From “The King of Kings” to “The Northman,” hundreds of films have premiered within the storied walls of the TCL Chinese Theatre, which celebrates its 95th anniversary May 18.
Indeed, as early as 1933, the famed movie house appeared in other media as a boilerplate for how a premiere should, and often does, look like. Since then, the theater played itself in dozens of television shows and movies, some of which went on to debut on its iconic screen. The forecourt holds the signatures and imprints of concrete immortalization.
The former Grauman’s Chinese Theatre will fete its 95 years by launching a full year of programming, while also navigating premieres for first-run films and special events including the annual TCM Film Festival. It repertory programming was scheduled both in the big house and at its sister location, the TCL Chinese 6.
“We’re going to be having screenings of seminal movies that have played or opened at the Chinese Theatre over the years,” says Levi Tinker, a 22-year veteran of the theater who serves as its operations manager and historian. “We’re also trying to work together on some panels with some of the celebrities that have had a relationship with the theater over the years as well. And later on this summer for Marilyn Monroe’s birthday, we’re going to be working on doing a film festival in celebration of her.”
Following the 1922 opening of the Egyptian Theatre just a few blocks down Hollywood Boulevard, owner Sid Grauman contracted its designer, the firm Meyer & Holler, to create a second theater inspired by Chinese architecture.
Cecil B. DeMille was the first to bow a film there in 1927 with “King of Kings.” Subsequent benchmarks were accompanied by technological breakthroughs, exemplifying the venue’s commitment to the most cutting-edge presentation possible.
In 1930, the Chinese offered a version of 70mm, dubbed Fox Grandeur, with John Wayne’s “The Big Trail”; and added Cinemascope in 1953 for Henry Koster’s “The Robe”; George Lucas’s THX audio certification process in 1983 with “Return of the Jedi”; digital projection in 1999 for “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”; an IMAX screen in 2013 that’s one of the biggest in the Northern hemisphere, thanks to an extensive renovation (with “The Wizard of Oz,” the film’s second time to premiere in the theater); and 4K laser projection with “Furious 7.”
In front of its pagoda exterior are hand and foot impressions of 334 industry luminaries.
“You really have to be among the best in your field to get invited to be placed out there,” Tinker says. “There’s a committee that handles the selection process now, and it’s the same basic criteria as Sid would use when selecting who he invited out there — which was their impact in the movie industry.”
Although there’s more than one alleged origin story for the tradition, Tinker echoes the theater’s official account crediting actor Norma Talmadge for inspiring it after accidentally stepping in wet concrete. He also suggests that the ceremony’s exclusivity offers theater guests a unique spotlight on talent not only important enough to be honored, but also to be remembered among Hollywood’s most impactful and influential.
“People love coming out there and standing literally in the feet of the people who entertain them from when they were kids until adults,” Tinker adds.
Steven Spielberg recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” at the TCM Classic Film Festival with a screening in IMAX 4K.
“When Sid built the Chinese Theatre 95 years ago, he really went out and created something very special. All of that together, combined with the great programing that we’ve continued to have over 95 years, is why people love coming to experience movies at the TCL Chinese Theatre so much,” Tinker says.