1879 Yukon Nuggets
From the Flora Dora to the Chinese Theatre
He was one of the select few of his day who understood showmanship, a craft he learned in Dawson City. With this talent, he would go on to turn a sleepy little town in California into a world famous motion picture Mecca. Sid Grauman was born in Indiana in 1879. His father, David, was an itinerant prospector who was struck with gold fever. He followed the gold seekers to the Colorado hills in the late 1800s. From there, he was off to the Klondike in 1898, with young Sid in toe.
In the Yukon, Sid Grauman, still a teenager, began to show a knack for making money quickly by entertaining miners who were hell bent on squandering their hard-earned pokes of gold. One early attempt at showmanship in Dawson City came when he staged benefit concert for local newsboys. Newspapers were highly prized commodities, almost as valuable as gold itself. Klondikers longed for news from the "outside", no matter how old it was !
During the winter of 1898-99, a raging blizzard prevented the outside newspaper from reaching the remote Yukon city. Newsboys were feeling the pinch. Grauman combed the town for performers willing to stage a benefit show. The event raised twelve hundred dollars and set the stage for bigger things to come.
When his father left the Klondike in the winter of 1899, young Sid stayed on. Alone in Dawson, he could not help but notice entertainers like Klondike Kate and Diamond Tooth Gertie. They wowed the crowds and filthy rich miners had the delightful habit of tossing gold nuggets onto the stage. Of course, Kate, Gertie, and other dance hall Queens made a bundle of money.
Almost anything that could be passed off as entertainment in the Klondike made money. Sid Grauman was hooked. He helped Tex Rickard stage boxing matches in the famed Monte Carlo Saloon where rich and poor gambled their gold away during round-the-clock games of dice and cards.
One bout featured an Australian, Frank Slavin, a former British Empire boxing champ who was pitted against the King of the Klondike, Joe Boyle. The boxers were close friends. During the bout, however, they acted as if they were lifelong enemies. The match between Slavin and Boyle turned a profit for everyone involved and taught young Sid Grauman a lesson he never forgot. "Showmanship", he so deftly recognized, was like merchandising. "You must buy desirable material, present it to an attractive advantage and price it right."
Sid Grauman left the Yukon in 1900 to join his family in California. Yet those two years worth of seasoning in the Klondike would make him world famous and a multimillionaire.
In San Francisco, his father bankrolled young Sid, who promptly bought the Unique, a movie theatre on Market Street. The motion picture business was brand new, but Grauman had learned in the Yukon that people will pay for new forms of entertainment.
His ability to recognize talent seemed a gift. He was the first to hire Jessy Lasky, who went on to create Paramount Pictures. He contracted Al Jolson, who became the most famous crooner in the first half of the 20th century. A few years later, Sid and his father David built another theatre that they called the Lyceum. However, in 1906, disaster struck. Both the Unique and the Lyceum were destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake.
'When stuck with lemons, make lemonade was' Grauman's philosophy. So he bought a huge tent from a travelling evangelist and erected a mammoth banner saying "nothing will fall on you but canvas". Patrons flocked to the tent-covered movie theatre. By 1910, anything associated with the Grauman name in southern California meant instant success. In 1917, Sid moved to Los Angeles and built a twenty-five hundred seat showplace called the Million Dollar Theatre, a huge showpiece by any standards.
In 1922, Grauman struck pay dirt worth much more to him than Klondike gold. He moved out of Los Angeles to a little suburb called Hollywood. His first theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the Egyptian, opened on Oct. 18, 1922, with the premiere of Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks.
Then he built the most lavish motion picture Palace on the continent with partners Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Junior, two of the best-known performers of all-time. They called the place Grauman's Chinese Theatre. It opened on May 19, 1927, with the premiere of Cecil B. De Mille's KING OF KINGS.
At the Chinese Theatre, Grauman perfected the art of the live pre-feature prologue. He drew upon stories from his Klondike days to present "Charlie Chaplin's Dream" as an introduction to Chaplin's hit silent film "Gold Rush". Grauman's Klondike recollections also formed a key component in the classic motion picture. Things were going remarkably well for the kid who had learned his lessons in Dawson City. Yet there was more to come when he hit upon the most brilliant idea of his life.
When a new motion picture opened at "the Chinese", part of the gala ceremony was to have the celebrity actor or actress place their hands into freshly poured cement. Now named Mann's Chinese Theatre, the landmark is adorned with footprints and hand prints of Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin and dozens of other movie legends.
Today, those famous prints on Hollywood Boulevard are glittering reminders of Sid Grauman who learned his craft in Dawson City and went on to teach the world what showmanship was all about.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.