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The art of the deal, Hollywood style

Two properties in Hollywood with important ties to its Golden Age and film history have been in the news recently; one has been purchased, the other is up for sale.

First, the purchase – it’s of a popular tourist attraction, arguably Hollywood’s most visible landmark people can legally set foot on (so you know we’re not referring to the “HOLLYWOOD” sign).



It’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, which celebrated its 80th birthday this past May. And “set foot on” was an intentional pun; the footprints, handprints, etc., in cement are the theater’s trademark (in addition to its distinctive architecture evoking the Far East).

The purchaser knows the area well. It’s CIM Group of Los Angeles, the area’s largest commercial landlord, which owns most of the real estate on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard between Highland and Sycamore avenues.

The theater will continue showing movies under a contract with Mann Theatres.

Sid Grauman, a Los Angeles movie theater impresario, had previously built two palaces, the Million Dollar Theater in downtown and the Egyptian Theater elsewhere in Hollywood, but he wanted the Chinese to be his crowning achievement. Many of the theater’s artifacts came directly from China, and it was appropriate that Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong drove the first rivet in the steel girders when construction began in January 1926. (Incidentally, Grauman never owned the theater outright, having at most a one-third share.)

Over the years, many stars have put their hands or feet into a block of cement in the theater’s courtyard, such as Judy Garland, shown below with Mickey Rooney at the October 1939 premiere of “Babes In Arms.”



Carole Lombard never got a similar opportunity, though the chances are good she would have had the chance had she lived longer.

Did any of Lombard’s films play at the Chinese? Carole Sampeck of The Lombard Archive, who’s forgotten more about Lombard than most of us would remember, “is pretty certain” – but not 100 percent – that “Twentieth Century” ran there in 1934, and that “My Man Godfrey” and “True Confession” might have done likewise. Unfortunately, there’s no place online listing all the films that have played at that historic theater.

In contrast to the Chinese, another landmark moviehouse – the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, Calif., whose schedule is exclusively classic fare – has a listing on its Web site of all the films that ran there from 1929 to 1961: http://www.stanfordtheatre.org/stf/aboutHistory.html. Below are the Stanford’s exterior and interior.



The schedules are fascinating; for example, we learn that “Show Folks,” a part-talkie with Lombard in a supporting role, ran there on Feb. 16, 1929…not to be confused with the Marion Davies classic “Show People,” which appeared there that Jan. 2. (The Stanford also periodically runs festivals; let us hope they schedule one for the centennial of Lombard’s birth in October 2008.)

The other real estate news in Hollywood concerns a site on Sunset Boulevard now better known for television than movies. It’s officially known as “Tribune Studios,” home of KTLA television, the first TV station in Los Angeles, going on the air in January 1947.



But for Hollywood history buffs, its claim to fame rests with Warner Brothers, which built the lot in 1919. Many of its pictures over its first decade were shot there, including the popular Rin-Tin-Tin films, “Don Juan,” the first film with a prerecorded orchestral soundtrack, and “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature film with talking sequences. However, Warners moved most of its feature film production to a larger lot in Burbank after its purchase of First National in 1928.

After ’28, the studio’s chief ties to Warners was its animation unit. This was the home of the famous “Termite Terrace,” where Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other classic cartoon characters came to life. Cartoon production was shut down in the early fifties for fear of rising costs if 3-D caught on; it didn’t, and when the animation division was revived in 1955, it did so at new offices at the main Warners complex in Burbank. (So the “Animaniacs” characters Wakko, Yakko and Dot -- left to right, below -- haven’t lived in the “WB” water tower all that long...unless there was also one in Hollywood.)



The Sunset lot – part of which was converted into a 52-lane bowling alley -- became a rental unit during the television age, hosting everything from a few seasons of “Gunsmoke” to the debut season of “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

So what ties does the lot have with Lombard? Not much, in all honesty. It’s possible she went to see John Barrymore, a Warners contract player, on the lot when she auditioned to play opposite him in “Tempest” (not the Shakespeare play) although it was a United Artists production. She won the part, but never got to play it because of her automobile accident. And after her recovery, she may well have visited Warners, looking for work.

As for the future of the lot, Mark Evanier, who has a splendid blog, “News From Me,” is a bit skeptical whether it will remain a full-fledged TV production facility, fearing it could be converted into something else: http://www.newsfromme.com/archives/2007_08_30.html. People had similar fears a few months ago when the old Columbia lot on Gower Street was sold. We’ll ultimately have to see how both cases turn out.
Tags: grauman's chinese, stanford theatre, stars in cement, warners sunset lot
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