A Moviegoing Icon: Paris’ Historic Le Grand Rex Projects Movie Magic Into the Future

A Child of the Roaring ‘20s

France emerged as a global leader in film production and exhibition following the First World War. Inspired by this golden age of cinema, film distributor Jacques Haïk envisioned a colossal project: to build one of Europe’s largest and most innovative cinemas, designed in an Art Deco style inspired by America’s burgeoning movie palaces. The Franco-Tunisian businessman acquired a plot of land at the corner of Rue and Boulevard Poissonnière and enlisted French architect Auguste Bluysen and American architect John Eberson for the project. Pioneers of the Atmospheric Theater concept, the architects were known for architectural flairs like a vaulted ceiling that could evoke feelings of a night sky within an interior.

Construction began in September 1931. Le Grand Rex featured a 36-meter-high corner tower, with blind surfaces initially meant for illuminated advertising, giving it a ship-like appearance similar to Paris’ Gaumont Palace on Boulevard des Italiens. A grand marquee hung above the entrance doors, and a rotating sign was installed atop the tower, enhancing the cinema’s visibility on the Parisian skyline. A vertical sign emblazoned with the word “Rex” was fixed perpendicular to the façade, a trait common in American cinemas of the period. Classical references were added to the building’s exterior, including windows inspired by medieval arrow slits. The exterior was painted in a cream color with gold accents.

France’s Largest Atmospheric Theater

The cinema’s exterior contrasted with its interior style. Designed by decorator Maurice Dufrène, the vestibule was adorned with antique green marble and two staircases with chrome handrails leading to various lounges. The foyer was also clad in green marble and topped by a dark gray rubber ceiling adorned with Zodiac signs. Sculptor and glassmaker Henri-Edouard Navarre brightened the cinema with interior and exterior glass and bas-relief decor.

What truly set Le Grand Rex apart was the auditorium itself, billed as France’s largest Atmospheric Theater. The auditorium’s orchestra section contained 1,300 seats, with an additional 600 in the mezzanine and 1,600 in the balcony. A celestial vault of steel sheet suspended from the metal framework, crowning the auditorium. Moviegoers would look up to see twinkling stars and planets formed from perforated, reflective crystal beads, complemented by scrolling images of moving clouds from projectors fixed below.

The auditorium’s peripheral decor combined Italian balconies, patios, and Greco-Roman-inspired statues to conceal the theater’s sound system. The giant screen, flanked by an eight-drop curtain and framed by a vast arch, instantly changed dimensions while the stage expanded via a mobile platform nestled in the orchestra pit. An air conditioner, a breakthrough innovation at the time, was installed to cool the auditorium. The projection booth was equipped with three state-of-the-art projectors and protruded like a watchtower from the wall facing Paris’ Rue Poissonnière, freeing up space inside the auditorium. Designed to be a multi-purpose venue, the site hosted Le Rêve (a chic dancehall in the basement), corporate offices, a nursery, a kennel, and even a police station.

Construction took over 20 months to complete: On December 8, 1932, Le Grand Rex debuted, just 20 days before the inauguration of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, the inspiration for the French cinema palace’s design. Cinema pioneer Louis Lumière was the guest of honor for the first screening, where 3,300 moviegoers came together to watch a short following the premiere of the sound-enhanced remake of Henri Diamant-Berger’s The Three Musketeers (1921). “A splash of Hollywood has fallen on Paris,” read the headline of the French newspaper Paris-soir the following day.

Haïk had brought his dream cinema to life, but had to sell it to Gaumont in 1946 because of financial difficulties. Gaumont operated Le Grand Rex briefly before selling it to the ownership group of Jean Hellmann, Alan Byre, and Laudy Lawrence. “After the Liberation, I was annoyed by the decor; I wondered if it was a bit outdated,” Hellmann said in 1965. “I consulted filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who reminded me that it took the French public 14 years to get used to the auditorium and that changing something would require the same time to adjust. So, everything had to be preserved because Le Grand Rex had become something classic.”

In 1953, Le Grand Rex was the first French cinema to adopt the Cinemascope format, unveiling it with a screening of Henry Koster’s The Robe. In 1957, the marquee above the entrance disappeared, and the elevators and lift attendants were replaced by an escalator for easier access to the mezzanine foyer, a novel innovation for a European cinema.

The Transition from Movie Palace to Movie Theater

French cinema underwent a radical transformation in the 1960s, a generational shift that ushered in the Nouvelle Vague—a group of filmmakers who sought to completely reimagine French film in the post-war period. During this decade, Le Grand Rex exceeded the Louvre Museum in admissions figures.

Under the management of Philippe Hellmann in the 1970s, Le Grand Rex evolved from a movie palace of yore to a cinema in line with contemporary audience tastes. In 1971, architect Artemisios Wang removed many of the cinema’s original Art Deco elements. Inside the Grand Auditorium, foldable seats were replaced with leather seats in the orchestra and balcony sections, reducing its capacity from 3,300 to 2,700 seats.

Le Grand Rex became a multi-screen cinema in 1974, adding three auditoriums; three more auditoriums were added ten years later, bringing the screen count to seven. None of these screens were erected at the expense of the original Grand Auditorium, contrary to a popular trend of the era that saw countless movie palaces split down the middle to create twin cinemas. This proved to be an astute decision for the longevity of Le Grand Rex, which stands as one of the largest Atmospheric Theaters still operating as a first-run cinema. By the 1980s, the cinema was classified under the register of the city’s historical places, ensuring the preservation of its architecture.

Hearkening to Cinema’s Past While Pointing to Cinema’s Future

While Le Grand Rex’s design and architecture make it a golden age stand out, its technology has undergone several modern upgrades. In 1988, filmmaker Luc Besson refused to screen his film The Big Blue at the venue, citing projection issues and poor acoustics in the Grand Auditorium. Alterations were made to improve the sight and sound inside the theater. The Grand Auditorium screen was replaced with a new retractable pull-down screen—the largest in the world at the time, with a base of 24.5 meters and a height of 11 meters—a process that sacrificed seating in the orchestra and mezzanine sections, modifying the theater’s capacity down to 2,702. The renovations were unveiled with a screening of Besson’s The Big Blue. The screen remains the largest screen outside of IMAX venues in Europe today.

The Dawn of the Premium Era

In 2010, Philippe Hellmann’s son, Alexandre, took over management of Le Grand Rex. Under Alexandre’s leadership, Le Grand Rex has ushered in its premium era of presentation technology, including the transformation of its second auditorium into a premium large format (PLF) concept. With an audience capacity of 265, Le Grand Rex’s PLF concept aims for a modern, intimate experience in contrast to the historical grandeur of the neighboring Grand Auditorium.

Known as the Infinite Room, the auditorium creates a warm and modern Art Deco ambiance with shades of brown and gold. The Infinite Room has Kleslo reclining leather seats and boasts France’s only active RealD Ultimate Screen, which provides greater depth, clarity, and contrast to the moving image. Dolby Atmos immersive sound complements the premium cinema experience. LED strips create dynamic ambient lighting, leading patrons to a marble bar within the comforts of the screening space.

Though the Infinite Room is the star of Le Grand Rex’s PLF experience, the remaining auditoriums have been upgraded to feature 7.1 surround sound, while keeping their distinct architectural flair. Le Grand Rex remains a testament to cinema’s rich history and promising future while retaining the architectural flair that gave it its original grandeur as a movie palace.

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