Unearthing a Rare Egyptian Artifact

December 4, 1923: Cecil B. De Mille's silent film The Ten Commandments premiered at Sid Grauman's year-old Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. December 4, 1998: The Ten Commandments was once again screened at the movie palace, which had gone through several transformations in the ensuing 75 years. Significant changes had been made to the grand courtyard entrance even before the theatre's first major renovation, in the 1950s. Several owners, an early 90s closing, an earthquake, and another renovation later, the Egyptian is in perhaps the most sympathetic hands possible--those of the American Cinematheque, a non-profit film and video exhibition organization which has dedicated itself not only to the preservation of the motion picture as an art form, but also to the preservation of this particular motion picture house.

Since its inception in 1984, the American Cinematheque has been more or less a traveling operation, offering an eclectic programming blend of retrospectives, new work both homegrown and international in origin, documentaries, video, and mixed media at various sites around Los Angeles. A permanent space for the organization, which was founded by Gary Essert and Gary Abrahams, was long in coming. After both Essert and Abrahams died in 1992, Barbara Smith took over as executive director of the Cinematheque and spearheaded the search for a place to settle. The result: The organization now has a home in the heart of Hollywood, in a landmark building with both historic interest and state-of-the-art technology. The current Egyptian houses two movie spaces--the 650-seat main auditorium, also known as the Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre, and a 75-seat screening room named for Steven Spielberg.

Reaching this goal was far from easy, and involved the collaboration of Cinematheque president Sigurjon "Joni" Sighvatsson, the organization's board of directors, a capital campaign that raised $12.9 million to complete the restoration of the Egyptian, project architect Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates, and Historic Resources Group, the preservation architect. Hodgetts + Fung's participation dates back at least a decade. "The Garys started searching for a place to put the Cinematheque maybe 10 years ago," says Craig Hodgetts, co-principal in the firm with Hsin-Ming Fung. "In four or five different instances, we prepared feasibility studies for various locations. Then, under Barbara's stewardship, the Egyptian was procured."

At that point, the theatre belonged to the city of Los Angeles. Designed by the firm Meyer and Holler and constructed in 1922, the Egyptian featured a stucco and concrete block courtyard with friezes, murals, and carvings of Isis, Osiris, and other gods and pharaohs; a portico entrance supported by four towering columns; auditorium walls decorated with scenic representations of Egyptian royalty cruising the Nile; and a spectacular sunburst pattern, with scarabs, cobras, floodwaters, turquoise lotus plants, and six golden stars adorning the ceiling. By the mid-30s, a vertical neon sign, marquee, and box office had been built on the street, along with a truss structure over the forecourt to display the title of the movie playing. Showman Mike Todd took over the theatre in the 1950s, installed a Cinerama screen and acoustical panels, removed the portico columns, and erased the courtyard with an aluminum storefront and low ceiling. It remained a movie house until 1992, when the city took it over.

That year, project preservation architect Peyton Hall of Historic Resources Group assessed the Egyptian for the city. "We did a background study to determine what was left that was historic, separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak," he says. "What we found was that the walls and ceilings of the original auditorium space were largely intact, except for the proscenium arch, which had been removed. In the forecourt, the original storefronts had been altered, and the portico had been altered beyond recognition." Soon after Hall's survey, American Cinematheque expressed its interest in the site. "As an organization, the Cinematheque saw itself as connected in a vital, cosmopolitan way to the surrounding urban street network," says Hodgetts. "The Egyptian really fit the bill--it was not in a shopping center. And the fact that it had historic overtones was a tremendous feather in the cap, if not a governing thing."

The Cinematheque's plans were stalled, however, by the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, which nearly demolished the Egyptian. "It was probably the worst-damaged building in Hollywood," says Hall. Although the roof remained standing, "part of the walls fell down, and other parts were badly cracked. It's an open concrete frame building with weak masonry in it, so it flexed and cracked a lot." Ironically, Hodgetts says, "What made the project happen, because I don't think it would have come into being otherwise, was that there was earthquake insurance, and low-cost earthquake loans available to the city. Barbara was able to put together a funding package from those sources, and purchase the hulk of the building. At that point, the project became a reality."

As did the various, often conflicting needs Hodgetts + Fung, in particular, had to answer. "The number one task was, is there a way from a structural and a historical point of view that this thing can be viable after the earthquake?" says Hodgetts, who worked with Hall, Fung, architect Eric Holmquist, and contractor Ron Lindsey of Turner Construction on the restoration. "From a technical point of view, it was very challenging, because the historians and engineers differed, as they will. The entire construction technology from the 20s was just completely untenable by today's earthquake standards. Bringing it up to code was a huge part of the cost. The concrete framework of columns, beams, and arches was not the major issue, although they had suffered some degradation and cracking. We wrapped the majority of those with high-tech carbon-fiber material, which preserved the concrete profiles." The real problem was the masonry, or hollow clay tile, in-fill--"from an earthquake point of view, the worst possible material," says Hodgetts. Since the material had historic significance, some of it was retained, but enclosed by concrete panels and steel reinforcing.

The next big mandate came from the Cinematheque. "You really have to think about what brand you're creating," says Hodgetts. "The Cinematheque is by no means a musty historical film society--they're running a Jim Cameron retrospective, they show experimental films. The audience is very young, very hip, and they're at a worldwide creative center of film culture. The Cinematheque serves as a gathering place for these people, and it cannot have a traditional character. Plus, Barbara was very firm about giving it more the nature of an institution than a commercial film house." The marquee was stripped away, and the truss structure now permanently bears the American Cinematheque name rather than any movie title. The vertical Egyptian Theatre sign was reproduced using historic neon gases and glass tubes. The courtyard, lined with restaurants and retail space, has been more or less replicated, with palm trees added, and the portico has also been restored. A lobby has been added, "but the popcorn stand is very muted, with a limited supply of things," says Hodgetts. "Instead, it's a place where people can sit and talk about the show."

