revival style.

The El Capitan started life in 1926 as a legitimate theatre but in 1941 Orson Welles premiered Citizen Kane there. In 1942 it was remodeled in the Art Moderne style and reopened as the Hollywood Paramount Theatre, the flagship theatre of Paramount Pictures. The theatre has been renovated and is again known as the El Capitan. It was renovated and is owned by the Walt Disney Company and is its flagship theatre.


The Pantages Theatre, also on Hollywood Boulevard opened in 1930. It was built in the Art Deco Style and operated by Fox West Coast Pictures Theatre chain. Howard Hughes acquired the theatre as part of his national RKO Studio chain of movie houses. While built as a movie theatre, it also had a live stage show capacity and is used now as a legitimate theatre. It is where I saw Richard Burton’s final performance in Camelot.

Warner Brothers Hollywood Theatre was also a grand movie palace on Hollywood Boulevard. It is no longer in use as a movie theatre but rather as a church. Opening in 1928, it did not follow the Art Deco or exotic style but a combination of styles including Renaissance Revival, Moorish and Rococo. I saw 2001, A Space Odyssey at the theatre in June of 1968.

Interestingly, the theatre building also housed the original studios of radio station KFWB (still broadcasting in L.A.) which was owned by Warner Bros. The broadcast towers were on the roof of the theatre.

The boom of movie theatres, many of them movie palaces being built in the early years of the Twentieth Century was not limited to Hollywood. They were everywhere, including Denver. But more about that later.

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