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Touring the Chinese Theatre Before It Closes For a Renovation

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[Photos by Elizabeth Daniels]

Tomorrow the legendary/iconic/etc. TCL Chinese Theatre will close and undergo a several-month renovation that'll turn it into one of the biggest Imax theaters in the world (see the subtle changes to come right here). To say goodbye, we took a tour, from the projection room to the tiny VIP balconies to theater-man Sid Grauman's fantastic art deco office, plus of course the theater itself. Grauman, having established himself as the theater king Downtown (and having created the Egyptian nearby), built the Chinese in 1926 during a Hollywood theater building boom--the large 140 foot wide, 250 foot deep lot would've been unprecedented in DTLA, but here it allowed him to create the forecourt that's become one of the Chinese's signatures. Raymond Kennedy of the firm Meyer & Holler designed the building and its wild decor (which has been called "Chinese Chippendale"); many of the details were executed by art director John G. Beckman.

Norma Talmadge turned the first earth at a groundbreaking ceremony on January 5, 1926, and the theater opened just 17 months later, on May 18, 1927, showing Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings. Grauman pioneered elaborate live prologues before his shows, and the spectacular on opening night ran so long that the film didn't start until 11 pm (DeMille was not pleased). To accommodate the live shows, the Chinese was given one of LA's largest stages: 46 feet deep and 60 feet wide at the proscenium, with trapdoors to allow for performers to appear and disappear, and an enormous orchestra pit. Unusually, the theater's organ pipes are in the ceiling (this is also the case at the Egyptian), although the organ was removed long ago.

Grauman retired in 1929 (but continued to come around a bit in the '30s) and Fox West Coast took over operations at the theater. In 1958, the Chinese was sort of disastrously converted to handle the CineMiracle process, which was supposed to be able to compete with Cinerama--the orchestra pit and half of the stage were removed, the singers boxes were taken out, and the center chandelier came down. (The heroes at the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation are trying to raise funds to restore the Chinese's elaborate, multi-colored lighting with LEDs and digital dimming systems; they also intend to replicate the enormous lighting fixture in the center of the theater's ceiling, along with its six crystal pendants.) CineMiracle only lasted about a minute, but the Chinese at least was left with one of the biggest regular film screens in Los Angeles.

The Chinese sold to Ted Mann in 1973; he horrified everyone by replacing Grauman's name with his own. (He also did stunty shit like hang a net under the ceiling for the 1974 premiere of Earthquake, as if the sound would shake pieces loose; you can still see hooks up there.) In 1979, he added the neighboring Chinese II and III. And in just the last few years, Mann went out of business; the Chinese's lease was bought by a local investor group in April 2011. CIM Group, which developed the neighboring Hollywood & Highland, bought the underlying land in 2007 and the theater is set to revert to them when the current lease expires in a few years.

Over the years, the Chinese has always remained a top spot for premieres, and remarkably, it's the only great movie palace in the US that's still operating as a first-run theater. Looks like its conversion to Imax is set to keep it that way.
· See the Changes Coming Soon to the TCL Chinese Theatre [Curbed LA]

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

6925 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028