I’ve got a gripe. Its after Labor Day, and movie theaters of all kinds are still off-limits in New York. When I ran the St. George Theatre in 1976, a 2,672-seat Spanish Baroque palace in Staten Island, we hardly ever sold more than a couple hundred seats. Drive-ins are enjoying a resurgence; why not give special dispensation to the few remaining movie palaces? Thousands of seats and only a few hundred patrons? Talk about socially distant!
Or let’s not talk about it. The Governor’s got his metrics. Let’s forget 2020 completely and escape. How about 1920? Movie Palaces were springing up like gloriosa daisies in a July landscape. Their styles were various. I’m thinking about Egyptomania, the craze that made 1920’s people fantasize going back even further, to 1320 (BCE).
All that digging around the Valley of the Kings, the Victorians started it, looking for royal tombs that, down through history, hadn’t been raided. Two Brits, Howard Carter, and the ill-fated Lord Carnarvon got lucky and discovered King Tutankhamen’s gleaming still-intact resting place.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Sid Grauman was just a little bit ahead of them. The month before, October 18, 1922, he’d opened America’s first Egyptian-style movie palace, still standing on Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, which was — superficially at least — more opulent than Tut’s tomb. It was the first of its kind, entirely reflective of what is now recognized architecturally as “Egyptian Revival Style.”
Theater styles were often not singular. Movie palace architects and designers stretched building style like taffy, to suit the fantasies of movie patrons.
Case in point: the United Palace in Upper Manhattan, a Thomas W. Lamb theater, one of the original New York Loewe’s “Wonder Theaters,” has been described as “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco,” by David W. Dunlap (New York Times). No Egyptian in there, but everything else...
Returning to Grauman’s Egyptian (architects: Meyer & Holler), that theater started life on the drawing board as an “Hispanic-themed” design, before the architects were persuaded to alter their plans. Egypt and all things Egyptian were such a craze by then, the design simply had to be changed. All that remains of the original hispanic casting, some roof pans above the main entrance, were used, even though they’re not consistent with the sight-lines of an Egyptian-styled building.
Grauman was, of course, onto something; and though he went on to open his Chinese Theatre, more famous, perhaps, than his Egyptian, Egyptomania, insured the opening of the Bush Egyptian Theatre in San Diego, a year later, followed by, among others, Peery’s Egyptian in Ogden, Utah in 1924, and The Egyptian in Coos Bay, Oregon in 1925. Here’s an interesting tidbit about the Coos Bay Egyptian:
Originally constructed in 1922 as the Motor Inn Garage and Service Station...the building was transformed into a movie palace after the easing of federal building restrictions. The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 and excavations of the Great Hall of Karnak [Egypt] created a public sensation and inspired American movie palaces to move away from the Old World Renaissance and Baroque styles that previously dominated.
There were approximately a hundred Egyptian style theaters when it was all over with, including two more in Utah, a state which seems to have gone all Egypto. There were theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada, including ones in: Bala Cynwyd (Pennsylvania), Concord (New Hampshire), Boise (Idaho), Quebec (Canada), Delta (Colorado), and DeKalb (llinois). These builders rode the curve of the fascination with all things Egyptian, until around 1929. The style — considered a subset of atmospheric theaters — peaked at that point, perhaps because its opulence was tinged with a bit of the macabre; The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon who had financed and fully participated in King Tut excavations, managed somehow to die a little more than four months after opening Tut’s tomb, while shaving the top off an infected mosquito bite, fueling stories of the “mummy’s curse.”
Egyptian style blossomed in the 1920‘s, but had its roots firmly planted in the 19th century, influencing a lot more than movie palace design style. Think: Art Nouveau (all those tendrils), and Verdi’s Aida, of course! — and even (arguably) the Washington Monument, which is, after all, an obelisk. And speaking of those, there are three original ones (all authentically Egyptian), sometimes called “Cleopatra’s Needles,” in Paris, London and New York City, all erected in the 19th century.
Just how Egyptian is Grauman’s theater? Here I’d like to shamelessly excerpt (with a tip of the hat to https://losangelestheatres.blogspot.com, who quotes Cezar Del Valle) — so that’s two hat-tips – here goes:
Cezar Del Valle notes in another Theatre Talks blog post that a month before the opening, the Egyptian was already inspiring religious fervor. He excerpts an article from the September 9, 1922 issue of the newspaper Holly Leaves reporting on a talk at the Krotona Institute on ‘Temples and religions of Egypt during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut’ by Captain Stuart Corbett, a ‘noted Egyptologist’:
Grauman’s Hollywood Theatre may not last a century [it seems, from this vantage point, it’ll make it!] but its art was old when the pyramids were built. The careful attention given to detail may be traced in the hieroglyphics on the walls. The reproduction of the cartouche from the royal scarab, bearing the inscription, 'O Let not my Heart bear Witness against me,' is wonderfully exact in detail.
Like so many gorgeous old movie palaces, Grauman’s Egyptian skated close to the edge of what might have been demolition, in 1993. But let’s all serve up a sustained round of applause for the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation, which carefully steered it in the direction of Historic Cultural Monument status, and saw it through to its current successful ownership.
For a really great treatment of the Egyptian theater mania of the twenties, check out Bruce Handy's January 29, 2008 Vanity Fair article, "Watch Like an Egyptian."
Fifty years after the Roaring Twenties, artifacts from King Tut’s tomb toured the U.S. to rave reviews, reviving once more Tut’s (posthumous) Twentieth Century celebrity status (ironic, given the fact that his legacy in ancient times had been entirely obscured by his successors). “King Tut, Funky Tut,” sang Steve Martin in 1979, keeping the myth — and perhaps the curse? — alive.
Lord Carnarvon, happened, by the way, to own Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey (think Lady Mary in an Egyptian-themed flapper dress!).