February 25, 2013

Movie History Gets Top Billing at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles

View of large crowd outside the Egyptian Theatre for a visit with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1922. A sign above the entrance reads," Doug and Mary Premiere tonight." Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, Wikimedia Commons
View of large crowd outside the Egyptian Theatre for a visit with silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1922.

All eyes were on Hollywood Sunday night, as the biggest names in the film industry gathered at the Dolby Theatre for the 85th Academy Awards.

Among the stars lining Hollywood Boulevard, there was another celebrated icon a block away from the ceremony: the Egyptian Theater, a Tinseltown landmark since 1922.

In the early days of Los Angeles, moviegoers flocked downtown to the elaborate movie palaces on Broadway, like the Million Dollar Theater, the Metropolitan, and the Rialto.

But real estate developer Charles E. Toberman wanted to bring a majestic motion picture theater further west to Hollywood. So he teamed up with showman Sid Grauman -- who ran several of Broadway’s movie palaces (his namesake Chinese Theater opened in 1927) -- to make it happen.

Egyptian Theater interior, 1922. Credit: Marc Wanamaker, Wikimedia Commons
Egyptian Theater interior, 1922

Eighteen months and $800,000 later, the Egyptian Theater opened on Oct. 18, 1922, showing the first-ever Hollywood premier, Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Tickets to the red carpet event cost $5.00 and attracted legends like Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplin.

Built in the Egyptian Revival style, the theater featured a large open courtyard in the front, with four, 4-foot-wide columns, an ornate tiled fountain, and exotic plants. Hieroglyphics and murals lined both the interior and exterior walls.

For decades, the theater brought films like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and South Pacific to the silver screen. But throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the theater, much like its surrounding neighborhood, had fallen to a state of decline. Its doors finally closed in 1992.

Egyptian Theater sign. Credit: Truus, Bob & Jan too!, flickr

Four years later, the nonprofit American Cinematheque purchased the theater (designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark in 1993) from the city for a nominal sum of $1 -- on the condition that the landmark theater would be restored and returned to a movie theater.

In true Hollywood fashion, the theater made a storybook comeback. American Cinematheque, along with Santa Monica-based architectural firm Hodgetts+Fung, took the theater back to its roots. The structure was stabilized and strengthened to withstand earthquakes after suffering sizeable damage in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

Many of the additions that had been made to the courtyard and lobby over the years were removed, and features like the portico, ticket booth, ceilings, theater organ, and 1944 marquee were all restored or repaired. The space was reconfigured to include a second screening theater, and state-of-the-art film, video, and audio technology was also added.

East wall of the Egyptian Theater. Credit: lumierefl, flickr
Restored east wall of the Egyptian Theater

The Egyptian Theater made its second debut in December 1998, with a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which premiered at the Egyptian 75 years earlier.

Today, the American Cinematheque, in keeping with its commitment “to the public presentation of the Moving Picture in all its forms,” hosts numerous film festivals, seminars, and other public programs at the theater, including monthly guided tours of the space. It screens documentaries, independent films, and classic film revivals alike. And in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, the theater drew crowds with its screenings of Oscar contenders.

To learn how you can tour the Egyptian Theater or see a list of upcoming film screenings, visit the American Cinematheque's website.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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