Exactly 100 years ago — on Oct. 18, 1922 — Hollywood unrolled what has been cited as the inaugural modern movie premiere and red carpet proceeding. At the opening night of the Egyptian Theatre, heralding the silent film Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, showman Sid Grauman set out to conjure movie magic before the reel ever started rolling.
The red carpet cut through the theater’s 150-by-45-foot forecourt. The Hollywood Daily Citizen gushed that “the flood-lights of filmdom turned the night into brilliance brighter than noonday.…” Vehicles stretched along the street. Onlookers lined the walkway. Camera bulbs flashed. And suddenly Tinseltown had a sparkly new tool in its arsenal of pageantry.
“Everybody from starland was there,” The Los Angeles Times proclaimed. Around 2,000 attendees — including “the greatest of the producers, scenarists, directors, actors, and screen technicians,” per the Daily Citizen — filled the house. Beforehand, the Times stated that Arthur P. Huntingdon, real-life heir to Robin Hood’s Earldom of Huntingdon, was slated to be “the guest of honor” at the premiere. The $5 tickets sold out before noon on day one of sales.
Inside the $800,000 theater, outfitted with $5,000 projection equipment, the pomp grew only more pompous. Fred Niblo (actor and director) presided over the ceremony. Local leaders such as George Cryer (Los Angeles mayor), George L. Eastman (Hollywood Chamber of Commerce president), and Jesse L. Lasky (producer) made remarks.
Charlie Chaplin, rising to thunderous applause, “did that unwonted thing for him, of saying a few words,” the Times reported. According to the Daily Citizen, he kept his comments brief and rather pointed: “I pray you that we go on with the picture!”
Cecil B. DeMille presented Grauman with a laurel wreath. Robin Hood actors Wallace Beery and Sam De Grasse dusted off their onscreen costumes in a live prologue. Jan Stofer directed the orchestra in an overture of selections from Aida; Victor Schertzinger, who composed the score, then took over at the podium. Frederick Burr Scholl played the theater’s Wurlitzer organ.
The ensuing news coverage was euphoric. The Times praised: “It was a night of nights — the night of nights in cinema annals here, making certain a new epoch in the picture art, perhaps even signalizing a new era in the popularizing of the artistic spirit.” The Los Angeles Record called the joint debut of the theater and the movie “a double triumph.”
The following February, the Times noted that Robin Hood’s run at the theater — which ultimately lasted until April 8, 1923 — had “broken all records for any motion picture in California for length of engagement.” But the legacy of the Oct. 18 festivities looms larger than that. One century later, the premiere is a staple of entertainment promotion. And the red carpet has taken on such a life of its own that it is now as much a phenomenon as the events that it precedes.
Grauman made a career out of monetizing spectacle, and in the past 100 years, the red carpet has followed his lead — transforming from a glorified arrow pointing stars towards the building into a business-within-a-business and a show-within-a-show. The red carpet’s appearance on the awards show circuit was a key stop on its path to ubiquity. The Oscars unfurled its inaugural red carpet in 1961 and televised its carpet for the first time in 1964. In the years since, the red carpet has gone from a blip of the broadcast to a full-scale television production.
Fashion, in part, made the red carpet the lucrative enterprise that it is today. By the 1990s, stars and brands were teaming up to bring pricy couture to megawatt events. While Grauman’s guests may not have been answering “Who are you wearing?,” red carpet style does have roots in 1922. The Times declared of the Robin Hood premiere: “Never, perhaps, has there been such an array of gorgeous feminine attire under one roof. The premiere was a veritable fashion show in this splendor.…”
At the Robin Hood premiere, now so long ago, the speakers seemed to know that a new chapter in their industry had begun. “Isn’t this a great night for Hollywood, my friends and neighbors — am I not right when I say that it is?” Lasky asked.
“This night is a most auspicious one for Los Angeles, but it is still more auspicious for Hollywood,” Eastman decreed. “It marks Hollywood’s advent from the status of a small town to a city of metropolitan importance, where world premieres are shown.” It marked, too, the advent of two intertwined traditions that endure 100 years later.