In the 1920s, the real estate developer Charles E. Toberman (“the Father of Hollywood”) partnered with the showman Sid Grauman to open three theatres – the Egyptian Theatre (1922), El Capitan (1926), and the Chinese Theatre (1927).
In 1989, Disney’s MGM Studios (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) opened with a full scale replica park weenie of the Chinese Theatre. We went to Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California to see the original.
The Chinese Theatre
The original is technically called TCL Chinese Theatre now, but I think we all know it better as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
The main park icon (or weenie as it is called in Disney vernacular) at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a full-scale replica of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, CA. At the Park, it housed the Great Movie Ride until 2017. The theme of the attraction was very fitting for a building modeled after the most famous movie palace in Hollywood.
Today it is home to Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which is also very fitting given that the star attraction of the parks is home to the biggest stars – the main mice themselves!
Opening night for the Chinese theater was May, 18 1927 when Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings premiered. (Hence the reference to C.B. In the Great Movie Ride).
The theatre took 18 months to complete and cost $2.1 million ($31.5 million today if you account for inflation).
While the theming of the Egyptian was slapped together after last minute changes, the Chinese was actually given a pretty good effort at a respectful authenticity. The design of the theatre is meant to represent a Chinese pagoda. Grauman imported temple bells, stone Heaven dogs (lion dogs/fu dogs/shishi) and other artifacts from China. He brought in Chinese Poet and & film director Moon Quan to supervise Chinese artisans who created statuary and art. Artifacts were imported from China and a lot of Chinese artists worked on the building.
The plaque on the front says “To the Memory of Francis X. Bushman”. He was the silent film star who originally owned a mansion on the exact spot where the theatre was built. He was the one who leased Grauman the land.
It was the first commercial movie theater to have air conditioning.
There was no concession stand in the original plans. Grauman firmly believed viewers could not have a true theatrical experience when concessions were involved. He didn’t want anything to distract from the show, like the sounds of eating. And as his theatre had brand new carpet he didn’t want it ruined.
However, vendors used to stand outside the theatre with carts.
By the 1930s, The Great Depression was looming, so popcorn machines were added to the inside of movie theatres as a business decision to help supplement revenue. The cheap snack helped business for manufacturing, corn farming, and movie houses.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were part owners of the theatre and were the first stars to step in the cement.
There are a few accounts for how the handprints and footprints came to be. The theatre’s official story is that the silent movie actress Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped on wet cement, sparking the idea for Grauman. However, Grauman related himself in an interview that it was he who accidentally stepped in some soft cement and he immediately invited Mary Pickford to do the same.
However it started, the tradition is now ubiquitous with the Chinese Theatre, and its counterpart in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. To this day, they still have imprint ceremonies in front of the theatre to honor Hollywood’s legends in the forecourt of the stars.
There are some imprints that appear on both the original Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood studios version. While the Hollywood Studios Theatre may be a replica, the imprints are not. The stars really did participate in imprint ceremonies in Disney World as well.
Here is a list of stars who have names at both the original and the replica Chinese Theatre. Stars with a Disney connection are in bold.
- Robin Williams
- Dick Van Dyke
- Cicely Thompson
- John Travolta
- Sylvester Stallone
- Susan Sarandon
- Jane Russell
- David O’Connor
- Leonard Nemoy
- George Lucas
- Jerry Lewis
- Dorothy Lamour
- Van Johnson
- Samuel L. Jackson
- Michael Jackson
- Bob Hope
- Charlton Heston
- Harrison Ford
- Douglas Fairbanks
- Donald Duck
- Tom Cruise
- Jackie Cooper
- C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) & R2D2 (Kenny Baker)
- George Burns
- Warren Beaty
Here is a list of the Chinese Theatre movie premiers with a Disney connection:
- In 1932, the First Disney Silly Symphony (Flowers & Trees) premiered at the Chinese Theatre at Sid Grauman’s insistence.
- Mary Poppins premiered at the Chinese Theatre in 1964, and again in a way when Saving Mr. Banks premiered there in 2013.
- Disney’s The Jungle Book premiered there in 1967, less than a year after Walt’s death.
- In 1977, the first Star Wars film premiered there and has been followed subsequently by each film in the franchise.
Through the years, the theatre has taken on quite a few names starting with Grauman’s Chinese Theatre from 1927-1973. It was then sold to Ted Mann and renamed Mann’s Chinese Theatre from 1973-2001. It was Grauman’s again from 2001-2013 and in 2013 TCL purchased the naming rights making it TCL Chinese Theatre. That same year the Theatre partnered with IMAX to convert the theatre space into a custom built IMAX with one of the largest movie screens in America.
The other Grauman Theatres
The Egyptian was the first of the three theatres to be built. It opened in 1922, the same year that it hosted the first ever Hollywood premiere – Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks. While the Egyptian isn’t represented in the Disney Parks, we couldn’t leave out a little mention of this Grauman icon.
If you’re wondering why they chose the Egyptian theme, it is probably because of the fascination surrounding advances and discoveries in modern archaeology, like the 1926 discovery and excavation of King Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter.
The building initially was planned to have a Hispanic theme, but some hasty last minute decisions were made to change it to Egyptian. You can see that they must have been budget conscious when they used the Spanish roof tiles on the theatre anyway. They had already been delivered and paid for, after all.
The Egyptian theatre building maintains the original signage as well as the hieroglyphic- style is now home to American Cinematheque. And it hosts film screenings, film festivals, and special events. It is also one of few theatres left that can project nitrate film!
El Capitan was built as a playhouse – not a movie palace – in 1926. It was known as Hollywood’s first home of spoken drama. In 1931, however, it was converted into another movie theatre.
It’s first film premiere was Citizen Kane in 1941.
In 1942, it closed for renovation and reopened as the Hollywood Paramount, and acted as a modern first-run movie house.
In 1989, Disney joined with Pacific Theatres to start a two-year renovation of the El Capitan, which would bring it back to its classic 1920s look.
In 1991, it re-opened with the premiere of The Rocketeer. Ever since the 90s, most Disney films have premiered here. During normal operating times, you can catch the newest Disney flix here as well as some old favorites from time to time. They sometimes even have limited edition popcorn buckets for movie events here.
You can spot a tribute to El Capitan in Disney’s California Adventure theme park. You can see a mini marquee and El Capitan sign down at the end of Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood land in DCA right before the trompe l’oeil wall begins.