Chinese Theater @ 85
At any given hour on any given day, a show is going on at Grauman’s Chinese: an ever-flowing stream of tourists and locals looking to grab a piece of Hollywood.
Young and old, representing every demographic, most don’t care what’s playing because they won’t be buying a ticket. They’re on a pilgrimage to a temple, celebrating romance — their own lifelong romance with the movies.
Glamour is everywhere. On one typical morning, a group of Florida high school girls is taking photos of each other next to the handprints and footprints of the “Twilight” cast. But there’s no less excitement a few yards away, as two young Japanese tourists peer down and tug at each other’s sleeves: “Oooh, look, it’s Jimmy Stewart!” Click!
For director of tours Levi Tinker, the patchwork layout is “a mishmash of greatness that opens people to notice more. They’ll say, ‘I came to see Robert Downey Jr. But who’s Anne Baxter?'”
The blend of forgotten stars and current A-listers is integral to the forecourt’s intoxicating air. Says Universal’s senior VP of special projects Hollace Davids: “You can’t not feel the impact of being in a space with the footprints and all the history, and knowing that ‘King Kong’ premiered there.”
From gaudy decor to lush interior, the house is an enduring monument to visionary entrepreneur Sid Grauman, whom Variety dubbed “genius and world’s greatest picture house showman” at its opening 85 years ago.
That unique pagoda-roofed facade quickly became as instant an identifier for Hollywood as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris. An “I Love Lucy” souvenir hunt for John Wayne’s block only “cemented” worldwide recognition of the house’s iconic status.
Admits producer (and current co-leaseholder) Elie Samaha, “Before I was in the film business, when I came to California, it’s the first place I went, to see the hand and footprints.”
A year before his death in 1950, Grauman received a special Oscar for showmanship, still the only one ever presented to an exhibitor. In the years following the theater’s debut, not everyone was instantly enamored of his Asian fusion.
But the line between kitsch and classic gradually dissolves. Today, nothing announces a first-class premiere like a closed-down Hollywood Boulevard, with a red carpet leading up to the house’s authentic Ming Dynasty “lucky dog” statues.
Enthuses WB’s president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman: “We like the location, lots of seats, good presentation, and a lot of party places nearby we can walk to. It’s a win-win for us.”
If anything is the enemy of high showmanship these days, it’s economics. Fellman concedes “a single screen has to be really well booked” to sustain itself in the multiplex era, though he professes confidence in the showplace’s new management.
If the Chinese ceased exhibition, he says, “It would be a sad day for L.A., but I don’t see that in the cards.”
It’s a fair point. Is it the destiny of Grauman’s showplace eventually to go the way of Gotham’s Roxy, the one-time “cathedral of the movies” razed for a parking lot? Or countless coast-to-coast picture palaces now housing fitness centers and shoe stores?
The wear-and-tear of fandom has polished some celebrity blocks nearly to oblivion; the Marx Bros. in particular are fading away.
Management is pondering removing some for preservation’s sake, but there’s sure to be a hue and cry if fans can no longer stand in Groucho’s footprints — or those of the Harry Potter cast after they’ve weathered for 80 years or so.
And the tradition of the gala premiere is likely to continue, if only to satisfy moviemakers’ own demand for magic. As Davids puts it, “We try to make the dreams of our filmmakers come true. When someone calls up their mom and says ‘Mom, my premiere is at the Chinese!,’ that’s a big, big thing. It’s not like, ‘My premiere is at the AMC 5 down the block.'”
Chinese Theater endures and thrives | From the archives | New toppers polishing Sid’s jewel | Secrets of the Chinese