Legacies aren’t built overnight. Arguably the most iconic movie theater in the world, the TCL Chinese Theatre—originally named the Grauman Chinese Theatre when it opened in 1927—has become a destination for both tourists and film industry veterans in its storied 90-year history. According to the cinema’s records, over five million people visit the TCL Chinese Theatre each year to get a glimpse of the movie star handprints and footprints in its forecourt or to catch the latest Hollywood release in one of its six auditoriums.
The story begins with exhibitor Sid Grauman, who opened the theater in 1927 with partners Howard Scheck and silver screen stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. When actress Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped in cement while touring the unfinished venue, a world-famous tradition was born. Since then, over 290 sets of handprints/footprints have been unveiled in the theater’s forecourt. “It’s a very rare and exclusive honor,” explains current TCL Chinese Theatre president, Alwyn Hight Kushner. “It’s something that we really only offer to the industry’s top influencers.”
The theater officially opened to the public on May 18, 1927, with a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings. Ever the showman, Sid Grauman preceded the film with a live prologue, “Glories of the Sculptures,” accompanied by a Wurlitzer organ and a 65-piece orchestra—not bad for a pre-show. Built at a cost of $2 million, the theater underwent an 18-month construction that required authorization from the U.S. government to import and install temple bells, pagodas, giant guardian lions (“heavenly dogs”), and other Chinese artifacts that can still be spotted decorating the theater today. Currently, the cinema welcomes upward of 40 red carpet premieres each year and has the pedigree of having hosted the Academy Awards ceremony on three occasions.
With its status as both a tourist and VIP film destination, the TCL Chinese Theatre sits at a peculiar intersection between Hollywood glamour and the democratic accessibility that continues to define exhibition as an affordable pastime for people around the world. Rather than a challenge, Kushner sees this as an opportunity to establish the highest possible standards for the cinema. “We cater to a very specific audience,” she says. “We have premieres every week and we also show first-run films each day, so we get a lot of well-known filmmakers, actors, and producers coming to see a movie here—and we need to ensure that our presentation is perfect. When Christopher Nolan comes here to watch Interstellar, we want to make sure it’s perfect for him and that we can offer that same quality to the rest of our audiences as well.”
The TCL Chinese Theatre has a unique design that includes 40-foot-high curved walls and copper-topped turrets, along with 10-foot-tall lotus-shaped fountains. The theater itself stands 90 feet high with two coral-red columns topped by wrought-iron masks that hold the bronze roof. A 30-foot-tall dragon carved from stone welcomes guests and passersby.
Declared a historic-cultural landmark in 1968, the theater has undergone several renovations to ensure it can preserve the seismic risks of its Los Angeles location. The biggest renovation in its history, however, came in 2013 when its main auditorium was retrofitted to become the largest IMAX location in America and one of the first theaters in the world to install IMAX laser.
“It was a really big challenge to find a way to respect the theater’s storied legacy while at the same time becoming a leader in innovation and technology in our industry,” recalls Kushner.
“In the case of the 2013 renovation we sought to preserve, and in a lot of cases to restore, the defining historical features of the building because it is a landmark. In order to put in stadium seating and accommodate the larger screen for IMAX, we needed to dig into the ground and take out the basement and orchestra pit that hadn’t been used in many decades. We had to remove a lot of dirt in order to get the volume we wanted. We weren’t able to go up because the ceiling is incredibly beautiful and ornate, the proscenium is historic, and we wanted to preserve those incredible character-defining features that the theater is still known for. At the same time, we were committed to upgrading with wider rows and stadium seating so that every seat in the house would be a great seat.”
As to the future, Kushner admits that the theater’s strategy was drawn up nearly a century ago by its first operator. “Every day is a new adventure; there are always new challenges ahead to preserve and promote the legacy,” she says. “I really see our role as following Sid Grauman’s footsteps that were established in 1927, by taking pride in our showmanship; whether you’re a tourist passing through or a studio executive at a premiere, we want to provide the best possible moviegoing experience that exists.”