by Paul R. Spitzzeri
That’s a Wrap is a series of posts concerning film-related artifacts in the Homestead Museum’s collection. This inaugural installment references two iconic elements of the film industry before 1930: the artistry of one of the great film comedians, Charlie Chaplin, and one of the most famous movie theaters of them all, Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
The artifact is an original program for Chaplin’s 1928 classic The Circus when it was showing at Grauman’s Chinese. The item effectively plays off the imagery associated with the exoticism of the theater (recalling a recent post here about Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles) and the thematic thrust of Chaplin’s film.
The Circus is based on a simple premise–the Little Tramp, Chaplin’s famed character, was hired as a clown and falls in love with a character played by Merna Kennedy. A rival emerges, in the form of the star tightrope-walker (Harry Crocker) and the Tramp tries to impress his love with his abilities on the tightrope, only to encounter a group of vicious monkeys which had escaped from their cage. Gags of all kinds impressed critics and theater-goers and the film was given a special Academy Award at the first ceremony in 1929 for “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing.”
Chaplin, however, was in a personal crisis with a bitter divorce from Lita Grey and there were a series of problems in the filming of The Circus involving the destruction of key set pieces, like the circus tent, poor film processing, and a fire that ruined sets and other materials. Still, the film is considered one of the comedian’s finest works.
As for Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it opened in spring 1927 with the premiere of the biblical epic King of Kings. Theatre impresario Sid Grauman was also the builder of the Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles and the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, but the Chinese was his signature property. He did have partners, including film royalty Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Grauman sold his interest to West Coast Theatres just two years after the theater opened, but remained the manager until he died in 1950.
The theatre, which became a Los Angeles historic-cultural landmark in the late 1960s and needed extensive work after the 1994 Northridge earthquake has hosted more film premieres than any other theater and also was the site for some years of the Academy Awards ceremony.
The theater’s architecture, by Raymond Kennedy, including a striking forecourt between the street and the auditorium and its interior decorations are well-known, including many items imported from China. The facility, built for $2,000,000 (qualifying it as one of the top “movie palaces” of its day) has held up pretty well over its nearly 90-year existence.
Check back for occasional entries from That’s a Wrap to see more of the Homestead’s film-related objects.