Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Grand Opening for Exotic and Modern Egyptian Theater [otd 04/19]

On April 19, 1927, crowds began to gather outside the brand new Egyptian Theater at least an hour before it was supposed to open, at 7:00 pm. Boise's first movie "palace" had created an expectant buzz in the city.
Egyptian Theater, ca. 1928*. City of Boise.

Of the five other movie houses in town, the Pinney Theater was the largest and fanciest. Former Boise mayor James Pinney [blog, Sept 29], a theater enthusiast, opened the Pinney in late 1908. Designed initially for stage plays, within a decade movie productions predominated.

As the grande damme of downtown venues, the Pinney got preference for the prestigious first-run movies. For example, the theater offered the first exclusive, limited engagement in Boise of The Birth of a Nation (Idaho Statesman, April 10, 1916). This highly controversial, but wildly popular movie by D. W. Griffith is considered historically important as the first true “feature” film.

However, the "Roaring Twenties" were in full swing, and moviegoers craved something modern for a venue. To some, the Pinney seemed stodgy and old-fashioned. The other four theaters in town were smaller and generally conventional in design. Boiseans were ready for the exotic.

Sensing an opportunity, a year earlier three Boise businessmen – Leo J. Falk, Harry K. Fritchman and Charles M. Kahn – incorporated a company to satisfy that desire. Two of them were especially well known to locals. Boise City was just five years old when Nathan Falk, Leo's father, opened a store there. Born in Boise in 1882, Leo ended up directing the extensive family holdings after his father died in 1903.

Fifteen years older than Leo, Fritchman was already a successful businessman when he relocated to Boise. He continued that success in Idaho, and served as Boise Mayor in 1911. Kahn moved to Boise from Portland in 1899 and established a thriving law practice. Prominent in the local Jewish community, Kahn served a term as City Attorney starting in April 1907.
Interior d├ęcor, Egyptian Theater. Theater photo gallery.
The partners contracted with the well-known architectural firm of Tourtellotte & Hummel to design a spectacular venue. At the time, "Egyptian" motifs were all the rage, so the designer offered his interpretation.

After almost a year of work, the doors finally opened on the 19th of April. Patrons found themselves in a bright lobby, tiled nearer the doors but with lush carpeting further in. Water fountains burbled somewhere. The walls looked like cut stone, with frescos embellished in bright blues, reds and greens.

Warner Bros. publicity poster.
The Egyptian opened with the movie Don Juan, starring the hugely popular John Barrymore. The release gave Boise theatergoers something else new: The first feature film with prerecorded – via the "Vitaphone" – sound effects and music (no dialog).

Today, the Egyptian is the only theater that has survived from that era. It went through several names in its history, before returning to the original. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. At considerable cost, a recent restoration addressed various building code issues while retaining the historic decor.

* The photograph was identified as "undated," but the marquee says: "Monte Blue in Across the Pacific." That silent film was released in 1926, so this showing would have almost certainly been in 1927 or 1928.
References: [French]
Arthur Hart, "Idaho history: [Boise Movie Theaters]," Idaho Statesman (September 13 and 20, 2009).
"Don Juan," The Internet Movie Database.
"Across the Pacific," The Internet Movie Database.
Sue Paseman, "The Mysterious East Meets the Pragmatic West," Historical Essay, Boise State University (Dec 2004).

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