A Brief Egyptian Theatre History

& Other Interesting Related Facts

 

Charles E. Toberman developed the Egyptian in 1922 with impresario Sid Grauman. The renovation by the American Cinematheque will be completed in December 1998.

 

The theatre originally cost $800,000 to build and took 18 months. The renovation cost $12.9 million.

 

Architects Meyer & Holler designed the Egyptian Theatre. The Milwaukee Building Company built it. Architects Hodgetts + Fung were the project architects for the renovation. Turner Construction is the contractor.

 

The address 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, now the site of the Egyptian Theatre, was once the address of Gilbert F. Stevenson and his wife. In 1903, Stevenson, the Secretary and General Manager of the Western Masons Mutual Life Insurance Association, moved from downtown Los Angeles to a five acre lemon ranch on the corner of Prospect (now Hollywood Boulevard) and Dakota (now McCadden Place) Avenues.

 

Between 1910 and 1920 the population of Hollywood increased from 5,000 to 36,000, while agriculture was practically abandoned, being replaced by business and high-class residences, bungalow courts and apartments. Today’s population is 281,000 (according to a 1993 census).

 

Charles E. Toberman, arguably the most important real estate developer in Hollywood in 1920, was looking for someone to bring a grand, first class motion picture theatre – like those prevalent in the downtown area -- to Hollywood. No one was more noted for this kind of extravagance than Sid Grauman, who, within just a few short years in Los Angeles (he migrated from San Francisco), had built the deluxe, downtown Los Angeles movie palaces, the Million Dollar, the Rialto and the Metropolitan (completed around the time Toberman approached him about building in Hollywood). Grauman agreed to come to Hollywood and Toberman acquired the 6712 Hollywood Boulevard site from his old lodge buddy, Stevenson, who had left his lemon ranch for the Miramar Hotel (which he owned) in Santa Monica. The many Hollywood structures Toberman is responsible for include the El Capitan; Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, all built in 1926, and all still standing today.

 

King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in Egypt on November 26, 1922 and an Egyptian craze swept the nation.

 

The four massive columns that mark the theatre’s main entrance are 4 feet wide and rise twenty feet. On the roof, an actor attired as an Egyptian guard, marched back and forth across the roof parapet with a rifle in hand – calling out the start of each performance.

 

The original seating capacity of the theatre was close to 2,071 in a 115 by 125 foot auditorium. The renovated Egyptian will have a seating capacity of 650 in the Lloyd E. Rigler theatre and there will be an 83-seat capacity in the Steven Spielberg theatre.

 

Sid Grauman built a 30 by 73 foot stage to accommodate the elaborate prologues that proceeded film presentations. The prologue prior to Cecil B. DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS featured over 100 costumed performers including "players seen in their identical roles in the flesh and blood." Each prologue was advertised as more incredible and spectacular than the last. Grauman reportedly oversaw every detail himself.

 

The courtyard of the Egyptian is 45 feet wide and 150 feet long. The store fronts along the east side of the courtyard were described as having an "Oriental motif" and apparently sold imports. This space will operate as a single restaurant when the theatre re-opens. pigwhistle.GIF (51176 bytes)On the west side, the Pig ‘n Whistle restaurant, which opened on July 22, 1927 and operated until the late 1940s, had a side entrance onto the Egyptian Theatre courtyard. A small tiled area featuring the "pig ‘n whistle" motif still exists in the courtyard on the west wall near the fountain. The elegant restaurant was built by architects Morgan, Walls & Clements and was featured in a 1928 issue of Architectural Digest. The interior of Pig ‘n Whistle can still be enjoyed today. The proprietors of Miceli’s Italian Restaurant (located on Las Palmas on the east side of the Egyptian), bought and relocated the elaborate interior in 1949. The tile pictured here was discovered during the renovation of the Egyptian Theatre. It was scraped of paint and tar and left on display with the original ironwork that was once part of a soda fountain that opened onto the courtyard. The yellow arrow points to the whimisical motif on the tile depicting a pig playing a whistle. The restaurant's facade was restored in January 2000. Restaurateur Chris Breed (The Sunset Room) is planning to re-open (after over 50 years) the restaurant under the name Pig 'n Whistle in March 2001. He has lovingly restored the ceiling friezes and found enough tile (in the basement) like that pictured here to use throughout the restaurant.  It looks like he'd have a hard time buying back the original interior from Miceli's which is very much still in business (the oldest Italian Restaurant in Hollywood and one of the oldest period in LA). A few of the wooden appliques with the same image still exist and can be seen at Miceli's. Pig 'n Whistle will be a full service restaurant and bar open daily. Photo: Juan Tallo.

 

Ventilation in the theatre was provided by a system of "fans, motors and air washers. Air is drawn through an intake sixty feet high which is designed to resemble Cleopatra’s Needle. The projection room includes two Powers projecting machines, three spotlights, a Power triple dissolver, a Westinghouse generator and an Enterprise automatic rewind for films. The cost of the equipment is reported to have been $6,000." (As reported in the Los Angeles Sunday Times.)

