A behind-the-scenes visit to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (known as TCL Chinese Theatre since 2013) is a not-to-miss opportunity. These tours are sponsored by the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (LAHTF) and give access to aspects of the theatre not seen by the everyday visitor.
“Movie palace” is an accurate term for a building like this. The theater underwent a major renovation in 2001. Six additional theaters were added, and the main theater returned to its former glory. Today it is a first-run movie theater just waiting for the next elegant premiere or waiting to showcase the next summer blockbuster movie to its capacity audience of 1600 people.
Chinese Theatre Built in 1927
The theatre was first built in 1927 and while developers put up a good deal of the money those who fronted for the investment were showman Sid Grauman who partnered with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and the head of United Artists, Joseph Schenck. (Schenck and his brother were immigrants who began their businesses by building the Palisades Amusement Park above the Hudson River in New York. Joseph then moved West to go into the theatre business.)
The Chinese Theatre is famous for its courtyard featuring footprints-of-the-famous in cement. This tradition began on opening day with Pickford and Fairbanks sinking their hands and feet into cement; they were joined by Norma Talmadge, a popular silent screen star and wife of Joseph Schenck.
Movie Palaces Built with Back-Up Plan
Theatre owners built these movie palaces with a back-up plan, our tour guide pointed out. During the 1920s, they feared that silent films might be a passing fancy, and so they built the theatres with various entertainments (beyond the films). A huge organ was important for entertainment before the film, but the organist was also expected to provide live accompaniment as the silent film went along. Sometimes an orchestral score was written to accompany the film. In that case, as many as one hundred musicians could sit in the orchestra pit.
They also built stages with plenty of wing space, a green room, and dressing rooms for the stars. If films ever fell out of favor, the palaces could be used for live theater.
Chinese Theatre Offered Many Options
The entertainments at these theatres were planned to fill an entire evening. Though there were usually matinee showings, the 8 p.m. show was a full extravaganza.
People dressed for the occasion. Some of the theatres had art galleries, and most had small rooms for soloists or string quartets to perform until the show began. If a couple brought their children, they could be dropped off in the children’s room where nannies would keep track of them for the evening.
Grauman Introduces the Premiere
The movie premiere was first introduced by Sid Grauman in 1922, at the Egyptian Theater, another one of his venues. That first premiere was for Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood.
Films were shorter at that time, so Grauman developed the concept of the Prologue—an extravagant stage show that was a warm-up act for the film.
In 1927, the opening of the Chinese Theatre was the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. The only problem was that Grauman’s prologue dominate the evening. The prologue, “Glories of the Scriptures,” featured 100 performers accompanied by an orchestra of 65.
The reel for King of Kings finally began at 11:15 p.m. DeMille was not happy. His film ran a full 155-minutes so he knew the late start would hurt audience reaction.
According to our guide, DeMille never again premiered a film at the Chinese.
Last summer I wrote a little more about the movie palaces and the amenities offered at these theatres. To read more about these showplaces click here.
Joseph Schenck and his brother Nicholas began business with the Palisades Amusement Park; J