Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Show Starts on the Sidewalk

In February of 1919, the Los Angeles Times described "a line of men and women four abreast, extending along the west side of Broadway from Third street to Fifth and beyond."

It was the opening crowd for what the paper called "the handsomest motion-picture theatre in the world." The theatre had cost a million dollars to build - unheard of in those days - and although it was known as Grauman's Theatre, named for impressario D.J. Grauman and his son Sidney, people informally called it the Million Dollar Theatre. The name stuck. In 1924 it was officially renamed.

Between 1914 and 1922, four thousand new movie theatres were built in America. Grauman's was the first of the real movie palaces - no restrained Beaux Arts theatre this; it was designed to immerse the audience in a fantasy world. The exterior of the building, a twelve-story office tower designed by Albert C. Martin, was a fantastically elaborate Churriguereque structure crawling with ornamentation.

1918 photo from the opening, showing the orchestra and the tented front portal

Inside the theatre itself, designer William Lee Woollett mixed up architectural styles in a chaotic, kaleidoscopic mash-up that one reviewer in an architectural journal described as

a wild riot of color, the effect of which is so gorgeous, so voluptuous, so suffused with the magic of Pagan beauty that you almost feel blowing in your face "Sabean odors from the spicy shores of Araby the blest."

The figure at the crown of the proscenium arch

Society columnist Grace Kingsley in the Los Angeles Times quite candidly describes how unusual the new theatre was compared to established venues:

Remember the picture houses we used to attend only four short years ago? Dark smelly little holes in the wall, most of them, at the door of which a mechanical orchestrion ground out a dreary round of tunes which didn't pretend to have any relation whatever to the picture or its theme... and where seats on the sawdust-covered aisle were much sought by the tobacco-chewing fraternity.

Historic postcard of Clune's Broadway, built in 1910

Kingley goes on:

The moment you step out of the work-a-day world into the outer foyer the charm of the place is upon you. There, lining either side wall, are two immense mural paintings in pastel shades but of heroic design. Then there's the handsome lobby, from which lead wide stairways to the mezzanine, which is heavily carpeted and which yields visions of tapestries, statuary and mural painting in bold and brilliant design.
The stairways to the mezzanine today

To walk through the doors was to walk into another world. And it took movies to another level as an art form. The new motion picture theatres, said one writer in the Los Angeles Times, would be "homes of art."

It certainly was a well-appointed and comfortable home for art. The theatre had two restrooms and a retiring room for ladies on the mezzanine - providing, as the Los Angeles Times said, "every comfort dear to the feminine heart' - and a gentlemen's smoking lounge in the basement.

Standing at the edge of the stage, looking up at the proscenium arch and the coffered ceiling.

The auditorium's coffered ceiling was painted in brilliant colors with silver and gold, and the lighting scheme was the latest technology:
by means of great scintillators so placed as to throw streams of light on the gold and silver surface of the central dome, the entire house will be made radiant without the use of a glove in the ceiling. Theses scintillators will cast broad rays of light in colors, alternating blue, white, red and softer shades in the bright inner cone and the dull-toned rosettes of the dome.
On the exterior, Sid Grauman used searchlights to play on the architectural features of the building. It inspired excitement and drew crowds and made an impression even on those who didn't attend the show.

Sid Grauman and his New York rival, Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel, pioneered the idea of creating a theatrical spectacle to enhance the showing of a silent film. He devised the Prologue, a program that introduced the feature film with song, music, slide shows and spectacle related to the theme of the film.

An advertisement describing the program at Grauman's

The production was supported by a live orchestra of some 20 - 30 musicians, live singers and dancers, slide shows, and corps of costumed usherettes.

A typical program at what was then called Grauman's Third Street Theatre looked like this one from November 15, 1919:
  • Overture - "Oberon"
  • Current Events - special number compiled from all releases
  • Strips - San Pedro, California, Dustin Farnum wins motor boat race; Oakland, California, Wild Teal Flock above the Bay City; New York, Roosevelt Memorial Appeal, New York; in the City of Wonderful Nights, Washington D.C.; War Department reviews heros.
  • Vocal - "The Last Rose of Summer" Solo by Lucy Merz, soprano
  • Organ Solo - "Melody in F" A demonstration of how one theme can be used to play for an entire photoplay encore is being featured
  • Special - Miss Carolina Sunshine with hand lettered black and white slides projecting words of the song. Stage setting interior of a blacksmith shop with vocal duo accompanied by the orchestra and electric hammers on anvils. Encore number "The Vamp."
  • Scene - "Midst Peaceful Scenes" - Post Paramount
  • Comedy - "Up in Ali's Place" - Mack Sennett
  • Feature - "Luck in Pawn" - Dorothy Gish
  • Next Week - "Crooked Straight"
  • Note - Usual Grauman business on Sunday opening with long waiting lines. Special spectacle will be staged next week in which thirty Grauman usherettes will take part.
1918 view, Los Angeles Public Library, showing full stage with stage set and orchestra

Actor Laurence Tibbet got his first job singing in the Prologue at the Million Dollar Theatre. In this autobiography, he wrote that he sang dressed as a blacksmith, hitting a prop anvil with a prop hammer, and singing about shoeing horses. He was paid $50 a week. He writes that the theatre was "equipped with the latest gimcracks" including a huge orchestra platform that arose on an elevator.

