There has always been a connection between Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the Academy of Motion PIcture Arts and Sciences. Both of these great institutions had their gestation periods at the same precise moment in Hollywood: 1926 and 1927.
An industry group consisting of all the major players in the American picture-making business had been an idea Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957) the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had been mulling over for some time. In 1926, he got together with actor Conrad Nagel (1897-1970), director Fred Niblo (1874-1948) and head of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, Fred Beetson (????-1953) to brainstorm the idea. They decided that prospective members of this group would be invited to join the new fraternity depending on what branch of the filmmaking process they were in: producers, actors, directors, writers, or technicians.
Fred Niblo. Unknown date. Photo via J. G. Autographs, Inc..
By Tuesday, January 11, 1927, Sid Grauman was up to his eyeballs in preparing for the May opening of his Chinese Theatre. On this date, Mayer and his group had invited a slightly larger roster of important industry figures to a black-tie banquet at the Ambassador Hotel to formally present to them the idea of a film industry fraternity. Sid Grauman was invited; despite his being occupied with the Chinese Theatre construction, he was able to attend, since he and his mother Rose lived at the Ambassador Hotel. Here are the names of the people invited:
Charles H. Christie
Sid Grauman (!)
Milton E. Hoffman
Louis B. Mayer
Joseph M. Schenck
Jack L. Warner
Cecil B. DeMille
John M. Stahl
Frank E. Woods
J. Arthur Ball
Roy J. Pomeroy
And, since nothing can be done in Hollywood without them:
George W. Cohen
Each person was invited to become a founding member of the "International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences" which by Wednesday, May 11, 1927, had dropped the "International" from its name, had adopted its organizational rules and had elected Douglas Fairbanks of the actor's branch to be the first Academy president.
One week later, on Wednesday, May 18, 1927, Grauman's Chinese Theatre had its opening night. Several Founding Academy Members were part of the opening night program: Cecil B. DeMille, Conrad Nagel, Fred Niblo, Mary Pickford — Grauman knew them all.
Many of the founding members of the Academy became leading figures in the motion picture business, but Grauman's invitation to join this select group — the only exhibitor to be so honored — speaks eloquently of the esteem in which he was held by his peers in Hollywood.
Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California. Forecourt imprinting of Douglas Fairbanks, on April 30, 1927. The theatre had not even taken down its construction hordings facing the street, seen in the background. From left to right: two unknown gentlemen, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford. Hovering over the cement is Jean W. Klossner, who executed many of the imprintings during Hollywood's Golden Age.
The Academy, perhaps taking a cue from Grauman, who had begun to immortalize film stars by taking their foot and handprints in the forecourt to the Chinese Theatre, decided to establish an annual awards banquet, to encourage and reward what the membership considered to be meritorious accomplishments in films.
Sid Grauman became a member of the very first Awards of Merit Committee, along with Cedric Gibbons, who was the chair, Bess Meredyth, J. Stuart Blackton, Richard Barthelmess and Henry King.
Films released any time from August 1, 1927 through August 1, 1928 were in the running, with the first of the Award banquets held on Thursday, May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — right across the street from Grauman's Chinese. The Academy offices were located half a block east at 6912 Hollywood Bouelvard on the second floor. The Academy's very own screening room had been completed there that April.
And so, the annual "Oscar Derby" had been created practically in Sid Grauman's backyard. As the 1930s unspooled, the Award ceremonies came to be a household word, broadcast on radio and touted in newspapers nationwide; they had become a very important aspect of American motion picture prestige worldwide.
Originally handed out at a formal banquet at either the Ambassador Hotel in the Cocoanut Grove or Fiesta Room, or at the Biltmore Hotel downtown, in the Sala D'Oro or Biltmore Bowl, the enormity of interest in the Oscars outgrew the formal banquet idea.
When it came time to hold the ceremony in a regular theatre environment, Grauman's Chinese was the obvious choice. Widely considered Hollywood's "town hall," for the first ceremony held there on Thursday, March 2, 1944, the theatre was donated for the event by Charles Skouras, president of National Theatres, whose Fox West Coast Theatres division operated the Chinese, with Sid Grauman as the theatre's Managing Director.
LEFT: Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California. Forecourt near box-office as Ingrid Bergman and David O. Selznick arrive for the 16th Annual Academy Awards of Merit ceremony, Thursday, March 2, 1944. Bergman was a nominee as Best Actress for For Whom the Bell Tolls. Bergman would win the following year for Gaslight. ABOVE: Backstage that same night. From left to right: Paul Lukas, winner of the Best Actor Award for Watch on the Rhine, Jennifer Jones, winner of the Best Actress Award for The Song of Bernadette, Katina Paxinou, winner of the Best Supporting Actress Award for For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Chales Coburn, winner of the Best Supporting Actor Award for The More the Merrier.
ABOVE: Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California. Backstage at the 17th Annual Academy Awards of Merit, Thursday, March 15, 1945. From left to right, Barry Fitzgerald, winner of the Best Supporting Actor Award for Going My Way, Ingrid Bergman, winner of the Best Actress Award for Gaslight, and Bing Crosby, winner of the Best Actor Award for Going My Way. RIGHT: In the auditorium as Wallace Berry and his adopted daughter Carol Ann await the start of the 18th Annual Academy Awards of Merit, Thursday, March 7, 1946. Photo by Charles Rhodes.
