Pharaoh Comes To Main Street: American Movie Palaces in the Egyptian Style

From the earliest days of Hollywood studios, movie-going was seen as an escape from reality. The days of the nickelodeon theatres in converted storefronts were short and soon the ornate and vaudeville houses were billing movies as part of the show. By 1915, grand theatres in the European style were being designed mainly with motion pictures in mind and by the 1920s, what is now considered the American Movie Palace Era was in full swing. Architects and decorators were encouraged by the theatre chains to come up with ever more grand and exotic theatres. Soon, architectural styles from four thousand years of human history were being borrowed, copied and enlarged upon in ever more clever ways, all with the intent to thrill and delight theatre patrons and keep them coming back. The building was as much a part of the experience as the entertainment exhibited within.

Of the exotic styles employed, one of the mainstays was Pharaonic Egyptian. By 1930 our nation was bespeckled from coast to coast with dozens of little Denderas and Karnaks. Although many theatres succumbed to the wrecking ball, enough have survived to enjoy the current revival of classic movie palaces.

Any Egyptologist or armchair Egyptophile can derive a bit of amusement from aesthetic and historic inaccuracies in such pictures as The Ten Commandments, The Egyptian and the host of "mummy" movies, but when one reins in purism they can be a pleasure to see. So it is with Egyptian movie palaces, which often borrow shamelessly from Dynasties I-XXX in a single building, yet somehow . . . work. I will spotlight a few of the nation's finest, and then turn attention to what survives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The most recently restored major movie palace is Peery's Egyptian in Ogden, Utah. Inside and out, it is Ptolemaic in feeling although painted scenes in the auditorium appear to be New Kingdom in flavor, with the Viceroy of Kush seeking audience with Tutankhamen. Surprisingly, three figures away, we see the obverse side of the Narmer Palette replicated in its entirety! Such are the bits of humor that an Egyptophile who also loves old theatres can enjoy.

Theatre architects knew that the Egyptians were incapable of the vast unsupported ceilings that theatres require, so they often took a clever approach, opting to make auditorium ceilings smooth and vaulted, painted deep blue and softly lit to evoke an evening sky complete with a twinkling firmament of tiny lightbulb stars. This effect, called "atmospheric" by theatre designers, was used with many architectural styles but was exceedingly popular with Egyptian, and the Ogden, Utah example is an excellent one.

The comparatively conservative moviegoing public of Boise, Idaho seems to have been somewhat shocked when their own Egyptian debuted, if one reads the newspaper headlines at the time of its opening. The auditorium, restored today, was modeled closely after that of Grauman’s Egyptian in Hollywood. Lotus columns, with sphinxes in between, support a wide, corbelled proscenium arch.

Perhaps the prototypical Egyptian movie palace is indeed Grauman’s Egyptian. This California Karnak was not the first movie theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, but it was the first of the major palaces in the district. It's architects, Meyer and Holler, would later be employed again by showman Sid Grauman to design his famed Chinese Theatre. The Egyptian, which opened in 1922 about five weeks before Tutankhamen's tomb was dis-covered, did not weather the winds of change nearly as well as the Chinese has, but happily, in its conversion to a two-screened venue for independent and classic cinema (a project now underway), the Egyptian’s original features that remain are being preserved, and a few missing elements are being replicated.

I was fortunate to visit the construction site this past June, and through the scaffolding, was able to see the ceiling’s magnificent gilded winged scarab, from which radiates an enormous plasterwork sun-burst grille, which serves as the front for the Wurlitzer pipe organ chamber. The theatre’s original organ has been located, and will be reinstalled, accompanying the silent 1923 version of The Ten Commandments on opening night, and used for special classic film showings in the future. The 1960s lobby has been gutted, and the portico of papyrus bud columns which once stood there is being replicated. The long courtyard, which served as the theatre’s open-air grand lobby, has likewise been freed of the 1950s and ’60s "improvements" and will once again be graced with palm trees, and its fountain restored. Removal of a 1950s modern fascia at the courtyard’s entrance has revealed figures (and hieroglyphs of dubious translatability) hidden for nearly 40 years.

