American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre
by Jon Bastian
An historic movie palace rises from the dead…
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Since this is a review of a theatre, I have to begin with the obligatory, chatty personal anecdote. When I was in junior high, one of the cool things I got to do occasionally was hop the bus into Hollywood after school (‘twas a much different city then), where I’d meet my dad and we’d go to a movie at one of the three old classic theatres — The Chinese, the Cinerama Dome or The Egyptian. I wasn’t crazy about The Chinese; sure, the theatre inside is huge and gorgeous, but you have to wade through all the gawking visitors to get to it, and everyone assumes you’re a tourist just for being there. The Dome?perfection, period. The Egyptian, though, was the greatest place for a thirteen year old, because you had to walk about five miles from the street to the box office through a recreated Egyptian palace, complete with lotus-topped pillars, polychrome murals and stone pharaoh heads. The other places were just theatres. The Egyptian was a theme park in miniature.
Now, The Chinese Theatre hasn’t changed a whole lot. Putting those footprints in the courtyard was the smartest thing Sid Grauman ever did. It ensured that the place would be sacred, a tourist money pit, for eons. The Cinerama Dome, almost exactly forty years younger, is actually the best venue in the world for seeing big, spectacular movies. I share my humble opinion with many, many people, and my feelings have nothing to do with my father’s involvement in the Dome’s creation. The morons who own it right now don’t have a clue about that, though, and it’s been shuttered for the past couple of months as a controversial “improvement” project begins. Hey, you can’t improve perfection, but it still took a massive outcry from the movie going public to keep those non-visionary moneygrubbers from gutting the dome and hacking the big screen into little bitty mall-size pieces. The motherf*#kers, may they all develop sizzling cases of syphilis just for thinking they could try it.
But I do digress…
The Hollywood Egyptian, also originally a Grauman theatre, is the oldest of the trio, built in 1922, the same era when upper-middle class housewives had a jones for things exotic, particularly in Chinese and Egyptian style. Lacquer it, put a cat statue in the corner, emboss it with faux hieroglyphics and then play mah-jongg in the middle of it, just keep those filthy foreigners away, except as “cute” befuddled servants. Yes, it was the great white expropriate and patronize attitude; an ugly thing that at least led to some beautiful architecture. Of course, since the LA attitude toward architecture is that everything is a set, plopped up for a temporary purpose but completely unimportant, most of that beautiful 20s deco and streamline moderne and revival style stuff is gone — and not because of earthquakes. Even The Egyptian theatre was a victim, closed up and boarded off in the tawdry days when the heart of Hollywood was still a scummy schlock of fame (what, you mean last week?) and for a very long time, it was hidden away, forgotten, doomed to be turned into another sideways strip mall on the boulevard of broken condoms. The place has been rescued, and is currently home to American Cinematheque’s screenings, a wide range of films, some well known, others obscure, but all worth seeing on the big screen — more on which below.
I don’t know if American Cinematheque was the sole mover behind The Egyptian Theatre’s restoration — I suspect the hands of the LA Conservancy, bless their collective hearts — but all I do know is that the theatre, like an entombed pharaoh from a mummy flick, has risen from the sands of neglect with a vengeance. Improbably, this beautiful place is tucked right between unprepossessing storefronts on Hollywood Boulevard, like a diamond stuffed in a sock drawer, and it makes for an impressive first glance no matter how you pass it — crap, crap, crap, crap, WOW!, crap.
The first thing you’ll notice, if you were ever lucky enough to go here in the old days, is that the once empty and canopied forecourt is now topless and lined with humungous palm trees rising out of illuminated planters, creating a dramatic walkway toward the distant entrance. A glowing sign above the gates declares “American Cinematheque,” and the once bright, tacky and sloppy colors that garnished the walls are gone, replaced with more subdued tones. If there’s a flaw to this presentation, it’s that you have to walk all the way up front to the box office, then all the way back to the end of the line to get in, but that’s a problem that was created in 1922, so shouldn’t be held against anyone now. Besides, it just gives you more time to appreciate this little oasis.
The real surprises, though, begin once you’re inside…
The original Egyptian was one big-ass theatre, seating something like 1500 people. In this restoration, the designers have actually built a complex of at least three theatres within the space of the old one, but have completely avoided the subdivided, mini-mall feeling or appearance. The big house, the Lloyd E. Rigler theatre, is huge and state of the art. The seats are comfortable, the legroom is enormous (those of us over six feet tall thank you) and yes, the place has the once common but now rare balcony. If there is a flaw to the place, it’s that there’s a very strange rake to the seats — imagine the Nike swoosh as floor topography and you get the idea — the first few rows actually rise back up toward the screen. However, the screen is high and the seats are arranged so that there are no sight problems. Post-show discussions are another matter, since the speakers are on floor level, and if I have any complaints about the venue, that’s the only one. Put the guests on a riser or something so we can all see them. Incidentally, they do not suffer that other common movie theatre guest speaker problem — crappy acoustics; there was nary a drip of feedback over the mics and everything was perfectly audible in both directions — even audience questioners from the far back rows could be heard fine up front. I suppose this could be a problem if you had a typical Joe Sixpack audience, but this is a movie-lover’s movie palace, so that should never be a problem.
I haven’t had a chance yet to see the other theatres, but I’m assuming they’re just as high-tech as the Rigler. The inner lobby is fascinating, a multi-leveled maze of ramps and railings leading to the various theatres, kind of a human pachinko machine, but I mention this as compliment, not detraction. Maybe that’s just me; I like complicated interior spaces. They leave room for exploration and discovery. In fact, it was because of this design that it didn’t hit me until after the show that I was still within the cavernous floor space of the old theatre after emerging from the new one.
American Cinematheque’s screening series promises to live up to the venue, and if you’re in town, you owe it to yourself to drop in. Their “Hollywood On Hollywood” series runs through October 17th, and other mini-festivals this fall include a two-night showing of classic Classroom Guidance films from 1945 through 1970, a tribute to actor/writer/director/oddball Timothy Carey and an alternative film festival. October 13th brings two screenings of a newly struck 35mm print of John Carpenter’s Halloween (the first sold out the instant it was announced) featuring pre-show discussion with Carpenter, star Jamie Lee Curtis, producer Debra Hill, and other cast and crew members.
The theatre is located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, which is a couple of blocks east of Highland, at Las Palmas. There is plenty of parking in pay lots behind and near the theatre, or free street parking (good luck) after six p.m. Assuming the current bus and rail strike ever ends (don’t get me started) the theatre is also within easy walking distance of the Hollywood-Highland MTA station. In short, it’s an easy place to get to and to get into, unlike the Chinese.
American Cinematheque offers a quite extensive tour of the theatre, membership in their organization and four times a day screenings of their documentary “Forever Hollywood.” For information, call (323) 466-FILM, or you can check out the schedule linked to Filmmonthly’s main page.
The place and the program are winners all around. An historic venue rescued, a film program with something for everyone and a big, comfortable theatre. Oh yeah — the box office and house stuff actually have two things that vanished a long time ago from most other theatres: brains and manners. That alone, perhaps, is worth the price of admission.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble. He lives in Los Angeles.
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