Grauman's Chinese: Movie star prints' futures not set in cement

Grauman's Chinese Theatre is hallowed Hollywood tourist ground, the famed site where silver-screen stars such as Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra literally cemented their legends by making hand- and footprints in concrete. On a recent November morning, those movie icons were joined by three gigantic rodents: Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Or, more precisely, as Alvin, Simon and Theodore are cartoon characters, by three anonymous guys in chipmunk suits who stuck their "paws" in wet cement while their squeaky, high-pitched version of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" blared over the sound system. Some of the goop stuck to Theodore's belly fur.

The pace of paw and other print-making at Grauman's has taken off in recent months. The complex has hosted 11 ceremonies so far this year for actors including Robert Duvall, Jennifer Aniston, Mickey Rourke and the young cast of the "Twilight" movies — Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart. Kobe Bryant, French DJ David Guetta and the Smurfs also have dipped their digits in cement.

That's the largest number of ceremonies the theater has held since its opening in 1927, when nine individuals put their prints in cement. The influx has raised concern among some film buffs, who believe that Lautner's cinematic oeuvre doesn't exactly compare to, say, John Barrymore's or Jack Nicholson's. And with limited space available in the forecourt, some say the theater owners should be pickier about who they allow into the landmark.

Donald Kushner, a movie producer who bought the legendary theater with entrepreneur Elie Samaha in May from Warner Bros. and Viacom Inc., acknowledged that the theater has been holding more ceremonies — which are paid for by movie studios and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some of the older prints are deteriorating, he said, and will have to be removed from the forecourt to be preserved. But he added that not all the new prints are getting prime real estate in front of the theater, so don't look for the Chipmunks or the Smurfs there.

"They're not going in the forecourt. They weren't real ceremonies — they were mock ceremonies," said Kushner. Though he said he was still uncertain where the blocks would end up, he surmised that all of the "kids' stuff" would be displayed at the Chinese 6 theaters, located in the adjacent Hollywood & Highland mall complex and operated by Kushner and Samaha.

Plans also are in the works to relight the forecourt and restore old theater signs to resemble their 1930s appearance. The theater is also trying to entice movie studios to hold after-parties for their premieres in the lobby of the Chinese 6, hiding the concession stands with curtains and bringing in other decorative elements to transform it into what owners describe as a "ballroom." (Many premieres are already held at Grauman's, but the after-parties are typically staged at nearby restaurants or hotels.)

Kushner also said he wants to broaden the range of individuals the theater pays tribute to in the forecourt to include athletes and musicians. He revealed that Grauman's is in preliminary talks with boxer Muhammad Ali and is also speaking with the family of Michael Jackson about a square that could use the imprints of a shoe and glove the pop star donned in some of his music videos.

Currently, forecourt honorees are selected by a committee made up of the theater's executives who evaluate "the impact someone has had on cinematic history and how they have contributed to cinema today," said the cinema's director of operations, Alwyn Kushner, daughter of Donald Kushner. Still, most of the ceremonies seem to be tied to the release of an honoree's new film — Rourke, for one, got his square less than two weeks before the November opening of "Immortals," a sword-and-sandals epic in which he starred. His tablet, along with Aniston's July imprint and a November block stamped by some "West Side Story" 1961 film cast members, have yet to be placed in the forecourt.

"It has nothing to do with who is an authentic, for-the-ages star," said Richard Schickel, a film critic and movie historian. "That has deteriorated. It's obviously driven entirely by what is hot at this moment, publicity and money. I guess it's kinda nice, but it's not the ultimate accolade for a movie actor."

Studios are willing to cough up the dough for the ceremonies — $25,000 for "cement and labor" directly to Grauman's, plus around $20,000 to cover costs of the ceremony, according to an executive familiar with the process who requested anonymity to preserve relations with the theater — because they feel the event carries strong promotional value.

"We used it as the kickoff for our advertising campaign and all of the public appearances," said Nancy Kirkpatrick, president of worldwide marketing for Summit Entertainment, which released "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1" last month. "It's absolutely a big deal, and we knew the fans would be excited to go there and visit the actors' squares."

Donald Kushner insisted that the ceremonies are not a "real big revenue source, but are good for the Grauman's brand and tradition." The company that handles publicity for the theater boasted in a recent press kit that the November print ceremonies and AFI Film Festival — also held at Grauman's — resulted in "over 15 million TV hits" and "$3.5 million publicity value" in one week.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame, which runs up and down the city sidewalk near Grauman's and is run by the nonprofit Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, charges $30,000 for its honors. About two dozen terrazzo stars with a famous person's name are installed each year. The selection committee is composed of 36 entertainment industry professionals.

Grauman's began the practice of having public figures leave their prints in 1927, when silent-film star Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped into wet cement. Sid Grauman saw a business opportunity in the mishap and decided to ask the theater's principal investors — of which Talmadge was one — to follow in the tradition. Soon, studios began paying to be included as well. There are about 200 squares currently in the forecourt.

"Basically, it was all the important stars in the films of the time until 1960, when things changed dramatically and they started bringing in more modern, younger stars," explained Marc Wanamaker, a Hollywood film historian and photo archivist. He noted that with each generation, there's been chatter about whether certain inductees are worthy of a square. "There's been controversy with purists saying, 'How dare you put Tom Cruise next to Marilyn Monroe?'"

Kushner says the theater will need to begin taking out some imprints in the near future. "Some of the handprints are going to have to be removed so we can preserve them," he said. "Some of them, like Groucho Marx, have almost disappeared."

Asked if permanent or even temporary removal might upset some of the honorees, their families or fans, Kushner replied: "Whatever. In three or four years, those squares won't exist anyway, because they're disintegrating. They'll eventually find their place."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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