By Ronald Haver
Sidney Patrick Grauman broke ground for his Chinese Theatre on April 10, 1926. He did it with the customary flair for showmanship which had become his chief claim to fame. Norma Talmadge, "That Star of Stars," turned the first spade-full of earth with a gold-plated shovel before an enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers, dignitaries, and the complete cast (150) from Grauman's Prologue to THE BIG PARADE, which, coincidentally, was playing at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre.
One year, one month and nine days later (May 19, 1927), the doors of the Grauman conception of a Chinese Theatre were opened to an eager public. The headline of the day was a quote from President Coolidge in which he envisioned a "better world for all of us," and predicted that the Unites States was "on the threshold of an era of right living." Further information was not forthcoming, but Grauman must have been impressed, as the quote popped up in the opening day ad for the theatre, exhorting the public to be patient, that eventually everyone would have access to the "resplendent new jewel in Hollywood's Theatrical Crown." One patron did not heed the admonition, and in his eagerness to be allowed entry, caned an usher, breaking two ribs and puncturing a lung. The night before, on the 18th, the creme de la creme of Hollywood had turned out to see what Sid had wrought. The evening was a spectacular three-way affair; Grauman, DeMille and Christ, in that order. Grauman, taking no chances, opened his spectacular new showcase with Cecil B. DeMille's mammoth THE KING OF KINGS. Originally scheduled for 8:30, the picture was preceded by a program devised by Grauman, the highlights of which were Fred Niblo (director of BEN-HUR), presenting D. W. Griffith, who presented Will Hays, who in turn presented Mary Pickford ("America's Most Beloved Star"), who pressed a jade button which formally began the evening's stage performance, reverently titled "Glories of the Scriptures."
The prologue (and every film in all of Grauman's various houses had a prologue) took place in "The Meeting Place of the Populace," and consisted of "The Twilight Players of the Common People"; "The Dance of the Ebony Slave," which was a solo by Maurice Morgan; "The Chant of the Israelite High Priests"; and "The Holy City," sung by Stewart Brady, boy soprano. Costumes were by Adrian, music by the Bakaleinkoff Brothers and blessing by God, indirectly, it was hoped. Everything was lovingly supervised by Sid Grauman. It was a terrific show. And long.
THE KING OF KINGS, which had been almost forgotten in the oratory and on-stage spectacle, finally went on the screen at 11:00 p.m., and unreeled for three hours at which point a groggily furious DeMille staggered out of the theatre and vowed never to premiere another film in Hollywood.
Grauman's flair for unusual publicity had been with him since his earliest days. "Lighting the burden of the toil-worn members of the human race who seek relaxation in opera chairs" had been his motto ever since San Francisco had been leveled by the 1906 quake, demolishing in the process the Unique Theatre owned by Grauman Sr. Son Sidney promptly put up a tent show with the reassuring sign, "Nothing to Fall on You Except Canvas in Case of Earthquake." While the Graumans were entertaining in San Francisco, Hollywood was overnight becoming the center of the infant movie industry. Accompanying one of their shows to Los Angeles, father and son decided their future lay with the rapidly growing film business. Selling their San Francisco interests, they used the proceeds to build their first theatre in Los Angeles, aptly named "The Million Dollar." In rapid succession, they added the downtown Rialto; sold both of them to finance the Metropolitan, and in turn, sold it to finance the lavish Egyptian, which, as Grauman proudly boasted, was based on the architecture of ancient Thebes.
"Little Sunshine," as he was known to his chums, was short, enthusiastic, and imaginative, and he was soon on intimate terms with most of Hollywood's elite; at the Egyptian he staged the first dual premiere when he presented Mary Pickford's SPARROWS and Douglas Fairbanks' THE BLACK PIRATE, both with appropriate prologues. The opening attraction, Fairbanks' ROBIN HOOD, had played for six months, and THE BIG PARADE had topped that by running almost a year. And that was the rub, as far as Grauman was concerned. Once a film was launched, there was little for him to do. Energetic to an extreme, he impatiently waited for his next opportunity to dazzle the city with one of his prologues. He definitely needed another theatre to play with.
With backing supplied by movie magnate Joseph M. Schenck; C. E. Toberman, "realtor to the stars" and, quietly, Doug and Mary, Grauman set forth to outdo even himself. That he succeeded was apparent to everyone that May night as the 2,000 hand-picked guests were ushered through the theatre. They were goggle-eyed at the "bronze square-cut Pagoda roof, 90 feet above the forecourt, aged the color of green jade, underlaid by two immense piers of coral red. Beneath the piers . . . a great stone dragon, and in front of the dragon, a bronze statue symbolizing the human genius of poetry and drama while surrounding flames suggest the ever-burning fires of dramatic fancy and creation."