The original Egyptian had no lobby; instead, it had a cavernous, single-level auditorium seating 1,600 people. There was no balcony, but the ceiling suddenly dipped low over the rear of the audience. Prior to the Cinerama installation, the screen was quite small, and at a great distance from the seating. "The issue was, how do we reconfigure the interior to make a premier house for the right-size audience, so that 300 or 400 people in the theatre wouldn't feel overwhelmed by the scale of the space?" says Hodgetts. And in the process, retain enough of the building's historical elements to satisfy the preservation requirements.

Those elements included the sunburst ceiling, which basically just required a good cleaning, and other more damaged painted areas that needed to be repaired. Details were taken from original plans and historical photographs. But the curved profile of the auditorium walls, which worked fine for organ accompaniment in silent days, just would not do for today's surround sound. How to remodel the theatre so modern audiences could enjoy a state-of-the-art cinema experience, as well as appreciate the historical setting?

The answer Hodgetts came up with was a kind of theatre within the theatre. "I always like to think of it like the 60s, when they used to make a hot rod by putting a new engine in an old jalopy," he says. "When you enter the theatre, the shell of the old building is perfectly visible, and it's illuminated." Dropped into the space, however, is a steel armature, a framework of motorized railways with acoustical panels that retract into an area adjacent to the screen, and slide into place when the movie starts, enclosing the audience. The armature, which for preservation reasons is attached to the floor, touching neither the walls nor ceiling of the auditorium, encompasses all of the theatre's technical components--air conditioning, projection, fire safety, lighting fixtures, and sound. The acoustical panels are fiberglass sandwiched between black plywood, with a series of clear portholes to keep the space from feeling oppressive. Although Hodgetts stresses that the armature is meant to be technical and not decorative, he says, "In the design of the interior, we looked for a 20th-century equivalent to Egyptian hieroglyphic design, which is full of repetitive patterns. It's very linear, very flat, very graphic, and kind of obsessive. We attempted to speak through time to the Egyptian motifs, but in muted form, so as not to compete with the original theatre, but complement it."

The screen itself is several times larger and 40' further back than its 1922 counterpart, and floats in a black space with serrated side wall. The intention, Hodgetts says, is to suggest the inside of a camera. The audience seating has been moved up 60' or so from its original position, and a balcony has been added to increase the intimacy of the film experience. In place of what used to be the rear of the theatre is the lobby, which retains the original ceiling but otherwise is "a very contemporary statement, with zig-zag ramps and a sunken screening room." That would be the Cinematheque's second space, the 75-seat Steven Spielberg Theatre, which is entered from above. "We thought of it as King Tut's tomb," the architect says of the screening room, which is reserved for the organization's more adventurous or obscure programming. "We put a gold roof on it that looks like the roof of a mummy's case."

Initially, a third screening space was going to be carved out of the Egyptian, but that would have interfered with the lobby, as well as the historical preservation of the building. According to Hall, "The decision was made among everybody involved, including the public agencies reviewing it, that we had to draw the line at one box. Once you put a second box in there, you can no longer receive the message of the space that was the rear portion of the auditorium. As it is, that space is largely open, and it has a box on one side over which you can see the ceiling. We can differentiate that new element as an addition." The same is true of the balcony, which is clearly articulated as separate from the original space. "'Articulation' and 'differentiation' are two of our buzz words," says Hall.

In the courtyard, there is less jockeying for position between the historic and the technological--there, yesterday rules, though it took some archeological digging to uncover it. The portico columns, for example, were reproduced by measuring what Hall calls "the footprint" left by the original columns, and "going back and forth with the historic drawings." Agreeing on the proper colors of things could be a problem, since historical photographs were all in black and white. But "with respect to the murals," says Hall, "it was surprisingly easy to recover the shapes and colors by stripping the paint back. Even with a square millimeter of color, you can see what it was. The harder part was trying to reproduce the faux stone treatment, which is layers of paint and glaze. An art conservatory that did a report on the decorative painting came in and took paint chips throughout the building, and analyzed what the materials were and how it was done."

Sometimes, however, reaching a consensus was difficult. Four or five color finishes were eventually determined to have been used on the courtyard walls, but the delegation of each finish was in dispute. "First we thought that there should be one block per color, but that came out looking like a Monopoly board," says Hodgetts. "So we brought in a scenic artist, and said, 'Look--generally speaking, they should be in this tonal range; generally speaking, it should incorporate these colors. But please, make it look like a great monumental stone wall.'" There were a lot of cooks on the project, including a historical color consultant, a painting contractor, architectural lighting designer Patrick Quigley, and a community development agency. Hodgetts says, "Everybody had their own opinion. What's amazing about some of these projects is, the success or failure depends on the last 1/100" of finish."

Still, all parties seem fairly content with the outcome. Hall says, "The genius of what Craig Hodgetts did was to design what we call a reversible alteration. In other words, everything can be removed without touching the historic walls and ceilings." Even the sprinkler system in the theatre lobby, for example, is ingeniously installed at the top of a torchiere that rises from the floor. "You use design to serve more than one purpose," Hall says. "You have good history, good architecture, and the two complement each other."

Hodgetts concurs, calling the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian "a unique blend of the old and the new. There's a state-of-the-art quality about the theatre-going experience, and this feeling of visiting an old landmark about the entry experience." Hall adds, "You have the best of the old and the best of the new, ideally--which is easier said than done."