Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

The Dream Factory

Hollywood Magic and Movie Premieres

Just as stars like Gloria Swanson had successfully made the switch from silent films to "talkies," the atmosphere of Hollywood changed from small town to glamorous city of stars in the 1920s.

This shift was in no small part due to the advent of the gala movie premiere. Pioneered by Sidney Grauman, the owner of Grauman's Egyptian, Metropolitan, and Chinese theaters, the premiere involved the public in the fantasy world of movie-making as never before. Frenzied crowds of up to 30,000 thronged the streets to catch glimpses of stars arriving down the theaters' carpeted walkways. Culture writers in the press criticized the movie-making machinery as working a kind of "sorcery" over the "valueless" and "infantile" American public, but the stars and fans who attended the premieres found them fantastic. Mae West described one of her early premieres as being "all glitter. . . All of it [was] wonderful and full of a foolish magic, which is the essence of motion picture making."

Essential to this glitter was the magnificent lighting of the premieres. Otto Oleson, a Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president, pioneered the use of searchlights for special events. After purchasing two searchlights he found in an abandoned military field, Oleson first used them to promote his car business. He then promoted them as being ideal for premieres and further developed lighting techniques that allowed for indoor filming of movies. These powerful "pencils of light" came to represent the star power they announced at premieres, and intensified Hollywood's aura of magic and glamour.

Photograph of the interior of the  Cameo Theatre in New York City
Photograph of the interior of the Cameo Theatre in New York City

Before the 1920s, movie theaters were built on the model of opera houses, often in an ornate rococo style. Following the post-war cultural craze for exotic cultures, Hollywood theater owners like Sidney Grauman built lavish theaters based on Egyptian and...

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