LOS ANGELES – Film fans have been sizing themselves up against the stars in front of Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre for decades, but its world-famous collection of celebrity footprints in cement began by chance.
Silent film star Norma Talmadge was visiting her friend Sid Grauman in 1927 at the new theater he was building on Hollywood Boulevard when she accidentally stepped in the wet cement out front. A showman and entrepreneur, Grauman was struck with inspiration: He could use a few celebrity footprints to help promote his new movie house and set it apart from his Egyptian Theatre down the street.
He asked his friends and business partners, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, to intentionally put their hands and feet in wet cement, and he did the same. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre’s “Forecourt of the Stars” was born.
Those footprints draw 5 million tourists a year today. As the landmark building now known as the TCL Chinese Theatre turns 90 this week, here are a few little-known facts about its famous forecourt:
Not just hands and feet: Jimmy Durante pressed his nose into the cement alongside his footprints in 1945. Jackie Chan did the same in 1997. Betty Grable left an imprint of her leg when she was honored in 1943. John Barrymore laid his face down to mark the release of “The Great Profile” in 1940. George Burns left one of his signature cigars behind with his prints in 1979. It was quickly pried out by a fan, said Levi Tinker, general manager and staff historian. Marilyn Monroe, whose handprints are the most popular of the lot according to Tinker, dotted the “i” in her name with an earring when she was honored in 1953. It was stolen three days later, Tinker said, though a piece of its backing remains. Whoopi Goldberg dropped one of her dreadlocks into the cement in 1995. There are also horseshoes (Trigger in 1949), robot wheels (R2-D2 in 1977), a pipe (Jean Hersholt, 1949) and a gun (Roy Rogers, 1949) imprinted in the celebrated cement.
Size matters: Because small feet were considered more ladylike, some actresses squeezed into tiny shoes for their footprint honors. Rita Hayworth wore children’s shoes to make her prints in 1942. Shirley Temple also wore children’s shoes for her prints in 1935, but she was 7 years old at the time. Sean Connery went barefoot in 1999. Mel Brooks, who made his mark in 2014, wore his regular shoes but added a prosthetic sixth finger to his left hand.
Fleeting footprints? Not everyone recognized with a hand and footprint ceremony makes a permanent mark at the Chinese Theatre. A few have been purely promotional, said theater president and chief operating officer Alwyn Hight Kushner, and the cement tablets created were never actually destined for the forecourt. Herbie the Love Bug left his tire tracks in cement in 1969, but the tablet was never installed. Prints left behind more recently by Kobe Bryant, the Smurfs, Optimus Prime and Uggie the dog are in storage, Kushner said.
Time capsules: There are two buried beneath the forecourt. The first was planted in 1942 to mark the release of “Mrs. Miniver,” which ultimately won six Oscars. Beneath star Greer Garson’s prints is a capsule containing a copy of the script and a 35-milimeter print of the film. A second time capsule commemorates the theater’s 50th anniversary. Buried in 1977, it holds a theater ticket, a 16-milimeter print of a Chinese film and a program from opening night on May 18, 1927.
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