But Sid Grauman, the great movie palace entrepreneur, and his partner were just a little bit ahead of the archaeologists. The month before, October 18, 1922, they 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. Entirely reflective of what is now recognized architecturally as “Egyptian Revival Style,” it was the first of its kind, but many would follow.
Having helped to run a movie palace in 1976, Staten Island’s St. George Theatre, a then 2672-seat Spanish/Italian Baroque-style confection, (architect, Eugene DeRosa, designer Nestor Castro), I know more than a little bit about the imaginations of movie palace architects and designers, who stretched building style like taffy, to suit the fantasies of movie patrons. Case in point: the United Palace in Upper Manhattan, one of the original New York “Wonder Theaters,” has been described as “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco,” by David W. Dunlap of the New York Times. (The United Palace is a Thomas W. Lamb theatre, BTW).
Returning to Grauman’s Egyptian (architects: Meyer & Holler), it 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 styling, some roof pans above the main entrance, were used, even though they’re not consistent with the sight-lines of an Egyptian-styled building.
In that period, my mother, a teenager beginning to grow up into a “flapper,” was going to the library in Toledo, Ohio after school, for books and stereopticon slides of Egyptian tombs.
Grauman was onto something; and though he opened his Chinese Theatre, more famous, perhaps, than his Egyptian, Egyptomania, as it was once called, saw 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 an Egyptian in Coos Bay, Oregon in 1925. 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 really gotten into Egyptomania.
There were Egyptian-styled theaters all over 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 managed somehow to die a little more than four months after opening Tut’s tomb, while shaving the top of an infected mosquito bite, fueling stories of the “mummy’s curse.”). Lord Carnarvon, happened, by the way, to own Highclere Castle, the setting for the television series, Downton Abbey (think Lady Mary in an Egyptian-themed flapper dress!).
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 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."
Artifacts from King Tut’s tomb toured the U.S. in the seventies, 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.