Sid Grauman: the hair, the theaters, the chutzpah.

lbm w sid grauman marion davies
Louis B Mayer with Grauman’s Chinese Theater impresario, Sid Grauman, and a very young Marion Davies. Year circa 1925. Location unknown but may be in the home of one of the three.

 Anyone who comments about a rare early morning start to play himself in a movie that, “Birds were singing. How long has that been going on?” I could have had a lot of fun with.

Of all the early Hollywood elite that I have written about, the one I most wished I could have met is Sid Grauman, founder and proprietor of the Million Dollar Theater (1918), Grauman’s Egyptian Theater (1922) and of course, the world-famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater (1927). All three of these Los Angeles icons are still open for business, despite the Million Dollar Theater being nearly 100 years old and the Egyptian having hosted Hollywood’s first ever movie premiere – Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks – the celluloid spring for the thousands of red carpet events that have followed.

Of course, the most famous of the showman’s theaters remains Grauman’s Chinese Theater visited by over 4 million tourists each year who also tour the famous celebrity hand and footprints in the forecourt, which start with the actress Norma Talmadge in 1927. Click here to see a video of my great uncle Louis B Mayer arriving at the premiere of the movie, The Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1932. It’s quite a spectacle and we can see that Hollywood has been Hollywood for a very long time.

Sid Grauman ran his beloved theaters right up until his death in 1950, living la vida loca from his hospital room at Cedars Sinai Hospital where he stayed for several months simply because he “liked it” but dining out nightly at many of LA’s finer restaurants, his fun loving attitude and shock of crazy hair his trademarks. He wasn’t actually a patient until he suffered a coronary inclusion and died. (You weren’t a true Angeleno until you had died at Cedars Sinai.)

At his death, Sid Grauman was 70 years old, unmarried and without heirs. He had lived a very full life, effortlessly burning the candles at both ends for decades.

Not only would spending a day with Sid Grauman involve time travel on my part but also operating at his timetable which, as a theater operator for most of his life, was roughly akin to bar hours: get up late, schmooze all night and go to bed just as the world is beginning to wake.

But it would be worth it.

Anyone who comments about a rare early morning start to play himself in a movie by George Jessel that, “Birds were singing. How long has that been going on?” I could have had a lot of fun with.

Grauman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 17, 1879 to David Grauman and the former Rosa Goldsmith, who were theatrical performers on various show circuits.

Grauman the showman was born when as a teenager he witnessed a store owner in a gold rush town in Alaska read the newspaper to a gathering of miners and charge each admission for the privilege of hearing the latest news. Sid Grauman realized three things: 1) content is king, 2) the king needs a castle and 3) build it and they will come.

While men from around America and the world desperately tried to get rich during the Klondike gold rush, Sid and his father were looking for other golden opportunities. By the time Sid joined his parents in San Francisco in 1900, they had indeed been successful purveyors of entertainment for gold rush miners and were cashed up and ready to open theaters. The Graumans opened the Unique, then the Lyceum and were also involved in a vaudeville troupe that toured up the north coast.

But when they lost their lease on the Unique in early 1906 Grauman hired an ax crew to demolish it immediately after the last showing so it could not be used as a theater by the new owners. According to The Evening News of January 30, 1906, “The interior of the little theater looked as if it had been wrecked by a cyclone or an explosion” (read article here). Then came the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake on April 18, 1906, which demolished most of the city and leveled the two theaters in any event.

Grauman Sr. picked among the rubble and was able to find a working projector. I can just imagine him saying to Sid, “Son, we’re back in business!” In no time, they set up a tent theater, which advertised to the jittery residents of San Francisco, “Nothing to fall on you but canvas if there is another quake.” Again, content was king in his canvas castle and the city was so grateful that the Grauman’s were awarded a civic commendation for services to the community.

By 1917, the flickering writing was projected on the wall: where better to build theaters then at the source of where content had begun to flow in earnest – Los Angeles!

