by Stephen Garrett
Last Friday night Hollywood Boulevard sparkled with some of its old
glamour when the American Cinematheque reopened the long-shuttered
Grauman's Egyptian Theater as a $13 million state-of-the-art film
complex. The star-studded event, sponsored by Paramount Pictures,
brought out the industry's biggest movie fans, from film historian
Leonard Maltin to Tinseltown deity Charlton Heston, for the 75th
anniversary screening of Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 "The Ten Commandments,"
on the very day and date the film first premiered in that same theater.
Accompanying the screening was conductor Gillian Anderson and a 15-piece
orchestra playing the restored original score.
Guests to the invitation-only gala were encouraged to wear vintage '20s
clothing or Egyptian garb, and were greeted upon arrival by klieg lights
and models decked out in period costumes, not to mention a cordoned-off
petting area for the live camel trucked in from Canyon Country.
"You have restored Hollywood's essence and reinstated it in the moving
image," crowed Mayor Richard Riordan to the Cinematheque's Board of
Directors, in front of the standing-room-only audience. He was one of a
phalanx of speakers who paid homage with their opening remarks before
the film unspooled, including Sigurjon "Joni" Sighvatsson, President of
the Cinematheque. "Frankly," Sighvatsson admitted, "It's hard to believe
we're all here tonight." But one of the more poignant moments came from
Kevin Thomas, for 37 years the film critic at the L.A. Times, and whose
relatives loaned impresario Sid Grauman $10,000 of the $800,000 he
needed in 1922 to build the Egyptian. "This moment for me," Thomas
said, "is where the personal and the professional and the past, present,
and future come together."
The first of Grauman's great movie palaces (among them the legendary
Chinese Theater, one block down the street), and the site of the first
Hollywood premiere ever, the Egyptian, "where the stars see the
pictures," dazzled its audiences for decades with its faux
hieroglyphics, golden adornments and concrete walls made up to look like
the inside of a Phoenician tomb; but by the late Eighties it had fallen
on hard times and was finally closed in 1992.
At that same time, the American Cinematheque, founded in 1984 by Gary
Essert and Gary Abrahams, was still homeless after a decade in Los
Angeles, and while camped first at the Director's Guild of America and
then at Raleigh Studios, started a drive to find itself a permanent
home. The Egyptian seemed like a perfect match and while raising money
from donations and ticket sales to its annual fund-raiser the Moving
Pictures Ball, the Cinematheque in 1996 hired the architecture firm
Hodgetts + Fung to restore and reshape the long-dormant and neglected
Scaled back from over 1000 seats to now 600, the still-cavernous main
auditorium preserves the spirit of its old form with a shimmering golden
sunburst ceiling decoration festooned with a rainbow of colors and set
against a deep blue background. But the seating, screen, and walls are
handsomely modern and fully equipped with the latest sound system,
including Dolby Digital, DTS, SDDS, and the brand-new Dolby EX. The
projection booth itself can handle 16mm, 35mm and 70mm film as well as
most video formats.
The theater's new design even makes space for a classy concession stand
within its roomy lobby and a second, 75-seat screening room, dedicated
to Steven Spielberg, which during the day will be home to "Hollywood
Forever," a documentary film by Todd McCarthy, documentarian and chief
film critic for Variety. The second theater also makes Cinematheque
programming that much more flexible, as it expands to having screenings
five nights a week.
In step with its endearingly eclectic fare, future programming will
include the latest installment of its annual series "Recent Spanish
Cinema," a spotlight on the new generation of French actresses like
Juliette Binoche and Virginie Ledoyen, retrospectives of directors like
megamovie auteur James Cameron and French serialist Louis Feuillade, and
a new batch of Japanese samurai movies. The Cinematheque will still
maintain "Alternative Screen," its regular showcase of American
independent film, and will also add "Silent Tuesdays" during which the
theater will run pre-sound classics with live accompaniment from its
soon-to-be-installed 1923 Wurlitzer organ.
The Egyptian's long, elegant entrance, lined with palm trees, and
spacious public exterior (including stairs to a balcony overlooking the
city) is prime for pre- and post-screening commingling with fellow movie
buffs. In the works is not only a late-night restaurant adjacent to the
theater but also a book store devoted to film, insuring the
Cinematheque's place in L.A. as a haven for die-heard cineastes.
Old guard directors like Andre de Toth ("House of Wax") and Arthur
Hiller ("The In-Laws") were on hand for the reopening, as well as
maverick filmmakers like Paul Bartel and Curtis Harrington and
uber-film-geek Quentin Tarantino (escorting a very foxy Pam Grier). "I
think it's great," Tarantino told indieWIRE about the beefed-up
Cinematheque, and then paused and laughed at the canned quote he had
just delivered. "Sorry, I'm not really in a quote frame of mind," he
admitted as he scurried upstairs to the balcony. "I'm watching a