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Bringing Hollywood's Egyptian Theater back to life

Upgrading an electrical system in a historic building is always a challenge, says Richard Mort, project manager for Amelco Electric, but he says the Egyptian Theater renovation is more challenging than usual.The $21-million restoration of the historic Hollywood Boulevard theater keeps the original Egyptian exterior and adds a state-of-the art theater and a screening room to the interior. New sound,

Upgrading an electrical system in a historic building is always a challenge, says Richard Mort, project manager for Amelco Electric, but he says the Egyptian Theater renovation is more challenging than usual.

The $21-million restoration of the historic Hollywood Boulevard theater keeps the original Egyptian exterior and adds a state-of-the art theater and a screening room to the interior. New sound, lighting, and projection systems will be installed with care given to preserve most of the theater's original Egyptian structural and decorative elements.

"We've had to route conduits without breaking walls...without disturbing any of the original construction and decorative elements, many of which are being carefully restored," Mort said. "In some cases, we've had to use old ventilating tunnels under the main floor for conduit routing."

Built in 1922 by legendary showman Sid Grauman, the Egyptian Theater was a premiere showplace for the then-burgeoning film industry. Grauman originally envisioned the theater as a Moorish palace, but the theme switched to an Egyptian one shortly after the discovery of King Tut's tomb-ostensibly to take advantage of the public's interest in the Egyptian discoveries.

The theater underwent a renovation in the late 1950s and continued as a first-run theater until 1992 when economics and the decline of Hollywood Boulevard into a collection of curio shops, vacant storefronts, and transients brought it to a close. The 1992 Northridge earthquake caused further damage, but Hollywood Boulevard is working its way back to respectability; the Egyptian restoration takes the theater to a level considerably beyond its original form.

Driving the restoration is the American Cinematheque, an industry-sponsored film preservation group, which will use the newborn Egyptian as a showplace for its year-round program of film classics, retrospectives, previews of new works, and experimental films. The term "restoration" is used loosely to describe what's taking place. Basically, a new modern theater is being built inside the original shell. In fact, there will be two theaters-a 700-seat area for general presentations and within the same space, a completely-enclosed 75-seat screening room for special showings to industry and other selected audiences.

The structural armature The basic restoration concept involves a structural armature within the theater's original space to serve as sole support for the new fire protection, mechanical, sound, and theater lighting systems.

This armature will also support an innovative, almost revolutionary approach to sound control. Although the sound system had been altered to bridge the gap between the organ-accompanied silent films and early talking pictures, the shell fell far short of what was needed to accommodate today's surround-sound systems.

The architect's design solution involves sliding acoustical panels on both sides of the main theater space. To give an audience a view of the theater's impressive interior space, the panels stay stacked or folded before the film. Right before a film begins, the panels slide forward on tracks to enclose the audience and deliver the full effects of the sound system.

Lighting was also given special attention, with the theater's main screen employing light-absorbing baffles to preserve the viewing qualities of projected films. This will be particularly important when older films are shown. Even the restrooms are getting all-new indirect lighting.

Electrical details Working closely with Hodgetts & Fung, the architectural firm; and Turner Construction, the general contractor; Amelco Electric has called on its experience with other historic buildings and older theaters in the Los Angeles area.

Major electrical specifications include special dual service feed from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. This provides 600 A at 480 V in a three-phase, four-wire system matched with a 1600 A, 120V/208 V three-phase, four-wire system. This split voltage feed eliminates the need for an internal transformer and the accompanying electrical noise problems.

Guy Ruggieri, the Amelco electrical engineer who designed the restored Egyptian's electrical system, said the split feed approach has been used in other theater restorations handled by Amelco. "For the Egyptian, the 480-V service will power the HVAC system only," he said. "This helps isolate the rotating elements of the air conditioning system-motors, heaters, etc.-from the theater's sound system, eliminating or minimizing noise produced from motor startup. This is even more important in theaters devoted to live presentations but is definitely a benefit in a motion picture theater."

Because there are two complete projection rooms, one for the main theater and one for the 75-seat screening room, two sets of light dimming circuits and controls have been installed.

The electrical system basic network is all new, including switchgear and panel-boards, conduit and wire feeds, lighting, intercom and phone service. Outside switchgear are GE SC Plus models. A 100 kW, 120 V/208 V three-phase, four-wire emergency generator is also being installed.

As noted, the unique theater-within-a-theater design involves two separate and complete projection rooms, each with dimming controls and the latest in projection and sound equipment.

The main theater projection room will have two 35mm projectors, xenon bulb power supply, video projector and video recorder/players and a laser disc player and a Dolby Cinema Sound System.

The projection room for the 75-seat screening room will be similarly equipped. All projection, sound, video and film handling equipment is being supplied by Boston Light & Sound Inc.

For the theater-wide intercom system, Amelco is providing only conduits with Clearcom 2-channel equipment going in as one of the last subsystems to be installed.

As noted, two sets of dimming controls are being installed, one for each of the two-projection rooms. The controls are being supplied by ETC. The fire alarm system is a Notifier system, supplied by Pyro-Comm Systems Inc. As per NE Code, the fire-alarm system is interlocked with an ac system, which is cut off to prevent delivering smoke to unaffected areas. The fire-protection system includes extra high-pressure pumps to supplement city water supply. The previously mentioned emergency generator is an Olympian.

Delicate work Mort emphasized the challenge of working within the constraints posed by the historic nature of the building. "Even though there is a great deal of new interior construction, we've had to be particularly thorough and cautious in routing conduits without damaging many of the designated historic walls, floors or ceilings," he said.

In addition to the major alteration and restoration of the theater's interior, restoration is also proceeding on the entrance courtyard off Hollywood Boulevard, scene of countless movie premiere ceremonies in the Egyptian's early days. This area will include shops, a film-oriented art gallery, bookstore, cafe, and roof garden.

Donated palm trees that stand more than 100-ft high are being illuminated with spot and floodlighting. Underground conduit in the fore-court can be used during special events. Disk jockeys and other performers needing power during special events can feed from 200-A sources located nearby. Cables can be threaded throughout underground conduits, thus eliminating surface cable clutter and unsafe conditions for visitors.

The original sunburst-ceiling pattern in the main theater is being restored and a 1922 Wurlitzer theater organ will be installed for use during silent film presentations.

With the Egyptian theater's restoration scheduled for completion later this year, the American Cinematheque organization is planning a typical Hollywood opening, including the showing of Cecil B. DeMille's acclaimed silent film version of The Ten Commandments, which originally premiered at the theater in 1923.

The $21-million project is being financed with a combination of Community Redevelopment Agency, HUD, and National Endowment for the Arts grants and loans; major gifts from Time-Warner and the MCA Foundation; and other contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

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