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The Million Dollar was Sid Grauman’s first major movie theatre when it opened in February 1918. Officially called “Grauman’s Theatre”, it was informally known as the Million Dollar theatre for its opulent interior and rumors of the price tag. The theatre’s name was officially changed in 1922. It was the first movie theatre to break with generally classic design conventions and use fantasy themes throughout.
The theatre is built behind the 12-level Edison office building (architect A.C. Martin), a stunning example of Churrigueresque style, which can also be seen in San Diego’s Balboa Park Exposition buildings. The façade features 8 muses of the Arts along with symbols of Western Americana such as bison heads, eagles and longhorn steer skulls, all sculpted by Joseph Mora. The entrance to the theatre, on Broadway, is highly decorated with deep moldings.
The theatre’s interior, by William Lee Woollett, presents a fantasy theme and celebrates the allegorical children’s story The King of the Golden River by John Ruskin, a Victorian classic which would have been as familiar to theatre-goers 100 years ago as Alice in Wonderland is to modern day patrons. Interior decoration included bison heads on the balcony front facing the stage (sadly all now gone) plus many characters from the story. The centerpiece of the proscenium represents the story’s character Esquire, the Southwest Wind.
The theatre featured the world’s first cantilevered balcony, allowing for an unobstructed view from the Orchestra level below. It was described in the September 1919 issue of Popular Mechanics: “a concrete arch, such as is used in bridge construction, supports the balcony of a theater. There are no posts in the theater because of the arch, for which concrete was used when it was found impossible to obtain steel. The weight of the span is 9,000,000 lb. It is 12ft wide and 110ft long, and contains 180 steel rods”.
Sid Grauman wanted to know how many patrons were in his theatre at all times, so he had a “Hansen seating device” installed. Each seat had a sensor connected to the system’s control panel which showed which seats were occupied and which were free. Ushers were also able view a local display which allowed them to direct patrons to available seating.
In the Balcony lobby area the theatre features a set-piece barbershop. It is the last known piece of the late 1950s Mexican waxwork museum located in the Globe theatre to complement the films being shown at the time. The barber’s chair and its settings are fabricated just like a movie set.
Despite being specifically designed as a movie theatre, full stage facilities were included when the theatre was built. This allowed Sid Grauman to stage spectacular prologues prior to each movie screening, a precursor to lavish productions staged at his later theatres such as the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
A small 2-manual, 7-rank Wurlitzer organ was originally installed in the theatre but was superseded in late 1918 by a larger 2-manual, 16-rank Wurlitzer. Although the organs are now gone (the original transferred to the Rialto Theatre on South Broadway), huge plaster organ grilles in the style of Spanish Colonial altar screens, painted to look wooden, still flank the proscenium arch.
A novel feature of the theatre was its projection booth located at the center front of the balcony. The much shorter throw distance than projecting from the rear of the balcony, combined with simpler optics (no keystone correction was required), resulted in a picture much brighter than in other movie theatres, a feature Sid Grauman did not hesitate to use to help sell his new theatre. That said, prime center balcony seats were a loss of income and the balcony center projection location was not a pattern seen in other theatres. Note: one other example of a balcony center projection booth was the State Theatre in Philadelphia, however in this case the balcony was divided into right and left halves, i.e. it essentially had a section removed in the middle. The projection booth was situated in the rear wall between the left and right halves of the balcony for a straight-on projection to the movie screen.
Grauman sold the Million Dollar in 1924 to focus his attention on Hollywood and the Egyptian and Chinese theatres. The new owner, Paramount, closed the theatre in 1930 owing to the Great Depression. Metropolitan Theatres took over in 1945, and by 1950 instituted a policy that it exclusively entertain Spanish-speaking audiences. In 1946 Metropolitan modernized the lobby: the grand murals on the lobby walls were covered-up, and a drop ceiling halved the height of the lobby, hiding the vaulted ceiling above. As of 2017 the murals still exist behind the false lobby walls.
Metropolitan closed the theatre in 1993 and a church moved-in for five years. The church moved to the State Theatre on Broadway in 1998 however damage during their occupation of the Million Dollar allegedly included painting over murals and other interior decorations.
After being shuttered in 1998 the theatre was leased by former nightclub owner Robert Voskanian in 2005 and re-opened in 2008 for special events, concerts, and movie screenings. Business was intermittent and Voskanian relinquished his lease in 2012. Since then the theatre has been used for occasional one-off events, screenings, and location shoots. As of late 2017 the Edison Building, the theatre, and Grand Central Market were sold to Beverly Hills investor Adam Daneshgar. As of late 2017 the theatre has a new tenant: CoBird , who describe themsevles as “a global media company, with an immersive social commerce & entertainment platform for millennials”, have signed a five-year lease. CoBird plan to use the theatre space as an entertainment venue.
As of March 2017 The Million Dollar Theatre does not offer its own tours however the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats program generally uses the theatre as a venue for screening classic films several times a year. Pre-screening Backstage tours are often available but very limited in numbers and fill-up quickly. Check out the Last Remaining Seats website for schedule and more information.
The theatre has been a regular participant in Councilmember Jose Huizar’s annual Night On Broadway event (usually the last Saturday in January) when the theatre is opened-up to the public for free and hosts a variety of live entertainment programming. Check out the Night On Broadway website for more details.
|Counterweight System||Wire guide single purchase counterweight system operated from Stage Right; limited weight capacity.|
|Seating Capacity (current)||Main Floor 1,216; Balcony 808; Total 2,024.|
|Seating Capacity (original)||Main Floor 1,400; Balcony 945; Total 2,345.|
|Lighting System||4 border lights over stage; hard-wired to old stage lighting board located Down Stage Right; balcony rail and box booms for hanging additional lighting; no house dimmer circuits or DMX available.|
|Proscenium Height||40ft at center, 20ft at sides|
Photographs copyright © 2002-2019 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2019 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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