 

The first film to open at the Egyptian was ROBIN HOOD starring Douglas Fairbanks. The Grand Opening Premiere was on Wednesday, October 18, 1922. The film reportedly cost over one million dollars. Grauman selected the Egyptian opera Aida as the overture. Jan Stofer led the Hollywood Egyptian Orchestra.

 

Tickets were $5.00 for the premiere of ROBIN HOOD. One could reserve a seat up to two weeks in advance for the daily performances. Evening admission was $.75, $1.00 or $1.50. The film was not shown in any other Los Angeles theater that year.

 

At the dedication ceremonies those who spoke congratulated Sid Grauman on the theatre. Some of the luminaries in the audience were Cecil B. DeMille, Charlie Chaplin and Jesse L. Lasky. Master showman Sid Grauman did not make speeches. Fred Niblo was his spokesperson and master of ceremonies for the dedication. Some excerpts from their speeches gleaned from The Hollywood Daily Citizen, Thursday, October 19, 1922 read:

 

"This night is a most auspicious one for Los Angeles, but it is still more auspicious for Hollywood. It marks Hollywood’s advent from the status of a small town to a city of metropolitan importance, where world premieres are shown." -- George L. Eastman, then president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce

 

"I want to congratulate him [Grauman] upon his business sagacity in coming into this community. "…for the people of Los Angeles are proud of Hollywood. We are proud of Hollywood and her beautiful homes; we are proud of her culture; and we are proud of her civic enterprise. May her future be filled with success – and success and all prosperity to Sid Grauman." -- George Cryer, Mayor of Los Angeles

 

When THE TEN COMMANDMENTS premiered in December 4, 1923, it was the first premiere at the Egyptian in nine months. THE COVERED WAGON ran at the Egyptian in between the premieres of ROBIN HOOD and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Ads for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS read "This will be the most brilliant opening in the history of openings the world over. The society Event of all time!!" The George M. Cohan Theater in New York was the only other theater in the world to show THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in its opening months. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS cost $1.4 million, but was very successful and grossed $4 million. The history of this film’s production and release and that of TITANIC bear remarkable resemblance, including the fact that the film featured state-of-the-art special effects for its day.

 

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was filmed in the Nipomo Dunes, 170 miles north of Los Angeles near the town of Guadalupe. The sets were made of plaster, wire , concrete and wood and in typical DeMille style, were enormous. Gates reached 110 feet and Pharaoh statues were a grandiose 35 feet high. Trying to save money, DeMille buried sets from the film rather than dismantling them and removing them as his contract prescribed. Over the past 15 years, set pieces have been excavated by a group of filmmakers and historians and will be displayed at the vintage premiere on December 4, 1998!

 

Grauman left the Egyptian in 1927 to reign at the new Chinese Theater across the street. The last feature to be presented under Grauman’s direction was TOPSY AND EVA starring Rosetta and Vivian Duncan who appeared on stage during its engagement. Following Grauman’s departure, Fox West Coast Theatres leased the Egyptian as a re-run house through the Depression and the early years of World War II. In 1944 the theatre was chosen by MGM as its exclusive Hollywood showcase and made a comeback to full glory.

 

In the late ‘40s and ‘50s, the Egyptian, along with all the large movie palaces in the nation, underwent many renovations in an effort to lure the public away from their television sets and back to the theaters. Large screens and visual and sound gimmicks were popular additions. Modernization of the Egyptian included a new marquee, sign, box office and a complete renovation of the charming courtyard entrance. The Egyptian got a new, massive curved Todd A-O screen in 1955 for the road show engagement of OKLAHOMA! To install the new screen, the entire stage was demolished, the pillars sphinxes and proscenium arch with Egyptian hieroglyphics were all removed. Wall-to-wall yellow drapes now covered almost the entire auditorium.

 

From 1955 to 1968, the Egyptian returned to its original roots as a theater that provided long run reserved seat road shows. SOUTH PACIFIC ran for more than a year, the colossal BEN-HUR opened in 1959 and sustained an incredible two year engagement. MY FAIR LADY (1964) also ran for more than a year and finally FUNNY GIRL, in 1968 was the last of the long run road shows, and the last of the big star-studded premiere at the Egyptian.

 

In a 1983 article in Hollywood Studio Magazine, Mike Hughes wrote of the Egyptian: "A survivor of the decay that unfortunately characterizes the Hollywood Boulevard of today, the Egyptian is a reminder of the glamour that once made the Boulevard famous. Perhaps through the dedicated efforts of such citizens as Bruce Torrence, author of Hollywood: The First 100 Years and grandson of Mr. Charles Toberman, who built the Egyptian, the Hollywood Boulevard of yesteryear will reappear some great day in the future. When that happens, the Egyptian Theatre, jewel that it is, will be there to herald in the new age of film town."

 

United Artists was the last owner of the Egyptian Theatre before it closed in 1992. The American Cinematheque purchased the theatre from the city for $1 with the provision that this historical landmark would be restored to its original grandeur and re-opened as a movie theatre showcasing the organizations celebrated, public programming.