March 27, 2008

Grauman's Chinese Theatre Star Prints

Stupid Question ™
Oct. 19, 2000
By John Ruch
© 2000

Q: Do they ever replace the old movie-star footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with new ones? If so, what happens to the old ones?
—Mark Hill

A: Sid Grauman’s spectacular Chinese Theatre, at 6925 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, opened in 1927 with a great publicity stunt: movie stars imprinting their hands, feet and signatures in cement flagstones laid in the theater’s front courtyard.

It’s now Mann’s Chinese Theatre, and the “Forecourt of the Stars” has now hosted 180 print ceremonies. They’ve honored 194 people, six fictional characters, three animals, two film techniques, a TV show, a movie, a city and the theater itself. Besides prints, there are several commemorative plaques and two time capsules.

Besides “stars,” there have also been prints of producers, directors, a gossip columnist, the theater owner’s wife and mother, and a set of quintuplets.
Despite some easy calls (who the heck was Freddie Bartholomew?), the theater does not replace old stars’ prints with new ones. Indeed, Forecourt space is now relatively slim, and ceremonies are less common. (The last was more than a year ago.) However, there is a history of sometimes sinister print disappearances.

The first test prints were made by Grauman, Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on the sidewalk in front of the theater. (All later had “official” prints in the Forecourt.) These were torn up and stolen by a workman during 1950s construction. They remain in private ownership—except Talmadge’s which is lost.

Charlie Chaplin placed his prints in 1928. Theater managers either destroyed them or cemented them over in the early 1950s, when Chaplin was the target of anti-Communist witch hunts. They claimed that almost daily vandalism of the prints forced the removal.

Flash-in-the-pan Edmund Purdom’s prints also quietly disappeared in 1954. As a blatant PR stunt, he got his prints after only his second starring role. There was public outcry and his prints were covered late one night. Yul Brynner’s prints are now on the spot.

There was similar controversy over Ali McGraw, whose 1972 ceremony drew public protests. Two men even tried—and failed—to cement over her prints.

The only prints ever moved are those of Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler, which were covered by a new box office built in the mid-1930s. Public protest led to their relocation in the 1940s.

A block honoring Mickey Rooney and another honoring the Dionne Quintuplets with star Jean Hersholt both began crumbling soon after being laid. Hersholt got a replacement block in 1949, and so did Rooney in 1986. The quintuplets didn’t.

Some prints today are also disintegrating, especially those of Carmen Miranda. But the theater says no replacements are planned.

Most blocks have remained amazingly durable, and were built with emergency removal in mind.

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