National Theatres continued to make the Chinese Theatre available to the Academy for their Awards of Merit program at no cost, in 1944, 1945 and 1946. Alas, the ceremony had outgrown even Sid's Hollywood masterwork, so it moved to the 6,000 plus-seat Shrine Auditorium near downtown for 1947 and 1948.
After that, the Academy wanted to return the ceremony to Hollywood, but something must have gone awry, because the 1949 ceremony was held at the smallish Academy Theatre on Melrose near La Cienega. It was here that Sid Grauman was presented with a special Oscar statuette by his old friend and Academy president, Jean Hersholt. By the time the very next ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday, March 23, 1950, Sid couldn't attend; he had passed away on Sunday, March 5, 1950, just 2 weeks earlier.
During the CinemaScope years of the mid 1950s, the leadership baton at National Theatres had passed from Charles Skouras to his hand-picked successor, Elmer C. Rhoden, who wanted to fashion a new image for the Chinese Theatre. Beginning in 1957, there were many things which changed in the forecourt area of the Chinese, including larger poster cases, a permanent metal awning running from the street to the front entrance and the astounding neon dragon marquees.
The west side of the forecourt was graced with "The History of Academy Award Winners" display. This elaborate display contained bronze plaques detailing each year's three top Oscar winners: Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture. Each plaque measured 18 x 24 inches, with two plaques placed one above the other.
Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California. Postcard showing "The History of Academy Award Winners" display, installed in 1958. Photo taken circa 1965 by Carlo Marino.
Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California. 1957 bronze plaque from "The History of Academy Award Winners" diplay. 18 inches wide by 24 inches high.
The initial free-standing display had enough room for the first 40 years worth of Academy Award winners. In 1958 when the display was installed, this meant that there were ten empty slots for future winners. The upcoming slots were filled with cardboard laurel-wreath themed displays commemorating some of the winners of the Best Direction Award.
Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California. Forecourt with "The History of the Academy Award Winners" display, both free-standing and wall-mounted units. Photo by Stephen Stanton, 1981.
When this display was completely filled by 1967, a wall-mounted version of the idea was installed on the forecourt wall sometime during 1969-1970, running from the fountain to the entrance of the souvenir shop. It must have contained at least 28 more slots for future plaques, which would have taken it up to 1995 — if anyone had updated the display.
"The History of Academy Award Winners" seems to have been created entirely by National Theatres, without any support from the Academy itself. Theatres sometimes did this sort of thing. For example, the Paradise Theatre in Westchester, California, has "time capsules" commemorating Oscar winners embedded in its "forecourt" which are still there, despite the theatre having been turned into an office building.
When Grauman's Chinese Theatre was handed over to Mann Theatres in 1973, there may have been a reluctance to continue with the expense of making the bronze plaques and keeping up the tradition.
Although the souvenir booklets for sale at the theatre as late as 1990 depicted both the display and all of the plaques for the reader to learn Academy Award history from, the practice of making the bronze plaques seems to have stopped sometime in the early 1970s. After that, the slots were filled with black and white photo-paper approximations of the plaques. Each year, another Best Director was taken out of the lineup.
For the 2001 remodeling of the theatre, it was decided to attempt to return the forecourt to something more like its original condition, and "The History of Academy Award Winners" display was taken down altogether. Rumor had it that the display and all the plaques had been spirited away to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank in a fashion similar to how the neon dragon marquees went to Paramount (Warner Bros. and Paramount jointly operated the theatre at the time).
Commemorative plaque for 1956 Academy Award winners. 18.25 x 24.25 inches. Sold for $3,200 by Julien's Live Auctions on November 11, 2012.
Commemorative plaque for 1930-1931 Academy Award winners. 18.25 x 24.25 inches. Sold for $5,000 by Nate D. Sanders, Inc on June 26, 2014.
Inquiries as to the whereabouts of the display have been met with these vague recollections, but some of the plaques have been sold in online auctions for as much as $5,000. The plaques are in differing states, suggesting that they have been stored in different locations and conditions. If this is true, then the display is surely broken up — never to return anywhere.
In more recent years, the relationship between the Chinese and the Academy has not been as close. With the ceremonies being held since 2002 at the Kodak, then Dolby, Theatre next door, the Chinese Theatre typically closes down altogether the day of the Award ceremony. It would be the rare movie-goer crazy enough to brave the Oscar madness surrounding Hollywood Boulevard and the Dolby Theatre. The Chinese is swept by bomb-detecting dogs and after that, it is sealed off until the Awards are over. It is unknown if the Academy pays to keep the theatre dark, or if the current management simply gives up that evening.
For the education of all who come to this site, we have recreated the display and have brought it up-to-date. It is now possible to commit Academy Award winners to memory in a visual manner, as we all did way back then, when the display reminded everyone of great motion picture achievements of the past.
Click on any plaque to see a larger view. done as a gallery in a separate window.