In the great American institution known as Hollywood, there is perhaps no event so characteristic as the premiere. Premieres are sometimes referred to as special screenings, and they certainly are special events, as they tend to be known for searchlights, limousines, and big stars pouring across a red carpet to the sound of cheering crowds full of adoring fans, not to mention the cast party to follow. These events have always been rare in relation to the large number of movies that are released every year, but what they lack in frequency they more than make up for in size and scale. Even today, studios will sometimes spring for the full red-carpet treatment, often in an effort to publicize the new movie.
Of course, these premieres can’t happen just anywhere. It’s no good to go to all of the trouble of shooting and distributing a major motion picture, going so far as to stage a huge release attended by all of the crowned heads of the entertainment press, only to have it open first in an old drive-in off of the interstate. Not surprisingly, most premieres take place in Hollywood itself, and they can more or less be pinned down to a few specific locations.
Nearly all of the world premieres today are centered on either Hollywood Boulevard or in the nearby neighborhood of Westwood Village.
Until recently, the flagship location for premieres has to have been Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The site is closed for renovations at present but still offers hard-hat tours and plans to open again as an IMAX theater around September 2013.
Just to the east of Grauman’s on the same thoroughfare is the other prime location in the Westwood area: El Capitan. This theater also recently found itself in need of serious restoration, which was graciously provided by the Walt Disney company. This theater began its life in 1926 as a hot spot for live performances by the likes of Clark Gable, Will Rogers, and Buster Keaton, among others. It would eventually make the transition to films in 1942 as the Paramount, in which capacity it hosted the premiere of “Citizen Kane.” El Capitan also happens to be the site from which Richard Nixon broadcast his legendary Checkers speech denying the allegations of being a dishonest politician. Astute observers are invited to make their own observations about the quality of the acting at El Capitan.
Away from the bustle and confusion of the Boulevard proper, down on the southwest corner of Sunset and Vine, stands yet another favorite spot for special screenings, the Cinerama Dome. This theater, with its amazing seventy-two-foot geodesic dome, has seating for nearly a thousand people and was originally intended to display Cinerama-style films, a format that was briefly popular around the time the theater was built in 1963. The process involved no fewer than three 35mm projectors displaying on an enormous curved screen. It was popular for a time, but the hefty cost of the format proved to be too much for large-scale distribution, and the literally hundreds of Cineramas that were in various stages of planning wound up mostly scrapped. The best seats for appreciating the huge screen are located on the floor of the theater, somewhat near the center. While nothing will block a clear view from the large balcony, the effect of the tremendous screen is somewhat wasted if the viewer sits so far away.
As with just about every other historic Hollywood theater, the Cinerama had to undergo serious restoration recently. The $70 million project began in 2000 and required that the theater be shut down for a time. It reopened in 2002 and is now at the heart of a vast entertainment center with almost as much retail space as theater seating.
The history of Hollywood comes seeping through the cracks in the history of its most famous landmarks. Here is where they signed the contracts for “Gone With the Wind,” there is the spot where Dean Martin was sick in the grass, and through it all runs a kind of sweeping grandeur, as if Hollywood were not just a place but a destiny. There can hardly be a better way to examine the various ways that destiny has played out at ground level during the last century than by getting to know the theaters where so much of that history has played out. The studios could hardly have chosen more appropriate locations for the premieres of films that are intended to add to that legacy.