Striking a Chord: A Program from Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre, Los Angeles, 17 October 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Sunday’s “Female Justice” presentation will focus on the 1929 sexual assault trial of powerful theater mogul Alexander Pantages and that tangled tale of an entertainment titan accused of sexual harassment is highly relevant today.  Among Pantages’ most formidable competitors in Los Angeles and throughout the Pacific Coast was Sid Grauman and tonight’s post highlights an artifact from the Homestead’s collection: a program from Grauman’s first Los Angeles theater, the Million Dollar.

Sidney Patrick Grauman was born in Indianapolis in 1859 to David and Rosa Grauman, who were natives of Louisville, Kentucky.  David and Sidney, as Pantages did, tried their luck in the Klondike during the famous gold rush in the Yukon in the last years of the 19th century.  David left for health reasons, but Sid stayed on and entertained miners and others in Dawson City before he followed his father to San Francisco.


There, at the dawn of the 20th century, father and son opened the Unique Theater, which not only presented live vaudeville, but the new medium of motion pictures.  A second theater soon followed and in coming years they created a circuit of theaters in the Pacific Northwest and eastward, though overreach caused serious financial setbacks.  Meanwhile, the disastrous earthquake and fire in San Francisco leveled their theaters, but the Graumans set up a makeshift tent theater.

After rebounding in San Francisco, the duo came to Los Angeles in 1917 and struck a deal with Adolph Zukor, later the head of Paramount Pictures, to buy their San Francisco theaters and to help with their first local project, the Million Dollar, named for the cost of the extravagant showplace on Broadway and Third Street.  In 1919, Grauman bought the Rialto Theatre, built in 1917 on Broadway near 8th, and ran it for five years.  In January 1923, the Metropolitan Theatre was built at Sixth and Hill streets near Pershing Square.


While Broadway was the theater headquarters of Los Angeles, there was a movement away from downtown and to the western suburb of Hollywood, which, of course, was also largely the hub of filmmaking.  The Graumans launched a themed project on Hollywood Boulevard in building Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, though David died before its completion in 1922.

This was followed five years later by the completion of the remarkable Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which also became renowned for the hand and foot prints of stars in cement in the building’s forecourt.  The theatre, however, was not solely owned by Sid Grauman, as film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and another man were investors.  In 1929, Grauman sold his interest to Fox West Coast Theatres and remained managing director.


Grauman never married and lived for years at the Ambassador Hotel and, for the last months of his life, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital before his death in 1950, just a few weeks before his 71st birthday.

The program featured in this post has a striking image of a woman asleep beneath a stage proscenium and an image of the theater with the caption “A Dream Come True” at the bottom.  Grauman penned a short essay, in which he noted the early stages of the Metropolitan project, stating, “It is because we have faith in you [patrons], and in our city, that this splendid building is being erected.”


He added, “we believe the public wants that which is best, that which is finest, that which appeals to the highest emotions and that which leaves pleasant recollections and, mayhap, teaches a fundamental lesson.”  Stating that “creation is a recognized necessity of humanity,” the theater mogul concluded that service to bring patrons back over and over led to “the certainty you will leave our theaters happier and with a new joy in living.”

Another essay was by Misha Guterson, the conductor of Grauman’s Symphony Orchestra. talking about an upcoming appearance by Rudolf Friml (1879-1972), a composer of popular operettas and who in 1920 was known for “The Firefly,” “Katinka,” and “High Jinks.”  Later Friml would be famed for “Rose-Marie” (1924) and “The Vagabond King” (1925.)


Highlighted in the program was an 11 a.m. concert on Sunday, 17 October, in which the orchestra and Guterson performed the first movement of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, a minuet by Beethoven, an aria from Jules Massenet with baritone John Smallman featured, and four other pieces.  It was noted that “the above musical program will be given in conjunction with the Paramount photoplay, Behold My Wife!”  

Also listed at the back of the publication was that evening’s three-part program of an opera overture; “Grauman’s International Flashes,” which may have been a newsreel of sorts; “Grauman’s World Visions,” which showed unusual locales on the planet; an animated comedy cartoon; a solo singer, tenor Robert Davis; “an artistic Western prologue” to the feature film with a baritone singer, Frederick De Bruin and “”Four Indian Singing Girls;” and an organ performance.


This latter was performed by organist and composer Henry B. Murtagh (1890-1961), who was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts and worked from his teen years in Denver and Portland before landing his gig at the Million Dollar.  In a short essay in the program, Murtagh talked about the general disinterest in long operas and opined that, if such performances were an hour or shorter, “they would be three times as popular.”

The organist added that “Mr. Grauman believes it is possible to present the meat of an opera, in fact, in much less time than that.”  Consequently, Murtagh concluded, “next week I am going to put this theory to the test” by performing a 10-minute recital in which he would “feature the story of ‘Faust,’ with slides illustrating all the main points in the action of the opera.”  This, he hoped, would draw the attention of “the man [what about the woman?] who likes music but shuns opera.”


The other house organist Ernest Hunt had a page dedicated to his morning recitals, including incidental music for a musical play, “The Heart of Paddywhack,” a featured organ solo with slides, and a composition by Camille Saint-Saëns, “Le Cygne” or “The Swan.”

A page at the back of the publication lists staff, including Sid and his father as president/managing director and vice-president, the members of the orchestra, Murtagh and Ernest Hunt as organists, and the remaining staff (ushers, maids, stage hands, cashiers, projection staff, etc.), including “Oriental Attendant” Lem S. Thong.  Prices were also shown, with 20 cent balcony and 30 cent floor, loge and balcony dress circle tickets for matinees and 40 cent balcony and 50 cent floor, loge and dress circle tickets for evenings.  These prices included the still-existent war tax from the First World War which ended almost two years prior.


Finally, there were a great many ads from such local businesses as a music company; music stores; shoe stores; a flower shop; the Barker Brothers furniture store; restaurants, a line of food products in the “Ben-Hur” line by a Los Angeles company; a bank; and several from Grauman’s theaters.

One notable ad was from The Reiss System of Health Culture, a couple of blocks from the theatre and which asked “Are You Overweight or Underweight?” and then stated that “we will make you normal” without “violent exercise,” starvation or drugs.  Among its list of patrons was David Grauman, Chamber of Commerce president Watt Morland, banker William D. Woolwine (whose nephew Thomas became county district attorney), and Los Angeles City Council President Boyle Workman, great-nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman of the Homesead and son of former mayor and city treasurer William Henry Workman.


This program is an interesting visual representation of the entertainment world created by one of Los Angeles’ best-known theater impresarious, Sid Grauman, and represents how dramatically theaters were transforming in the first decades of the 20th century.

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