TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood turns 90 today

Updated May 18, 2017 - 10:28 am

LOS ANGELES — “King Kong” made his cinematic debut there in 1933.There was a yellow “brick” carpet when the “Wizard of Oz” premiered in 1939. George Lucas brought R2-D2 and C-3PO along for the premiere of “Star Wars” in 1977, and the two droids left their marks in the cement out front.

A glamorous symbol of Hollywood’s golden age, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is turning 90. Now known as the TCL Chinese Theatre, the landmark movie palace first opened on May 18, 1927, and it’s been hosting movies, stars and fans ever since.

“It’s still the most amazing theater,” Cher said at a recent premiere. “I remember coming here (when) I was very small… It was so magical.”

Sid Grauman’s masterpiece movie house stands on a bustling corner of Hollywood Boulevard, next door to the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars are now presented and across the street from the historic Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Oscar ceremony was held in 1929. Like a Hollywood take on a Chinese temple, it boasts a pagoda-shaped roof and ornate marble carvings, with a cement forecourt filled with celebrity footprints.

The theater still hosts dozens of premieres each year and its famous footprint forecourt draws an estimated five million tourists annually from around the world — many of whom don’t realize they can actually go inside and see a movie.

“Occasionally you’ll get the tourist that comes up and asks for a restaurant reservation,” said Levi Tinker, the theater’s general manager and staff historian.

Ticket prices have climbed a bit, though. It cost 75 cents to see a feature in 1927. An IMAX 3-D screening today runs $22.75.

A showman and entrepreneur, Grauman started building the Chinese Theatre in 1926, the same year he and other Hollywood titans established the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He imagined an elegant and otherworldly movie palace that would transport visitors to ancient China, with its serene gardens and regal temples.

“He really wanted to give the audiences who came inside here an escape from reality,” Tinker said. “So he spared no expense in getting the best artists, the best designers, and even importing elements from China.”

Grauman commissioned original murals and paintings by international artists with Hollywood connections. He hired a Chinese sculptor to make statues and figures that still decorate the auditorium. He sought permission from the American and Chinese governments to bring in marble and other materials from China, including the “Heaven Dogs” statues that sit at the theater’s front doors. Most of the original 1927 artwork has been preserved, Tinker said.

The theater’s best-known element, the footprint collection officially known as the “Forecourt of the Stars,” wasn’t part of the original plan.

Silent film star Norma Talmadge came to see Grauman at his new building on Hollywood Boulevard when she accidentally stepped in the wet cement out front. Inspiration struck: Grauman thought a few celebrity footprints would be a great way to promote his new theater.

He invited his friends and business partners Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to intentionally put their hands and feet in wet cement, and the tradition was born. More than 300 actors, directors and producers have since followed suit. “Alien: Covenant” director Ridley Scott added his prints just this week.

Those footprints are what made Grauman’s Chinese Theatre a sensation, said Marc Wanamaker, a historian with the Hollywood Heritage Museum.

“It was something special, mainly because of the footprints in the forecourt and the attention around the ceremonies,” he said. “No other theater in Los Angeles had this kind of attraction.”

The city of Los Angeles declared the theater a historic-cultural monument in 1968.

While the building and the forecourt are historic, the projection technology inside has been continually updated to stay on the cutting edge and keep attracting studio premieres, said Alwyn Hight Kushner, the theater’s president and chief operating officer.

“Chances are the filmmaker has actually been at this theater — in the seat you might be sitting in — to perfect the presentation of his film,” she said.

The auditorium underwent the biggest renovation in its history in 2013 to make room for stadium seating and a state-of-the-art IMAX screen — the only one in the world with an old-fashioned curtain that opens just before the feature presentation, Tinker said.

On a recent morning, Kushner stood in Grauman’s old office upstairs, where the theater founder played poker with Pickford and Fairbanks and kept a stash of liquor behind a secret trap door during Prohibition. Kushner looked out on the forecourt below, watching as tourists milled about, shooting photos, fitting their own hands and feet into Hollywood history.

As she reflects on the landmark’s 90th birthday, there’s also the future of the TCL Chinese Theatre to think about. The company plans to expand the brand around the world, she said, with a San Diego location set to open later this year.

But for countless tourists and celebrities past and present, the Chinese Theatre will always be on Hollywood Boulevard, representing the golden age of cinema.

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