Tomorrow morning, the TCL Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard—formerly Grauman’s Chinese, formerly Mann’s Chinese, but always a Hollywood landmark—will reopen to the public, after being closed since the beginning of May for a $5 million renovation. The initial attraction will be The Wizard Of Oz, presented for the first time in IMAX 3-D. Early fears that the world’s most recognizable movie theater would be converted into some sort of horrible nightclub have proven unfounded: The renovations, overseen by President and COO Alwyn Hight Kushner, are absolutely beautiful. No effort or expense has been spared in preserving the building’s famous architectural details, and restoring long-lost ones. Friday will be a banner day for Elie Samaha and Don Kushner, who bought the theater; for Chinese television manufacturer TCL, which bought the naming rights; and for Warner Bros., which bought distribution rights for MGM’s film library. It will also mark a milestone in the ongoing slow-motion death of celluloid. For the first time in its 86-year history, the TCL Chinese Theatre will not have a film projector in its projection booth.
May 18, 1927: The King Of Kings
The theater’s grand opening is on a Wednesday night. Headlines the next day suggest that the arriving stars and luminaries are greeted by a crowd of more than 100,000 people; if true, this represents roughly 10 percent of the city’s population. Regardless of the actual number, the streets are packed for blocks with gawkers, most of whom see nothing more glamorous than expensive cars stuck in the traffic jam on Hollywood Boulevard. Tickets to see Cecil B. DeMille’s epic silent Passion Play cost as much as $32, roughly $430 in today’s money. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, Fred Niblo, Mary Pickford, Will Hays, and theater owner Sid Grauman participate in the opening ceremonies. The Mayor of Los Angeles doesn’t attend, but “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Mayor Of San Francisco, makes the trip south. The film is preceded by a live stage show (“Glories Of The Scripture”) written by Grauman and accompanied by an 65-piece orchestra and the theater’s Wurlitzer organ. Besides noting the title, Variety’s account of the evening offers only the following information about The King Of Kings: “[Grauman’s prologue] ran an even 24 minutes and was followed by the screen feature.”
The Chinese Theatre moving away from film shouldn’t really be a surprise at this late date. As has been exhaustively documented, film distribution is almost entirely dead. Digital projection isn’t new to the Chinese Theatre, either: Star Wars: Episode II—Attack Of The Clones was projected digitally at Grauman’s back in 2002, and the first 2K projector in a commercial theater was installed there, for The Last Samurai. Since 2006, digital projection has predominated at Grauman’s showings. Film looks better than digital, but film generally isn’t available anymore, not for first-run theaters. And picture quality isn’t improved by having a film projector sitting in the booth gathering dust. Projectors can be brought in on a temporary basis for films that can’t be projected digitally—during the TCM Festival, for instance. Still, it’s a little disheartening to think that so many movies that were first shown before audiences at the Chinese Theatre couldn’t play there today without special arrangements.
October 2, 1930: The Big Trail
Raoul Walsh’s Western is presented in Fox Grandeur, a widescreen process with an aspect ratio of 2:1, shot and projected in high-detail 70mm. Special projectors have been installed for the occasion. The auditorium already looks different than it did for The King Of Kings: The metal pagodas that flanked the stage have been removed because they tended to rattle during talkies. Will Rogers speaks before the movie, making fun of the assembled Hollywood luminaries for throwing a celebratory dinner on the night of Yom Kippur. The film’s star, 23-year-old John Wayne, is only given two guest tickets—these go to his father and his father’s new wife after his mother refuses to attend with her ex-husband. And once again, “Sunny Jim” Rolph attends, this time to drum up support for a gubernatorial run. Rolph causes a moment of nervous laughter when he mistakenly introduces Walsh’s film as “the great masterpiece, The Big Parade.” This is one of the first public screenings of widescreen, large-format film; until the 1950s, it will also be one of the last.
An important fact about the TCL Chinese Theatre: It’s been an operating first-run movie theater since it opened. Repertory cinema is a different matter; it’s appalling when a non-profit organization dedicated to motion pictures tweets a claim like “Atlanta never burned brighter than in the beautiful DCP of GONE WITH THE WIND.” But first-run is different, and in our diminished age, first-run is digital. The pragmatic thing to do is try to see these films under the best possible circumstances. For non-IMAX movies, the Chinese is state of the art: 4K Christie digital projectors. Unfortunately, those projectors are only going to be used for premières and private screenings; anything the public can actually buy a ticket to will be IMAX. The IMAX model is unique in that theaters have limited control over the exhibition format. The theater either leases or purchases projectors chosen by IMAX—in the Chinese Theatre’s case, they were bought outright—which then are used to show proprietary IMAX-format prints or DCPs. This has quality-control advantages, because any IMAX theater is going to be showing a version of the film mastered with specific projection equipment in mind. But since projector choices are made centrally, IMAX moves slowly when new technology is available.
That can be a good thing. IMAX still distributes some of its films in its original format: 15 perf 70mm, a horizontal format using 15 perforations per frame, much larger than even other 70mm formats. It’s bulky, expensive, difficult to project, and looks amazing. And like every other bulky, difficult, amazing format, studios are moving away from it as quickly as possible. So that isn’t what audiences will see at the Chinese Theatre. Rather, it’s projecting digital IMAX, which is currently shown on Christie 2K projectors—lower resolution than a good digital projection at a non-IMAX theater. (There's more to image quality than resolution but not that much more.) This is a temporary arrangement. The Chinese should be one of the first venues to receive IMAX’s new laser projectors, which they claim, somewhat unbelievably, will produce a better image than 70mm. Until those are installed, IMAX presentations at the Chinese won’t be able to take full advantage of the new theater. Its 2K projectors don’t work well on screens larger than 70 feet, because the image gets too dim. The new screen is 94 feet wide, so for the time being, IMAX presentations will be masked on the sides.
