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Grauman's Theaters

by Susan Saperstein

One of Hollywood's early theater impresarios created his first theaters in San Francisco.

Sid Grauman (1879-1950) is best known for Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. This lavish 1927 movie palace is famous for its celebrity handprintsóalso footprints, hoofprints, knees, and legsóthe in the cement in front of the building. Grauman was also one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Born on St. Patrick's Day to Jewish parents, he was named Sidney Patrick Grauman. "I owe my tremendous success to the Man Upstairs," Grauman frequently said, "but having a name that got the Jews and the Irish behind me was what cinched things."

He was born in Indiana in a family that traveled throughout the country on the Wild West and minstrel show circuit. His father David took the young teen to Alaska in 1898 for the Klondike Gold Rush. The idea was to open a theater while mining for gold on the side. The gold seeking never amounted to much, and his father soon returned home to tend a gravely ill sister. Sid then eked out a living by himself in Alaska, trying various money making schemes and meeting an assortment of characters. One was Jack London, who helped him sell tickets for the theater. Later in life Sid played a Yukon card dealer in the 1935 film made from London's book, Call of the Wild. But the blizzard conditions in the winter, malarial environment in the summer, and lack of fresh food left him miserable and homesick. One source said that some of Grauman's Alaskan experiences were borrowed by his good friend Charlie Chaplin for the film The Gold Rush. Grauman left Alaska and joined his family in San Francisco in 1900.

In San Francisco he got a job as ticket taker and janitor at the Cinemagraph Theater, where he viewed his first film. He and his father decided to open their own theater for vaudeville acts. They procured 800 kitchen chairs for seats, a piano for music, and named it the Unique Theater. Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson played there as young performers.

Soon the Graumans added movies to the programming; their theater had the West Coast premiere of The Great Train Robbery. They opened a second theater called the Lyceum.

Everything was going well until April 18, 1906, when their theaters, along with most San Francisco theaters, were destroyed by the Earthquake and Fire. Sid salvaged one projector from the destroyed theaters and obtained a large tent from an evangelist preaching in Oakland. He also managed to find a few reels of film and pews from a burnt church. The tent theater was set up where the Unique had stood. Sid put up a sign: "Nothing to fall on you but canvas if there is another quake." The Graumans received a commendation from the city for contributing to uplifting the public morale after the quake.

The tent theater lasted for two years until they opened the New National Theater on Post and Steiner streets.

Within a few years, David and Sid Grauman expanded to several movie and vaudeville theaters. One source recounted that both men were often found standing by the box offices and shaking hands with customers. They built a large concrete structure on Market Street called the Empress with a seating capacity of 1800. And they expanded to Stockton, Sacramento, and San Jose. Sid discovered singing waiter Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at a San Jose restaurant and hired him for his theaters. By 1917, Sid decided that Los Angelesóthe city overtaking San Francisco as the film capitolówas the place to be. The Graumans approached film producer Jesse Lasky, who had been a trumpet player in their vaudeville theaters. Lasky arranged a meeting with Adolf Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures. The result was an agreement that Paramount would purchase the Grauman's San Francisco interests and finance building a theater in Los Angeles.

By 1918 they had opened Grauman's Million Dollar Theater, the largest and most lavish movie theater in its day. This was followed by several other theaters, including Grauman's Egyptian - capitalizing on the 1922 Tutmania when King Tuts's tomb was discovered - and of course the Chinese Theater in 1927.

Sid was known as "Little Sunshine" for his sunny disposition. He remained a bachelor and lived in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for 35 years.

SOURCES:

San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, sfpalm.org

Hollywood's Master Showman - The Legendary Sid Grauman, Charles Beardsley

Hollywood At Your Feet, Stacey Endres and Robert Cushman

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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The Unique Theater was a converted storefront on Market near Mason Streets. This photo shows the revolving billboard above the theater.

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The New National Theater at Post and Steiner Streets

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Empress Theater in 1910. It later became the St. Francis.

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