Our Los Angeles visit could not end without a nod to the city’s cinematic heart. On this trip, this meant watching a movie at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (now the TCL Chinese Theatre). One of the most opulent “movie palaces” in the country, it has hosted many of the grandest film galas since its debut in 1927. The 1939 premiere of The Wizard of Oz, for example, drew over 10,000 spectators — this is where the stars came to be seen, and where the public clamored to see them.
The theater was the brainchild of Sid Grauman, Hollywood’s visionary showman who also built The Egyptian Theatre nearby, the site of Hollywood’s very first film premiere, Robin Hood (1922) with Douglas Fairbanks. For the Chinese Theatre, artisans and many of the decorative features–the pagodas, the temple bells, and even the massive stone Heaven Dogs by the entrance–were brought in from China, and you can still spot hidden messages that the artisans left on the theater walls and ceilings. All this cost a pretty penny. To help finance the venture, Grauman partnered with Fairbanks and Mary Pickford (then Hollywood’s golden couple), as well as Joseph Schenck, the head of United Artists and later the co-founder of The 20th Century Fox.
All three contributed to the theater’s most popular feature: the Forecourt of Stars, teeming with famous hand and foot prints. Pickford, Fairbanks, and Norma Talmadge, a silent film star and Schenck’s wife, were the first to be immortalized in cement (an unexpected travel connection: Talmadge was born in Niagara Falls, my recent land, air, and boat conquest). The tradition took hold and is continued to this day. Here’s an unofficial map of everyone there — over 200 celebrities, plus Sid Grauman’s mother, Rosa.
Most visitors stop at the forecourt, but I really enjoyed the 30-minute VIP Tour of the theater’s interior (well worth $13.50; reserve in advance). The building is full of fascinating nooks and crannies, stories, legends, and well-worn traditions (there is, predictably, a statue that, if properly rubbed, will grant you all of your wishes). Plus there are the dresses and movie props: Judy Garland’s, Vivien Leigh’s, Marilyn Monroe’s, to name just three.
Make sure to visit the bathroom. The ladies’ powder room is where the screen sirens escaped from the crowds–you can sit where Marilyn sat and look into the same mirror she looked into (go to the tour and find out which one of these two seats is the one!). One of the lower panels once hid a tunnel that led to a hotel nearby. This came in handy, especially during Prohibition.
The centerpiece of the tour, though, is the movie hall itself, opulent in its red velvet glory. The theater was renovated recently to offer a modern viewing experience (premieres are still being hosted here, after all), but pains were taken to preserve the character of the place and its historic features. Presiding above it all is this spectacular ceiling:
The movie we watched after the tour was terrible, but doing it here was worth every cringe and eyeroll.
- An L.A. Sunset: Griffith Observatory
- Books and Blooms at the Huntington Library
- Holding Hands with Gregory Peck: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
Other California posts:
- Death Valley’s Wonders
- Skygazing at Lick Observatory
- Point Lobos: The Sea Wolves Calling
- Carmel-by-the-Sea: Welcome to the Shire
- Fins, Wings, and Whiskers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Other historic movie palaces:
- My Richmond Five (scroll down to#5: Byrd Theatre, Carytown, Richmond, Virginia)