The auditorium itself was no less unique, having "an overhead doily 60 feet in diameter, entwined with silver dragons in relief, bordered by a circle of gold medallions. Extending to the sidewalls are a myriad of panels, each representing some fanciful scene of Chinese antiquity. From the center is suspended a gigantic chandelier in the form of a colossal round lantern. The auditorium is of flame color with a jade green shade to relieve the warmth. Simulating the twin doors of a lacquered cabinet, the fireproof curtain of the stage depicts a mimic Chinese world against a peacock blue background."
Grauman was a stickler for details. Even the theatre stationary had a Chinese legend to the effect that "portals to the theatre are the long sought-for portals to paradise." On the parapet above the forecourt, he stationed Chinese sentries, one of whom, Doo Yuen Wong, is the father of present-day assistant manager Gar Wong. Another member of the 1971 staff, Bee Hunter, has made a career of the Chinese, having been with it in various capacities since the opening night, when she was a dancer in the prologue. Longevity of employment seems to be unique with the Chinese. The chief projectionist, Harry Mills, has put in more than 30 years of service; he was there when Grauman put on his last stage show, in 1938, the unique feature of which was the two nude chorus girls who stood absolutely motionless, spotlighted at each side of the stage, for the 40-minute length of the program. Recalls Mills, "They did that every day, three times a day, for almost a month. Everything was alright as long as they didn't move. The police department had a man here to make sure they didn't. Even if one eyelash moved, they would have closed the show as an obscene performance. We all waited, but those girls were amazing. Not a single flicker. Grauman was nervous. Hell, we were all nervous. But nothing happened."
The prologues fell by the wayside, a victim of double bills and high costs. Grauman had to seek other ways of satisfying his creative urges.
He commissioned a series of "life-like" wax figures to be placed in the lobby of his "Temple of the Cinema." Supposedly representations of famous Chinese figures of the past, they were actually modeled by Anna May Wong, her sister Lulu, and a former Mayor of New York City's Chinatown.
But Grauman's most enduring feat (no pun intended) was the utilization of footprints of the famous in the forecourt of the theatre. The story, as he told it many times, was that Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped into a wet block of cement while visiting the theatre during construction, leaving her footprint, and giving Grauman an inspiration. The actuality is much more roundabout. The company retained to do the cement work on the theatre, Rudolf Liebold, Inc., had in its employ one Jean W. Klossner. Members of his family had been masons for centuries, as far back as the construction of Notre Dame. The signature of a mason on his work is a handprint, which Klossner was in the process of leaving when Grauman questioned him as to why. Showman that he was, Grauman realized immediately the beauty of the idea, and appropriated it, with embellishments, for the forecourt. The problem with putting handprints in cement is getting to the right consistency. Klossner devised a recipe, jealously guarded, which was first tried out by his daughter, Joan of Arc Klossner Rowe. Her footprints were there on the former curb, near the souvenir shop, until 1965, when they were supplanted by "The Walk of Fame."
Klossner was something of an eccentric. He kept the formula for the cement in code in a safe. Three days were necessary for the preparation of the chemicals, and on the night of the event he would arrive in a flowing artists robe and a beret to vie with Grauman for the spotlight. Eight times he and the impresario had a falling out, usually over Klossner's fee, and once, in October of 1938, Grauman called in another cement artist to immortalize Jean Hersholt. Three weeks after the event, the cement crumbled into pieces, and it was not until 1949 that Dr. Christian was once again visible in the forecourt. Klossner was as methodical in his own way as Grauman. "Each finger must be pressed into the cement with the same pressure and then the wrist. The foot must be rolled around so the edges of the shoe make an impression."
There is a rumor to the effect that in the dead of night, certain footprints have mysteriously disappeared. A spokesman for National General, the present operators of the theatre, denies this, but the footprints of Charles Chaplin, put down in 1928, have quietly vanished and nobody seems to know how.
Sid Grauman died in 1951; but the theatre which bears his name is still the only tangible monument to the fabled past of Hollywood. It is fitting that it should house this First Los Angeles International Film Exposition. Believing as he did in the future of Hollywood and its film industry, Mr. Garuman would be pleased.