When the glittering treasures of King Tut’s tomb were unearthed in 1924, an interest in all things Egyptian swept the world.
In Boise, it prompted businessman Leo J. Falk and former mayor Harry Fritchman to commission the building of the Egyptian Theater, a movie palace that would shine with the glory of ancient Egypt as Boiseans gathered for one of their favorite pastimes, watching movies.
The landmark Egyptian Theater opened in April 1927, featuring John Barrymore in the classic silent film “Don Juan.” A world-renowned organist was brought in to play for the opening show.
But the really amazing thing is that the Egyptian Theater still stands in Boise today in much of its original form. It still has just one screen showing first-run movies, and it still attracts moviegoers despite a plethora of multiplexes that have sprung up around town, offering endless movie choices in nondescript surroundings.
“It’s a beautiful little theater,” said Idaho historian Arthur Hart. “I like everything about it. The decoration is really spectacular.”
The doors at the entrance each have a tall, keyhole-shaped glass panel. In the lobby area, carved flowers resembling tulips with long, long stems stretch up rows of columns. Trim around the ceiling is brightly painted.
There’s a kind of Indiana Jones feeling when you walk into the theater and see the golden, intricately painted proscenium arch and columns that frame the stage.
The theater is dim, but the ornate stage area is alight. Swans, harp players, women with hair to the ground, one breast exposed and waving arms, a warrior aiming bow and arrow from a chariot pulled by two horses, three women being paddled along a river in a canoe whose head is that of a snake. Hieroglyphics. A jewellike scarab framed at the center of the top arch.
The first impression is that you’ve entered the glittering center of a long-hidden treasure trove from ancient times. Two golden figures sit cross-legged on pedestals at either side of the stage, holding red baskets trimmed in gold.
The place is not entirely without tarnish. Ceiling plaster has fallen away in a couple of spots, and there are some watermarks below them. Some of the red upholstered rocking seats squeak loudly.
But repairs are in the works, said Earl Hardy, the building’s owner and the man who restored it in 1979.
Although the Egyptian has been continuously used as a movie theater, it was bought by the city’s redevelopment agency and slated for demolition. A giant, enclosed shopping mall was envisioned to replace much of Boise’s downtown core.
Hardy worked with a group that was trying to save the Egyptian’s organ. A builder, he ended up taking on the whole project. He and his workers restored painted-over details. The original Egyptian-theme light fixtures were uncovered. Ground-floor shops were eliminated in favor of new restrooms and concession areas.
The theater’s 1,200 seats were replaced with 800 plusher, larger versions set around wider aisles.
In 1927, “the people were maybe slimmer, or they would put up with less space,” Hardy said.
Architect Charles Hummel, son of the theater’s original architect, oversaw the restoration.
The theater is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a nationally recognized example of Egyptian revival architecture.
Under terms of the historic restoration, Hardy is required to keep the Egyptian as a movie house until at least 2007. It also hosts meetings and some special events, although with a stage only about 10 feet deep, it’s really designed for movies.
“As far as it being viable and attractive to the present-day moviegoers, the operators tell me that it has very good attendance and people really go to see the house as well as the movie,” Hardy said.
Said historian Hart, “It’s as close to being like it was in 1927 as you could imagine.”
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