The Grauman’s went into business with Adolph Zukor, who would go on to establish Paramount Pictures, and the Million Dollar Theater was born in 1918. Sadly, David Grauman died in 1921 so did not see the Egyptian open to tremendous fanfare the next year. Grauman remained devoted to his mother until she died in 1936. Her hand prints are the only ones in the Grauman’s Chinese Theater forecourt that are not from a celebrity.

What so many people outside of Hollywood do not realize is that not only was Los Angeles a company town, but a town with lives that were inextricably woven together in ways that are hard to fathom today.

This photo is a prime example. It shows Sid Grauman with Louis B Mayer, and the actress Marion Davies, but it’s important to note that Sid’s business partners included Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, two of the founders of United Artists, along with director DW Griffiths. Fairbanks was also a founding member of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), as was Sid Grauman and of course, it was the brainchild of LB Mayer. (Fairbanks also hosted the first Oscars Ceremony in 1929.) Sid Grauman was also in business with Joseph Shenck who became chairman of UA; his brother Nicholas was Marcus Lowe’s right hand man, which creates yet another layer of complex inter-connections considering Lowe’s significant involvement in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mary Pickford was also in business with Charlie Chaplin, and of course, a great friend of my great-grandmother, Ida Mayer Cummings. Shenck was married to Norma Talmadge, who had also been married to George Jessel. They also lived on Palisades Beach Road and were neighbors of my uncle, who lived with his wife and two daughters, Irene and Edie at 625 – a home that later became the love nest for Marilyn Monroe and JFK and The Beattles crash pad. Joseph Shenck partnered with Darryl F Zanuck to start 20th Century Pictures, which eventually merged with Fox Film Corporation and became, of course, 20th Century Fox. Louis B Mayer’s daughter Edie’s husband, Bill Goetz would later run this studio.

In 1922, the heads of the four studios – the usual suspects, Shenck, Mayer, Goldwyn and Jesse Lasky – founded the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

And I could go on and on and on… in the early years of film, Los Angeles was where everyone’s lives, divorces, business partnership and the creation of the industry’s infrastructure, swirled into one great vortex, rather like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.

So choosing to hang out with Sid Grauman for a day, let’s say May 11, 1927 would have not only given me a front row seat at the founding of the now esteemed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but I could have hopped limos and headed home to my uncle Louis’ beachfront home for a nap and catch up with my great great grandfather, Jacob Mayer who at that time was spending his last days quietly living at his son’s home until his death on April 18, 1930.

While connecting the dots in Hollywood would have been an exercise in sheer futility, Sid Grauman is particularly special because he created the castle in which surely millions of patrons have paid homage to Hollywood.

But as an actor – not so much. Years before the George Jessel movie, Sid Grauman was asked to play a poker player in another film with his dialogue limited to one word, “pass”. Here’s what happened, according to Hollywood correspondent Aline Mosby in her hilarious article for The Washington Reporter, May 14, 1949:

‘Douglas Fairbanks asked “Sunshine”, as Hollywood calls the gag-loving showman, to play a poker player in Trail of the Gold Rush.

“I told Doug I couldn’t act, no showman can. He gave me just one line, “pass”, not even “I’ll pass”.

After 20 rehearsals the cards were dealt for the make believe game and the cameras rolled. When Grauman’s turn came to speak the one word, he threw his cards on the table and stood up, “Doug, I can’t pass! I have three aces. Doug chased me off the set and didn’t speak to me for days.”‘

Grauman had three aces indeed – the Million Dollar, the Egyptian and the Chinese…

POST SCRIPT: I would like to thank the following (names where possible or Twitter accounts) for helping me to identify the people in this picture as initially I only knew that it included LB Mayer: the Toronto Film Festival, film archivist Christel Schmidt (author of the new book Queen of the Movies about Mary Pickford), author and film historian HP Oliver, Phillip Gershon, Russ McMillen, @NitrateDiva and @netminnow.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.


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