"It's ironic that in Hollywood, where history is written on the wind and where our product deteriorates with time ... the cement in Grauman's forecourt is the only lasting memorial to artists who've made Hollywood famous."
Los Angeles Times, 1953
With no video, no lasers and not a single moving part, the colored slabs of concrete at Grauman's Chinese Theatre present an eerie interactive experience.
Memories dance in the elliptical courtyard of the garish movie house on Hollywood Boulevard. At least a million tourists a year are believed to visit the shrine to film stars, living and dead, and no two visitors experience it the same. They move across the handprints, shoe prints and signatures in cement, as Lou Sitran did, and see scenes. They hear snippets of old dialogue. They feel joys and heartaches and moments of laughter they may have felt a year ago or half a century ago, sitting in a theater or in front of a television.
"I gotta million of 'em!" Sitran, on vacation from Detroit, exclaimed as he found the prints left by Jimmy Durante on Halloween in 1945. The great stage and film comic, known for his oversized "schnoz" and several trademark lines, including that one, died 22 years ago in Santa Monica.
Yet the spectral hands in cement remain a powerful artifact to a man like Sitran, who laughed at Durante's shtick as a youth. Now in his own middle age, Sitran found himself looking back, his mind swirling with images, as he located the monuments of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson and Sidney Poitier.
"There's Shirley Temple," he said, staring at the spot where the child star wrote "Love to you all" above her signature in 1935. A young girl's grin, her curls, her audacious antics--they are alive for Sitran, but not for everyone. Culture changes. Bright lights fade.
"It's a little disturbing," Sitran said, to realize that many know the name only as a liquor-less cocktail. "Some of these kids [today] would say, 'I drank one of those.' "
More than 170 slabs fill the Grauman's courtyard, and a few more are added each year to empty patches. The first, signed by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who co-owned the theater with Grauman, were cast in 1927, when the ornate, pagoda-topped movie palace was opened. Lore holds that theater mogul Sid Grauman came up with the idea of preserving footprints in cement through serendipity--he accidentally stepped in a wet piece of concrete himself during construction.
Grauman, however, would not make his own prints part of the showcase until 1946, the year that Bogart, Gene Tierney and Louella Parsons joined the ensemble.
The magic of the place is that you can state with certainly that you were right where your idol was--and even prove it. You can snap the photo. You can compare your hand to Arnold Schwarzenegger's, literally stand in the shoe prints of Steve McQueen or Lana Turner. You can press your fist into the exact spot where John Wayne cast his fist in 1950, seeing him in your mind, his Army helmet cocked sideways.
You can connect, as nearly as it's possible to connect, with legends that are forever out of reach.
"Although it's cold cement, you're actually touching part of the stars," said author Gloria Koenig, who wrote in detail about the courtyard's 40-foot walls, its stone sculptures and the elaborate interior of the 2,258-seat theater in her book, "Iconic L.A.: Stories of L.A.'s Most Memorable Buildings."
No attraction in Los Angeles County is as sought out by tourists from throughout the world as the theater forecourt, she said, an assertion bolstered by a traveler survey of a few years ago. Ninety percent of those who visit Hollywood make it a point to stop here, said Leron Gubler of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "Without doubt," he said, "it's the most famous movie palace in the world."
Like fossil records, the hand and footprints give a sense of scale to stars you probably will never see, even if they are living.
"You relate to them different," said Mike Orem, a Whittier resident "doing the tourist thing" with out-of-town guests. "You relate to them as people."
Orem's eyes scanned the pavement and picked out the prints cast by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon--who can forget them as "The Odd Couple"?--and the Marx Brothers, contained in a large square that also includes the immortalized impression of Groucho's cigar.
"You spin around," Orem said, "and you see all my favorites: Gene Kelly, the great dancer ... Henry Fonda ... Gregory Peck ... Judy Garland right there."
Catie Stibel, 17, of Great Falls, Mont., couldn't believe she got to stand where Tom Cruise stood. Her uncle, John Stibel, who lives in Culver City, found himself reminiscing about Red Skelton--the stand-up comic who amused an earlier generation of television audiences as "Clem Kadiddlehopper" and "Freddie the Freeloader."
"I can remember him ending his show with, 'God Bless,' " Stibel said.