Rick Nicita smiled broadly as he walked out of the newly restored Egyptian Theatre and into the late afternoon sun of its courtyard on Hollywood Boulevard.
The chairman of the American Cinematheque, which for 23 years owned and programmed the 101-year-old movie palace, had just spent a few hours inside the freshly renovated theater, and he was beaming.
“I thought it was terrific,” Nicita said, standing in the forecourt of the theater. “I mean, I’ve seen prospective photographs, but that never does the trick.
“It felt right,” he said. “That’s what it was. It’s an imagining of how an old movie palace should be now.”
The Egyptian Theatre reopens Thursday, Nov. 9 with a special screening of “The Killer,” followed by a Q&A with director David Fincher.
That film is a Netflix production, and its arrival at the Egyptian reflects the 2019 purchase of the theater by Netflix and the subsequent $70 million restoration of this cinematic landmark and living piece of Hollywood history.
As Netflix co-chief executive Ted Sarandos explained on stage at the Egyptian for a press preview on Monday, Nov. 7, the streaming giant bought the theater from the American Cinematheque in 2019 but will share its screen with the non-profit.
Netflix will use the Egyptian to release its movies, hold premieres and special events during the week. A Netflix store, selling merch from Netflix shows such as “Stranger Things,” “Bridgerton,” and “Squid Games” has already opened in one of the retail storefronts built on one side of the courtyard with the theater in 1922.
The American Cinematheque, now free of the expense of maintaining the theater, will program its eclectic mix of classic, art, and rare and restored films – often accompanied by in-person talks and Q-and-As – on the weekends.
“Welcome back to the Egyptian Theatre,” Sarandos said at the start of the preview, which also featured as speakers Nicita, Scott Stuber, head of Netflix Films, and Angus Wall, the director of a new Netflix short film on the history of the Egyptian.
“One hundred years ago in the silent film era, it was home to the first Hollywood premiere, the first red carpet,” he said. “Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, and Marlon Brando sat in the seats where you’re sitting.”
Even before the renovation, watching a movie at the Egyptian could feel like time-traveling back to the era of silent films, the early talkies, the Golden Age of Hollywood, or the films of one’s youth, depending on which film was screening that night.
Now it feels the same, only it looks and sounds better than ever before.
“As you can see, the Egyptian really was a magical place,” Stuber said at the conclusion of Wall’s film, “Temple of Film: 100 Years of the Egyptian Theatre.”
“We want to make sure it entertains and inspires film lovers for another century, just like it did the last hundred.”
Architect Peyton Hall of Historic Resources Group in Pasadena served as the historic consultant on the renovation. After the public presentation, we walked with him from the theater to the forecourt to talk about what it took to bring the Egyptian out of the past and make it ready for the future.
The Egyptian Revival architecture and decoration of the original theater remain, Hall said. The original walls and ceilings are the same, the painted designs have been cleaned and retouched as needed.
“There’s a lot of authenticity,” Hall says. “Both in terms of the original elements and things that have been recreated or preserved in place.”
On the arch above the stage, the most ornate of the original design elements – an Egyptian scarab beetle, a disc that represents the sun above its pincers – gleams brightly. A sunburst design spreads across the ceiling from it, all of it the original precast plaster pieces that artisans fastened to the ceiling more than a century ago.
“The sunburst is a screen that hid the pipe organ,” Hall says, pointing out the circular opens through which pipes from the organ in the theater attic once blasted music over the audiences below. “So your sound was coming from up there. And you were probably having an experience of shaking in your seat.”
Much of the renovation will never be seen by moviegoers. The entire foundation of the building was removed and rebuilt. The concrete-framed walls were filled to strengthen them to today’s earthquake retrofit standards. Those things, while costly and critical to the safety of the building and those in it, don’t change the moviegoing experience.
But the project also replaced much if not most of the audio and visual capabilities of the theater, Hall says. Some of it simple but important – changes to the lobby and entrances to the theater now will block all outside light and sound, such as the sirens that used to be audible inside the theater as firetrucks raced past on Hollywood Boulevard.
