The term “Hollywood” conjures myriad images — many of them contradictory. But before Hollywood was a state of mind or a brickbat, it was a place. Not much remains of the original Hollywood now, but a few landmarks still command respect, even reverence. Among the oldest is the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Less storied and glamorous than the Chinese, its younger sibling a few blocks west, it almost didn’t live to celebrate its 85th birthday this month.
Yet about a decade ago, some determined and enterprising folks decided the save the then-bedraggled Egyptian, preserving it as the oldest functioning cinema on Hollywood Boulevard. Not a commercial house, it instead serves as the locus of the American Cinematheque.
The Egyptian, though, has twice served a much less heralded purpose, spurring development in Hollywood. When it opened in 1922, the theater proved an instant destination. Designed inside and out to resemble something from ancient Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, it evoked whimsy and even grandeur in a place that lacked both.
“It was a popular joke back then that you could fire a cannonball down Hollywood Boulevard and not hit anyone after 9 p.m.,” remarks Margot Gerber, a 15-year employee of the Cinematheque and the founder of its docent tours at the Egyptian. “I have newspaper articles and books supporting the idea that in the late teens there wasn’t a lot of activity in the Hollywood area.”
Gerber maintains that the Egyptian proved a catalyst for the neighborhood, especially once Sid Grauman, who built the theater, persuaded studios to hold premieres there. The theater opened on Oct. 18, 1922, with “Robin Hood,” starring Douglas Fairbanks. It was Hollywood’s first premiere.
In the 1950s, the Egyptian was outfitted for widescreen productions, and movies like “Oklahoma!” (1955), “Ben-Hur” (1959) and “My Fair Lady” (1964) opened there. But “Funny Girl” in 1968 was the theater’s last big premiere. From there, both it and Hollywood fell into precipitous decline. The theater became a UA property and remained so until the city of Los Angeles purchased the crumbling structure in the early 1990s. By then, the Egyptian was in real danger of falling to the wrecking ball.
But a funny thing happened as a new life began to take shape for the theater. Its resurgence seemed to buoy Hollywood’s fortunes. After the Cinematheque’s purchase of the structure and its lauded $15 million renovation was completed in the fall of 1998, people started to return to Hollywood.
The Egyptian’s overhaul has been central to that process. “The Cinematheque’s success represents the expansion of revitalization from the Hollywood & Highland complex eastward, all the way to Vine Street,” Sarah MacPherson, operations director for the nonprofit Hollywood Entertainment District. “The Egyptian is a gem within our district.”