The theatre was equipped with a first rate Wurlizter organ, and when people came in, the organ would be playing. One organist, Gaylord Carter, in a later oral history, related the instruction give to him by the theatre manager was to "perfume the air with music."

Sid Grauman also coordinated co-marketing campaigns. The Owl Drug Store, which occupied one of the retail spaces in the building, would concoct a soda-fountain treat to tie in with the feature at the theatre - like the Frederick sundae named after actress Pauline Frederick.

Detail from street view, 1920's, USC Digital Archive. Click to "embiggen"

Grauman had the advantage of being located in Los Angeles, so he could easily invite the Hollywood stars to attend his premieres and amplify the spectacle. Audiences would thrill at the chance to see a Charlie Chaplin alight from his limousine and stride a red carpet into the theatre - and have a chance to see the film with Charlie Chaplin actually sitting a few rows away!

With the success of the theatre at Third Street, Grauman went on the built the Rialto, further down Broadway, then the magnificent Metropolitan on Hill Street. In 1922 he made plans for a theatre further west in Hollywood - designed in the Egyptian style popularized by the recent discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb. In 1926 another Hollywood theatre followed, this one designed in the Chinese style.

Grauman was an imaginative man, a gambler and a great practical joker. Perhaps this creative streak led him to see an opportunity in what might have been a forgotten accident during construction - while at the construction site, Grauman claims he stepped into soft concrete in the courtyard. It gave him an idea. Hollywood legend is a little more glamorous - star Norma Talmadge is said to have taken the first misstep, starting the tradition. At the theatre's opening, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks made their footprints and autographs.

Sid Grauman

Grauman and Rothafel sold the public the idea that a ticket bought more than the chance to see a strip of celluloid run through a projector. It bought an entire experience - spectacle, music, color, the comfort of the latest in climate control, and the thrill of being served by uniformed attendants.

Truth be told, the film itself may have been the least interesting element. Grauman himself, in an essay published in 1922, says:
The world of motion pictures is silent as the craters on the moon and colorless as pencil drawings on white paper. The element of color is absent; and perhaps permanently absent from picture presentation; but the element of sound can be controlled by music. Music wakes into life the silences of the picture plot; it covers up the weaknesses – or better still it converts those silences into and eloquence beyond the power of words to attempt
In Chicago, theatre owners Balaban & Katz tried the same ideas, and described their philosophy so:
We cannot afford to build up a patronage depending entirely on the drawing power of our feature films as we display them. We must build in the minds of our audience that we represent an institution taking a vital part in the formation of the character of the community.
Yet another theatrical mogul, Marcus Loew famously said, "We sell tickets to theatres, not tickets to movies."

Grauman's success paved the way for a younger Los Angeles man, theatrical architect S. Charles Lee, who would go on to design the Tower Theatre and the Los Angeles Theatre - the 1931 Los Angeles being the last of Broadway's movie palaces.

Lee's unofficial motto was "The Show Starts on the Sidewalk."

Sid must have loved it. He certainly lived it.


Anonymous said...

I love this: to "perfume the air with music."
In the days of black and white, and silent film, I can imagine the rich experience that these palaces provided for the people.

There was a theater in the town where I grew up that had the richly designed red carpet and plush seats. In my memory, the floors are always sticky and some of the seats are broken, but the air of elegance still remained.

Sadly, it wasn't long before it was subdivided into 3 separate movie-viewing rooms and the experience was gone.

Tristan Robin said...

oh, how lovely that on my first day of making blog-rounds after my autumnal blog hiatus, I find a (not unexpectedly!) MARVELOUS post about vintage glamor and beauty and excess! ... all things near and dear to my heart!

Hope all is well in your world and that you're looking forward to an enchanting holiday!


Lawrence Tibbett was from my town - Bakersfield. My father in law owned his house on 21st & Pine for some time. Small world.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Lee's unofficial motto was "The Show Starts on the Sidewalk."

And another option for date night was born.

Wonderful writing, Aunt Snow.