Because the Egyptian was built for silent films with live accompaniments its acoustics were never good, Hall says. Now, with speakers suspended and angled on cables above the 516 seats of the theater, the Egyptian sounds better than ever it has.
The renovation also removed the balcony and a small second theater to streamline and restore its layout closer to the 1922 design. The projection booth, while upgraded multiple times over the life of the theater, was rebuilt at a better angle for projecting images on the screen.
A high-tech control room allows projectionists to deliver state-of-the art pictures and sound. The addition of a projector and safeguards to allow the screening of silver nitrate film – an early film stock so volatile it can self-ignite – now makes the Egyptian one of only five theaters in the United States that can show such films.
Outside the theater, its neon sign rises over Hollywood Boulevard, while inside the courtyard, the original fountain has been restored in the exact spot where it originally stood, with water cascading down the original turquoise tiles.
The lobby walls between the doors into the theater now feature displays on the history of the Egyptian and its history in Hollywood. And what a glorious history it was when the Hollywood pictures – and promotional razzmatazz – were big.
The photographs and display placards show the Egyptian’s role in those days.
When director John Ford’s silent western “The Iron Horse” played the Egyptian in 1924, a full-sized steam locomotive from the film was parked on railroad tracks in the forecourt. Two years later, the Douglas Fairbanks silent film “The Black Pirate” brought a pirate ship into the forecourt.
In another display case, a poster of the 1922 film “Robin Hood,” also starring Fairbanks, pays tribute to the film that opened the Egyptian Theatre on Oct. 18, 1922, and in doing so, became the first-ever Hollywood premiere.
At some point early in its history, showman Sid Grauman ordered Egyptian-ish costumes for his usherettes. A hand-tinted photograph of them in front of the hieroglyphics and Egyptian pharaohs on a theater wall is delightful, as are the photographs of Fairbanks and Grauman hamming it up in the theater for publicity photos before it opened.
Some images make you miss what was lost in the decades since it opened. While the scarab ornamentation and sculpted sunburst on the ceiling are spectacular, they once towered over a frame around the stage and screen that replicated the Egyptian patterns and designs that still existed on the walls outside the theater.
Still, there’s a feeling here, Nicita says, that can’t be matched by almost any other cinema.
“I truly think that it’s a sensory thing,” he says. “It’s not just the visual, which is state of the art, but that can be duplicated. Not just the audio, which also is great but that be done.
“What you can’t duplicate is the aura,” Nicita says. “The feeling when you sit down and you look and you listen. Then you kind of go, ‘Oh. Oh. Here I am.’ It’s time traveling.”
The Egyptian Theatre is located at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. It reopens on Nov. 9 with a sold-out screening of “The Killer,” a new Netflix movie directed by David Fincher.
Nov. 10-21: The American Cinematheque Presents: Ultra Cinematheque 70 Fest 2023. Screenings in the widescreen 70mm format including “Alien,” which premiered at the Egyptian in May 1979, “Alphaville,” in a newly restored version of French director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi film, “Spartacus,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Nov. 21-Dec. 7: “Maestro,” the biopic on conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, starring and directed by Bradley Cooper with Carey Mulligan.
Dec. 5: “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a short film by Wes Anderson, and a selection of other shorts curated by Anderson.
Dec. 8-14: A selection of classic films including the Los Angeles premieres of restorations of “Days of Heaven” and “L’Amour Fou,” a 50th-anniversary screening of “Don’t Look Now,” and the world premiere of a new 4K restoration of “Lone Star,” followed by a Q-and-A with director John Sayles.
Dec. 15-21: The exclusive 70mm run of director Zack Snyder’s new space opera “Rebel Moon – Part One: A Child Of Fire .”
Dec. 22-24: The holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” screened in a 35mm print.
For more: See Egyptiantheatre.com for information on the theater, film series and special engagements. See Americancinematheque.com for information on its screenings at the Egyptian as well as programming at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and the Los Feliz 3 in Los Feliz.
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