And, speaking of how a person spends her time, If it hadn’t been for a certain Solomon Brill, our local small-time impresario, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now. Brill — and Eugene DeRosa, a NYC theater architect — opened the St. George Theatre in Staten Island in 1929, better than four decades before I signed on to help run the 2672-seat Spanish baroque movie palace they completed only a few weeks after the Wall Street crash that started the Great Depression. Without Brill, no St. George Theatre, without that theater, I’d be writing about something else--and countless residents of Staten Island would be the poorer for never having grown up in wonder, under that fine golden dome, cuddling to the likes of Bogart and Bacall, watching and listening to visiting divas from the Metropolitan Opera, getting lost in Cinerama, or hiding under their seats for The Exorcist or Earth Versus the Flying Saucers.
If Brill is a minor character but still an impresario, there were hundreds like him across the U.S. Google any movie palace, surviving or otherwise, and you’ve got a fair chance of digging up the dreamer, the guy who wished he could have joined a circus. Or had his own circus. Case in point: Al Ringling, a circus man if ever there was one, went on, at the end of a successful career, to build the exquisite 830-seat Al Ringling Theatre as a gift to his hometown, Baraboo, Wisconsin. In 1915, when this Rapp & Rapp French palace went up, the town that housed it contained fewer than a thousand residents (to fill the theater required better than 80% local attendance!). The Ringling has operated more or less steadily since then, with some time-outs to undo various bad renovations.
But what about the big timers? Sid Grauman had impresario blood flowing in his veins from the get-go. He and his dad, David Grauman had headed for Dawson City, a Klondike gold-rush in the Yukon, looking for gold (it may have been entertainment gold they were really after). Young Sid sold newspapers, which were scarce in Dawson, and was surprised that a shopowner paid fifty dollars for one of them. He then charged other people for the privilege of reading it to them; clearly people were willing to pay a little more for entertainment! The father-and-son team subsequently went into the theater business, with uneven results for a number of years, this early phase ending in San Franciso. It was the earthquake of 1906 that actually made their fortunes, reducing the Unique Theatre, in which most of their hopes ands dreams had at one point resided, to a pile of rubble.
Not to be washed-up is, however, part of the impresario’s creed: either Sid or the senior Grauman (accounts vary) was able to rescue one of the theater’s projectors from the ruins. Procuring a tent and some pews from a local preacher, they went right back into business on the spot where the Unique had once stood. A sign outside the makeshift theater, which operated for two full years, comforted prospective patrons with the notion that nothing will “...fall on you but canvas if there is another quake." Entrepreneurs? Yes. Impresarios? Definitely!
After building the Imperial and operating the Empress in San Francisco (not to mention some smaller theaters in San Jose) the Graumans went on to build the Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles the movie capital’s first true palace--a lavish Spanish Colonial Revival house often characterized as Churrigueresque — in 1918. Grauman senior wouldn’t live for the opening of his son’s two major creations, The Egyptian, in 1922 and, five years later, Grauman’s Chinese, aka, these days, TCL Chinese Theatre Imax. (What’s in a name? Everything!). Decorated largely by Chinese craftsmen, with giant red pillars and "heavenly dogs" to guard its entrance, it is famous, among so many other things, for its forecourt which features the hand and footprints of well over three hundred stars. But wait, there’s more! Trigger’s (Roy Rogers’ horse's) hoof prints are there too, and an ice skate belonging to Sonja Henie, and John Barrymore’s actual profile (must’ve been messy washing up afterwards). Stories vary about how this all got started, but my favorite version is that Mary Pickford (a partner in the Chinese Theatre, along with Douglas Fairbanks and Howard Schenck) came to visit and accidentally stepped in some fresh concrete. Any ordinary businessman would have had workmen make a new cement square, but an impresario knows just what to do with a movie star’s footprints! (And she was, arguably, the first movie star).
What’s the difference between an actor and an impresario? Sid Grauman had a few walk-on parts in movies, but he knew his limitations. Douglas Fairbanks apparently asked him to take the role of a poker-player in Trail of the Gold Rush. Makes sense — he grew up in Alaska’s Yukon. According to Aline Mosby in The Washington Reporter (May 14, 1949), Sid told Fairbanks that he couldn’t act, “...no showman can.” Nonetheless he was pressed into service, with just one word to utter, “pass.” Story goes, after a number of rehearsals, the cards were dealt for the game, and cameras rolled. Grauman’s turn came to speak, but he couldn’t follow the script. Throwing his cards on the table, he declared,“Doug, I can’t pass — I have three aces!”
Some time or another, I’ll write about Roxy Rothafel, Marcus Loew and some other cool dudes with impressarial chops, but it’s not right to ask any of them, least of all Sid Grauman, to share the limelight. This post is dedicated to Grauman, who, after building the Chinese, sold out to Fox West Coast Theaters staying on, for the rest of his life, as Managing Director. He knew when to pass, after all.