The Egytian Theater and Why So Few Seats “Remain” in Downtown Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Conservancy kicked off its twenty-sixth annual Last Remaining Seats film festival this past week. Sarah and I went last year to watch Sunset Boulevard at the Palace Theater as that Broadway movie house turned 100. and my parents are going to three screenings this month. The festival celebrates the legacy of the picture palaces in downtown Los Angeles. LA’s Broadway was an important hub of movie exhibition, hosting many premieres, as the movie business was developing into a vertically integrated industry, where studios would control the production and the first-run exhibition of their films.

EgyptianTheater-ext-1922

The Broadway theater district would fall on hard times over the years, as just about everything moved out of downtown. One of the first movie theaters to draw audiences outside of downtown was the Egyptian theater. It was the first movie palace in Hollywood.

Larry Harnisch, who publishes the always fascinating The Daily Mirror blog, chronicles the opening of the Egyptian. One of the curious aspects of the new theater was the reserved-seating policy and how they ticketed theater patrons nearly a hundred years ago.

Grauman inaugurated new policies before opening the theatre. He announced on October 7 that the Egyptian would be the first theatre on the West Coast to reserve seats for every performance. Patrons could buy tickets downtown at Barker Brothers’ music department two weeks in advance, or by calling the theatre at Hollywood 2131, 2132 or 2133. Two complete shows ran daily, a matinée at 2:15 pm and an evening screening at 8:15 pm. Afternoon prices ranged from 50 cents to $1, and evening shows cost 75 cents to $1.50.

While the theater’s design and construction are certainly remarkable, I find these mundane details to reveal a great deal about the role of the Egyptian in the history of movie exhibition.

If you wanted to see a show at the Egyptian, you could visit a furniture store, ten miles away from the theater, and buy tickets up to two weeks in advance. Or you could call the theater to order tickets. (I’ve seen ads where patrons could order tickets over the mail as late as the 1950s.) Undoubtedly, the Egyptian was marketed as part of special occasion. It was not a casual movie-going experience, as the case during the Nickelodeon era, 1905–1912, that the picture palaces had essentially killed in the mid 1910s. To draw movie audiences out of downtown, the Egyptian needed to act as a new flagship theater of the American film industry.

As the LA Conservancy celebrates the downtown movie theaters, it’s also important to remember the theater that helped end the golden age of the Broadway movie palace.

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