by Phillip Hubler
The TCL (The Creative Life) Chinese Theater in Hollywood is one the most famous symbols of the cinematic industry. It is the most famous movie theater in the world. This temple to cinema was the dream of its builder Sid Grauman.
Who was this man?
Grauman was born into a show biz family in 1879 in Indianapolis. His father David Grauman and his mother Rosa Goldsmith were performers who worked the theater circuits in their area. At one point in the family’s history they moved to Alaska to find their fortune in the gold rush. Panning for gold turned up nothing for the Graumans but entertaining the miners turned out to be their personal gold mine.
In her article, Sid Grauman: the hair, the theaters, the chutzpah, Alicia Mayer writes,
“…as a teenager, he witnessed a store owner in a gold rush town in Alaska read the newspaper to a gathering of miners and charge each admission for the privilege of hearing the latest news. Sid Grauman realized three things 1) content is king, 2) the king needs a castle, and 3) build it and they will come.”
And thus, the theater building dream of this early Hollywood tycoon was born.
Perhaps it wasn’t that simple. It may have been joining his family in San Francisco that may have had a greater impression on Sid. It was here that he and his father opened their own vaudeville theater. They named it the Unique Theater where Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson were among their performers.
Vaudeville was not the only feature of their theaters they also showed films. It was at the Unique Theater where the west coast premiere of The Great Train Robbery was held.
By 1906 they were operating two theaters and the second one was named the Lyceum. In early 1906 the Unique suffered an internal demolition under the command of David Grauman.
According to an article in The Evening News – January 30, 1906
“The Unique Theater on Market street is a wreck. Sunday night after the last performance, a gang of men armed with axes completely demolished the entire furnishings of the 10-cent show house…Grauman…got a gang of ax-wielders together and Sunday night after the performance, at 11 o’clock, the house from stage to box office was reduced to kindling wood. Everything was demolished. The interior of the theater looked as if it had been wrecked by a cyclone or an explosion.”
It is believed that Grauman’s lease was up and he felt that the non-renewal of his lease was a political move made by his rivals. To stop the new investors, who now controlled the building, from competing he made sure to destroy the inside, so it could not be used as a theater.
The article went on to explain that an ordinance had been passed that did not allow the construction of a theater in the building. The ordinance was passed after Grauman had built his theater “…and for that reason he was allowed to run,” the article states. Demolition of the interior ensured that the building would cease operation as a theater
Perhaps this was a shrewd move on David’s part and perhaps it was even a little nutty. A family trait, as Sid was eccentric and a big prankster. It was later in this year The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 occurred accompanied by a fire that reduced the port city to rubble.
David Grauman picked among the wreckage, found a movie projector, and set up shop under a canvas tent. Using pews salvaged from a church and some movie reels, he somehow discovered they were now back in business. He advertised his new venue by saying, “Nothing to fall on you but canvas if there is another quake.”
This makeshift theater operated for a couple of years. As the city began to rebuild so did the Graumans theater house business. They opened the National Theatre which was the first permanent theater built in San Francisco after the earthquake. Expansion of their theaters continued to the east in Sacramento and Stockton and to the south in San Jose. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a singing waiter at the time, got his start in show biz when he was hired by Sid to perform in his San Jose theater.
Sid saw new opportunities on the horizons in Los Angeles which was quickly becoming the place for movie making. In 1917 his family sold their interests in their San Francisco theater enterprise and headed to sunny southern California.
They wasted no time getting started reviving their movie house ventures. Using financing from a contract that was struck with Paramount Pictures, Sid and his father, David, opened the Million Dollar Theater the most opulent theater of the time.
After the death of his father, Sid would continue enlarging his collection of movie theaters with the opening of the Egyptian Theater and the notorious Chinese Theater.
Sid Grauman, a gregarious congenial figure imprinted in tradition many of the activities that surround movies of today. It was he who created the movie premiere, which is basically a big party for the opening of a film. Douglass Fairbanks’s Robin Hood which opened at the Egyptian Theater was the first movie to be thrown such a premiere party by Grauman, and it would set a precedent for new film releases in the industry. Red carpet interviews are the invention of Sid as well. It was he who first walked the red carpet interrogating the stars and directors to build excitement and anticipation about a new motion picture release.
He had a flair for the dramatic as he added prologues that featured live musical orchestration. The Chinese Theater was built with the idea of these flashy introductions in mind.
In addition, the hand and footprints cement slabs were perhaps another great stroke of marketing genius from this master showman. As an actor it is a symbol of significant prestige to have your hand and footprints immortalized in cement outside of the ornate theater. Many stories abound as to how this tradition was founded. The theater’s official version is that Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, and Douglass Fairbanks walked from the Roosevelt Hotel to the construction site of the theatre, the three stepped in wet cement. Sid saw this as a great marketing idea and had them each sign their names alongside their footprints. The rest is Hollywood history.
His contributions to the world of Hollywood does not end with his theater houses. He was friends with and had business partnerships with many Hollywood elite of the day. He was a joint partner with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Howard Schenck in ownership of the Chinese Theater. He was also among the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Sid Grauman wasn’t a movie star but his legacy to Hollywood and the film industry at large is substantial. It was his aspirations that became reality that built the traditions of Hollywood. Even today a film premiere at his Chinese Theater is a much-coveted venue for film releases.
It is those with great vision that trail blaze an industry. Sid Grauman was one of those trail blazers. Blazing that trail by establishing some film release protocols that are still used today and creation of an iconic theater that is famous around the world.