The Million Dollar Theatre (1918)
Architect: Albert Carey Martin Sr., William Lee Woollett
Sid Grauman's first major theatre was named Grauman's Theatre when it opened on February 1, 1918 with William S. Hart in "The Silent Man." Following the hype over its price tag it soon became known as Grauman's Million Dollar Theatre, although it was not officially named this until 1922. The auditorium was built behind the twelve story Edison office building; the exterior is a magnificent example of a variation of Spanish Rococo style known as Churrigueresque. Deeply molded features decorate the theatre entrance, and heroic figures and symbols of western Americana, such as bison heads and longhorn steer skulls, crafted by sculptor Joseph Mora, accent the facade.
The auditorium is 106 feet long and 103 feet wide, decorated in a similar style to the exterior, and has a curved proscenium arch 40 feet wide and 40 feet high. The ceiling has a coffered dome and with numerous statues and niches. The organ grilles on the side walls are in the style of Spanish Colonial altar screens. Architect William Lee Woollett is credited with the design of the interior. The proscenium, with its flanking columns and coffered ceiling, foreshadowed the fantastical design by Woollett for Grauman's Metropolitan Theatre (later Paramount). The eclectic, fantasy design of the Million Dollar Theatre in 1918 contrasted with the more conventional, neoclassic look of most movie palaces at that time. By the end of the 1920's, exotic themes and atmospherics were the rage in movie palace design, and many early movie palaces looked dated, but the Million Dollar Theatre still looked fresh and almost a century later, still wows.
Although designed specifically as a movie palace, full stage facilities were installed. Within two months of opening, Sid Grauman began to stage spectacular prologues prior to the film show on the 35 feet deep stage, which was 103 feet wide. Seating was provided for 1,400 in the orchestra and 945 in the balcony. An unusual feature was the positioning of the projection booth at the front of the balcony, rather than the usual position at the rear of the balcony. This gave a shorter throw to the screen which resulted in a brighter picture. The initial organ, a small 2 manual, 7 rank Wurlitzer installed and opened by Jesse Crawford, proved inadequate, and was replaced on December 23, 1918 by a larger 2 manual 16 rank Wurlitzer. The original organ was transferred to the Rialto Theatre on South Broadway, which Grauman also operated. Among the famous names who attended the opening night were: Jesse L. Lasky, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle.
Grauman sold his interests in his downtown Los Angeles theatres (the Million Dollar, Rialto and Metropolitan-later Paramount) to Paramount-Publix in 1924, in order to focus on Hollywood, notably running the Egyptian Theatre and planning the Chinese Theatre. The theatre was leased out to Fox West Coast Theatres briefly, but Great Depression business losses caused them to close it down by 1930. After running under several different independent operators, Metropolitan Theatres assumed control in 1945 and breathed new life into the theater by presenting live shows starring Billy Holiday, Cab Calloway and Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra. Beginning in the summer of 1950, the Million Dollar became a film and stage venue exclusively for Spanish speaking audiences. The first downtown Los Angeles theatre catering to this audience, stars such as Maria Felix and Delores Del Rio appeared on its stage. By 1975 new general release movies, with Spanish voice-overs, and live Mexican vaudeville shows appeared for one week each month. Metropolitan Theatres closed the venue on March 1, 1993.
Under the guise of 'modernizing' the theater, during the early 1960's the original plaster decorations of the foyer area were hidden by a suspended drop ceiling and covered walls. After Metropolitan Theater's closure of the Million Dollar, a church immediately took over the theater and painted over chandeliers and original wall murals with white paint. The name 'Million Dollar' was removed from the marquee at this time. In 1998, the church moved out and down Broadway to the former (Loews) State Theatre and, in October 2005, the theater was leased by former nightclub owner Robert Voskanian. Over one million dollars have been spent renovating the theater on new marble floors, refurbishing the stone proscenium arch, and a new red and gold paint scheme.
The Million Dollar Theatre reopened on February 28, 2008 with a performance by Mexican singer and Latin Grammy Award winner Pepe Aguilar. Plans to host film screenings, movie premieres, stage performances and concerts have begun to see light as the theater hosted the Los Angeles stop of Wilco's concert tour in January 2012. (Excerpts from Roe and Haas; Cinema Treasures)