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Bringing Back the Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hollywood’s historic Egyptian Theater is a dusty, cavernous space, filled with restorers’ scaffolding and the echoing of hammers.

But Lloyd E. Rigler sees apparitions of Lana Turner and Humphrey Bogart. Standing in the courtyard of the dilapidated movie house, the 82-year-old entrepreneur and arts patron can recollect the waves of frenzied applause that followed stars like Marlon Brando and Rita Hayworth as they sauntered into a red-carpeted movie premiere.

Rigler was there many times as both show-biz player and fan, and he hopes to be there again when renovation is completed this fall on the 1922 movie palace that was severely damaged during the Northridge earthquake.

American Cinematheque on Thursday launched a $12.9-million fund-raising campaign to complete the meticulously researched project. The main 650-seat theater will be named after Rigler, a North Dakota native who came to Hollywood during its glamorous heyday in the 1940s and never left.

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Rigler, through his Lloyd E. Rigler-Laurence E. Deutsch Foundation, is donating an undisclosed amount (it would be gauche to reveal an exact figure, he said) to kick off the campaign.

“Hollywood used to be the most celebrated city in the world, and Hollywood Boulevard was our Broadway,” said Rigler. “It saddened me to see the boulevard deteriorate, but I’m very proud to be a part of its restoration.”

The announcement was made at a news conference in the Egyptian’s famed courtyard and was attended by some of Hollywood’s most influential filmmakers and supporters, including fund-raising chairmen Steve Tisch, the producer of the movie “Forrest Gump,” and James G. Robinson, chairman of Morgan Creek production companies.

The theater will become the permanent home and headquarters of American Cinematheque, a nonprofit film center that presents classic films, retrospectives, previews of new works and experimental exhibits.

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When work is completed, the Egyptian’s landmark shell will feature substantial technological advances as well as a state-of-the-art projection system, a cafe, book and magazine kiosks and a 1922 Wurlitzer organ for silent film presentations. A smaller 75-seat theater is to be named for director Steven Spielberg, based on a 1989 donation made in his name by Warner Bros.

During the day, the complex will be open for tours and will screen a film depicting the history of Hollywood, with an audio track available in several languages.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg said the restoration project will anchor a sorely needed revitalization of Hollywood Boulevard and the surrounding community. Plans include renovation of other opulent movie theaters on the boulevard, museums to showcase Hollywood artifacts, nightclubs, eateries and two Metro Rail stations.

Community Redevelopment Agency Chairwoman Christine Essel called the refurbishment efforts a “milestone” that will “bring the luster back to Hollywood.” The CRA had previously awarded the theater project a $3-million grant to begin renovation and construction. Other money has come from the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the MCA Foundation, Miramax and Time Warner.

The backers hope to raise as much as $6 million through the purchase of courtyard pavement stones that will bear inscriptions memorializing their patrons.

American Cinematheque Co-Chairman Mike Medavoy predicted that--as with the recently opened Getty Center--the Egyptian will become a cultural touchstone and a destination for foreign visitors as well as local ones.

The theater, on the National Register of Historic Places, was “a classic,” said Rigler, a white-haired impresario who, with his late partner Deutsch, earned a fortune by introducing and marketing Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer.

The Egyptian was originally envisioned as a Moorish-Spanish temple to celluloid but was recast after the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb popularized the Egyptian motif.

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“Hollywood Boulevard during the war years was a mecca. Every shop was ablaze, and everyone came to premieres,” said Rigler, whose latest project is the 24-hour noncommercial Classic Arts Showcase on television. “From dusk till dawn, the street was alive with people, and the stores stayed open until midnight. There was no crime, and everyone was friendly. The Egyptian and Graumann’s Chinese had the most allure and they attracted a lot of premieres, and it was all very exciting.”

Ron Lindsay, senior project manager with Turner Construction, said work on the building has been time-consuming and meticulous.

Six artists have been working to restore the original stenciled ceilings and walls with the pharaohs’ heads, scarabs and hieroglyphics in ocher, green, red and cobalt blue hues.

Many of the materials and tools used to create striking motifs have been lost to time, and the artists are having to improvise to create the looks anew.

“It’s been a real challenge for our craftsmen,” he said.


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