The curtain is rising once again at the storied Egyptian Theatre, but the real show has been going on behind the scenes.
The latest Hollywood Boulevard restoration, to be unveiled this Friday with the screening of Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 epic "The Ten Commandments," has been a six-year archeological dig of sorts for a group of engineers, architects, artists and contractors.
Although original drawings and black-and-white photos have guided the reconstruction efforts on the 76-year-old landmark, unexpected discoveries were made as workers scraped through layers of paint.
"Every day was something new," said Peyton Hall, a principal of the Hollywood-based Historic Resources Group, the project's architectural preservation consultants. "We knew what used to be there, but you didn't know its condition or if you'd ever find it."
The team unearthed a pool at the foot of the west forecourt wall (the forecourt is the 150-foot-long walkway leading from the street to the theater's lobby) and found murals of six Egyptian deities covered under layers of paint. Workers also stumbled upon the original ticket windows.
The restored venue will be the new home of the American Cinematheque, a 14-year-old non-profit group that presents classic films and retrospectives.
What was once an ornate movie palace where glitz and glamour were regularly on display slowly deteriorated over the years due to modern-day remodelings and neglect, eventually becoming a makeshift flophouse for the homeless. The edifice received a further beating from the Northridge earthquake.
"When we saw the theater floor, it was covered with plaster that fell from the walls. There were holes in the walls in the movie theater and you could see outside. It was a disaster," said George Cosma, the project accountant working for New York-based contractor Turner Construction.
A top-to-bottom rehabilitation of the 26,000-square-foot complex could have required a blockbuster budget. To streamline costs, the architect, Santa Monica-based Hodgetts & Fung, came up with some unorthodox solutions.
For example, a steel track that runs along the sidewalls of the theater's interior allows moveable 10-by-25-foot sound-muffling panels to slide into place, to accommodate the acoustics of modern digital-sound productions. When silent films are screened, the panels can be retracted, exposing the theater's original walls.
"We didn't want to put any wiring in the walls. By working outside of the walls, things can be changed. If somebody has the money 50 years from now, they can take back what we did and add their own touches," said Hodgetts & Fung project architect Eric Holmquist.
The auditorium features a bigger screen and seats 618 in a stair-step design. That layout, far less than the original 2,000-seat capacity, was installed so that every seat has a prime view of the screen.
Part of the work has involved restoring the hieroglyphic artwork covering the lobby ceilings, as well as the elaborate plaster sunburst on the ceiling of the theater. Many of the sunburst's individual rays have been wired and glued back into place.
"These motifs are authentic (from ancient Egypt) and have been a real challenge to match with colors and outlines," Cosma said.
A major feat of the restoration involved installing four 22-foot-high pre-cast concrete reinforced columns to replicate the original portico. The original columns were removed during a renovation in the late 1940s.
Now lining either side of the forecourt are twin rows of towering palm trees in fluorescent-lit planters. A side space on the east, once home to antique shops, will house a 3,000-square-foot restaurant.
Funding the $14.1 million project started with $3 million from the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and a $2 million interest-free loan from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although the bulk of the money has been raised including contributions from Time Warner Inc., the National Endowment for the Arts and the William Morris Agency more than $2 million is still being sought.
"We're always trying to raise more funds. It's been enormously complicated, but it's been worth it," said Barbara Smith, executive director of American Cinematheque.
Originally built for $800,000 by Sid Grauman, the Egyptian Theatre opened in 1922 with the premiere of "Robin Hood." Conceived in a Moorish theme as evidenced by the red-tile colonnade roof, architects Meyer & Holler changed the look to an Egyptian Revival style when archeologists discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt and Grauman wanted to capitalize on the cultural fad.
Ownership changed hands over the years from Grauman to Fox West Coast Theaters to the last owner, United Artists, before the theater was closed in 1992. American Cimeatheque purchased the theater from the city for $1, with the provision that it would be restored to its original grandeur.
"If Sid Grauman turned the corner onto Hollywood Boulevard, he should recognize the theater," Hall said.
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