ARCE/NC members may wonder, "What’s left in the Bay Area?" Unfortunately, we never had anything of the calibre of Grauman’s but there were indeed several notable examples, and a few survive in part. A nod first to the long since demolished Franklin Theatre, on Franklin between 15th and 17th in Oakland. It opened circa 1914, when the “Movie Theatre” was barely emerging as an actual building type. As seen in a 1920s photo discovered in the files of the Oakland Main Library, it had more in common with 19th Century Egyptianesque prisons (i.e. the Tombs in New York), fraternal halls, and mausolea than with the movie palaces of the decades that followed. The Diamond, on Oakland’s Fruitvale Avenue, near the 580 freeway, suffered a fate not much better that the Franklin. Gutted, it is now a Albertson Store. Though remodeled in streamline moderne style in the late 1930s, it was once Egyptian.

Oakland’s Parkway, on Park Boulevard, has an eclectic neo-classicoid facade, but the auditorium still preserves a whimsical proscenium arch, unmistakably Egyptian in origin. There is a winged sundisk, and a sunburst grille on the ceiling which was copied (on a smaller scale) after that of Grauman’s in Hollywood, and on either side of the stage and screen, nemes-be-decked pharaoh heads surmount hybrid bodies which combine the forepart of a lion with the serpentine hind- part of a Capricorn beast! Meanwhile, rows of cobra-headed falcons stretch their wings protectively along the auditorium sidewalls. The cobras flanking the proscenium sundisk sport lion's heads, and there is a tiny elephant standing beneath. The Parkway is Hollywood Egyptomania at its most eclectic.

Crossing the Bay to San Francisco, it must be mentioned that in the once-fashionable Market Street theatre district, there did exist a theatre called Egyptian. A small theatre seating only 400, it opened in 1925. The interior was Pharaonic, but on a budget. Known in the Forties as the Studio, and then for many years as the Guild, it ended its career as the Pussycat. Until the mid 1980s, a weathered sign reading "Egyptian" could still be seen painted on the sidewall of the Gothic style commercial block which fronts the building.

Out on Geary stands the City's true theatrical tribute to Egypt, the Alexandria. Designed by James and Merrit Reid, the Bay Area’s most prolific theatre architects (but known to the general public best as architects of the Fairmont Hotel and the Cliff House), it was a radical departure for them. The Reids usually preferred Spanish, and occasionally Franco-Italian motifs, Oakland’s Grand Lake being their finest example. True to the theatre’s name, the well-preserved exterior is somewhat Ptolemaic in feeling. A noteworthy detail is the fire escape landing, with a little cavetto corniced pavilion. The vertical sign, marquee, and 90% of the interior are products of a 1940s remodeling. Even more unfortunate is the apparent lack of photos of the original interior, said by advertisements to be authentic in every detail (by movie palace standards anyway). In 1995 I was taken through the Alexandria’s attic, where I discovered the domed ceiling to be original. Perhaps the fact that it was of Ptolemaic inspiration gave the architects license to include a dome in an Egyptian building. I have been told that if one climbs atop the lobby drinking fountain to relamp the fixture above it, and pokes their head through the resulting opening, the original lobby wall can be seen behind the 1940s (present) wall. Still intact are surfaces scribed and painted to look like stone blocks, and a row of lotiform columns—urban archaeology at its finest.

Before closing this survey I should mention the 1980s modern Shattuck Cinema, Berkeley, and screen #3 at Oakland's Grand Lake. Both are products of the same design firm. The Grand Lake's miniature Egyptian auditorium is the best, having been closely modeled after a theatre in DeKalb, Illinois. Sidewall murals make it look as if the monuments of Abu Simbel, Deir el Bahari and Giza are all within hiking distance of each other. The mural in the balcony stairwell which features an old fashioned movie camera being weighed against the feather of Ma’at is not to be missed. The two auditoria at the Shattuck feature a similar look, but without as much detail as that in the Grand Lake.

Finally, one may ask if any Pharaonic Style movie palaces were ever actually built in Egypt. I do not know. Thomas Lamb, who designed San Francisco’s long-lamented baroque Fox Theatre, also designed the monumental art deco Loew’s Metro in Cairo, still in operation. By the 1940s, theatres in Egypt were embracing the moderne style, as seen in the flamboyant Amir, and the streamlined Metro, both in Alexandria.

[I would like to acknowledge Jack Tillmany’s "San Francisco Theatres Since 1906" list, and fellow theatre enthusiast and historian Steve Levin, for information on the Egyptian in San Francisco.]

  • Gary Parks
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