April 8, 1958: Windjammer
The theater reopens after two months of renovations to accommodate yet another new format: Cinemiracle. The brainchild of Elmer C. Rhoden, president of the National Theatres chain, Cinemiracle is a three-strip process intended to compete with Cinerama. Its main advantage is cost: Unlike Cinerama’s three-booth system, Cinemiracle is designed to be projected from a single, centrally located projection booth. Theoretically, this means theaters won’t require extensive renovations to show films in Cinemiracle, but the Chinese Theatre actually undergoes the most destructive renovations in its history to accommodate the wider screen. The stage is lowered and shortened, what’s left of the orchestra pit is removed, and the lantern that hangs from the ceiling is taken down and lost, stolen, or destroyed. No one has any qualms about this tonight. In keeping with the film’s nautical theme, Rear Admiral Glynn R. Donaho, a World War II submarine commander, is the guest of honor. Also in attendance: “Miss Cinemiracle,” an 18-year-old model named Merline Marrow, who arrives in a helicopter, which “clips” a newsreel camera during landing. And once again, the mayor of San Francisco—in 1958, it’s George Christopher—travels south to be the first to see the new format. Warner Bros. has announced it will produce three upcoming films in Cinemiracle. The first, The Miracle, will star Natalie Wood; test footage has already been shot.
It would be easier to trust that locations like the Chinese were in good hands if Hollywood had a slightly less parasitic relationship with its past. Reopening the theater with a 3-D version of The Wizard Of Oz doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Neither does partnering with a film company whose CEO apparently believes “There are very few people alive who’ve ever seen Wizard of Oz in a movie theater, let alone an IMAX movie theater.” It’s not news that studios and film distributors will gleefully wring their past for money, however, and it’s a little beside the point. The iconic Chinese Theatre experience is not seeing a classic film, it’s seeing something brand new, the night it opens. In the last decade, the Chinese has suffered from competition in the form of the Arclight on Sunset, which grabs most of the major bookings. But the Arclight isn’t IMAX, and if the IMAX partnership allows the theater to book better first-run movies, that’s more important to keeping its legacy alive than respecting the past.
May 24, 1977: The King Of Kings
The night before Star Wars opens, the Chinese Theatre celebrates its 50th anniversary with a screening of The King Of Kings—1920s attire optional. On this re-creation of opening night, speeches are given in which Sid Grauman is pointedly not mentioned. Instead, the focus is on Ted Mann, who at this point has owned the theater for less than four years. As part of the ceremony, the attendees bury a time capsule, split about evenly between Chinese Theatre memorabilia and Ted Mann memorabilia. The inscription above the time capsule reads “All of Los Angeles congratulates Ted Mann and the Chinese Theatre for 50 years of great service.”
I don’t think it would matter too much if the TCL Chinese Theatre announced that all future screenings would be held on a laptop screen. People go to the Chinese Theatre because other people went to the Chinese Theatre; it’s Hollywood’s most photographed barn in America. This is not to say its place in history is unearned, just that it can’t be truly threatened. A screening at the Chinese Theatre is part of the story Hollywood tells about itself to itself, the stuff of Oscar speeches. This isn’t a cynical position: Some of the things in Oscar speeches are true.
May 25, 1977: Star Wars
The lavish Chinese Theatre première of the original Star Wars somehow enters the collective unconsciousness without ever actually happening. Star Wars does play at the Chinese on opening day, but the movie doesn’t have a première. There are no interviews with the stars, no red carpet, just normal buy-your-ticket-and-take-your-seat screenings. People today seem to believe it happened anyway, including Wikipedia and whoever is running the theater’s Facebook page. The photo that runs with stories about Star Wars is from a handprint ceremony in August, when the film returned to the theater for a second run as soon as its previous contractual obligation to show William Friedkin’s Sorcerer was met.
It’s understandable to worry, each time the Chinese Theatre changes hands, that its place in film history will be lost, that its newest incarnation will be cheap and vulgar. But its place in our culture is secure, so much so that we have false memories about it. (Star Wars premièred there because it must have premièred there.) Defending the theater against accusations of vulgarity is harder, but take a step back: We’re talking about a Chinese Theater in the middle of Southern California. Whatever the hundred thousand people lining Hollywood Boulevard in 1927 were excited about, it wasn’t film-as-art.
September 10, 1958: The Leif Erikson Foundation
The Warner Bros. deal to produce films in Cinemiracle falls apart by mid-May, just weeks after the première of Windjammer. On September 10th, Elmer Roden is presented with a “Special Merit Award” from the Leif Erikson Foundation: a brass plaque praising his “foresight and leadership [that] culminated in the development of the Cinemiracle process.” The plaque is placed in the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre. Later that week, B. Gerald Cantor forces Roden out as president of National Theatres. Windjammer’s box office, the Warner Bros. deal, and the costly renovations to the Chinese Theatre are all mentioned as causes. When The Miracle is released, it’s shot in Technirama, a cheaper, single-projector widescreen process. Natalie Wood, star of the Cinemiracle test footage, has been replaced by Carroll Baker. Roden’s plaque is still there today.
The perception of the Chinese Theatre among cinephiles is that it’s Martin Scorsese and his film vaults. But it’s always been William Castle and his Percepto buzzers. It’s showmanship and hustle and gimmickry, Cinemiracle and Sensurround and Fox Grandeur, the amazing new entertainment sensation and the modern miracle you see without glasses. Of course it’s IMAX. Of course it’s digital. Of course it’s here to stay.