Mummy’s the word on restoration

In a city filled with producers, directors, writers, actors and executives, the moving image is both profession and passion, and the preservation film history is an ongoing commitment. On Friday, members of American Cinematheque celebrated a movie milestone with the reopening of the historic Egyptian Theatre. Malibu locals such as James Cameron, Danny DeVito, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, David Geffen, David Hockney and Jon Bon Jovi have supported the endeavor over the years, helping to make the evening a dream come true. But veteran director Vincent Sherman, 93, actually attended the event.

Malibu resident and AC President Sigurjon “Joni” Sighvatsson spoke passionately about the love and dedication that went into the theater, which will also serve as the Cinematheque’s new headquarters. “This will bring people back to Hollywood, back to see movies here, the way that movies were meant to be seen.”

It wasn’t long ago that Sighvatsson’s “great crown jewel” was nothing more than a crumbling eyesore fronting a seedy stretch along the Walk of Fame. After a series of disastrous modern renovations, aluminum sidings and add-ons, after its elegant Art Deco walls were stripped of their opulence, the theater closed in 1992 and fell into disrepair. It became a squatting ground for bums and addicts, surrounded by tacky T-shirt shops and late-night tattoo parlors. Teen-age gang members, transvestites and bewildered tourists replaced the glamorous stars who once graced the boulevard.

But before the wrecking ball rolled in, American Cinematheque came to the rescue. It was determined to save this small but important piece of Hollywood history. Hollywood was celebrated throughout the world, Hollywood made a lot of people rich and Hollywood spoke a universal language that made people laugh or cry or even think. But when the Japanese or the Europeans or the South Americans flew in to see Hollywood’s history, there wasn’t much to see.

For that reason, the American Cinematheque, as well as city, county and countless industry officials, embraced the Egyptian like a crusade. In her blessing, Rabbi Denise Eger described the landmark as “linking our past to our present and preserving it for our future.”

So on Friday, 75 years to the day of its original premiere at that very same theater, AC reopened the Egyptian with Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film classic “The Ten Commandments,” complete with orchestra, pharaohs, fanfare and even Moses himself, Charleton Heston.

The print was in less-than-perfect condition. There were scenes which were runny and blotchy and deteriorated by time. Seventy-five years from now, they could be Leonardo diCaprio’s love scene from “Titanic” or the bar scene from “Star Wars” — unrecognizable, muddy, blurred. For many, on this night of nights, the damage served as a reminder. Like the fading celluloid, there are many fantastic movie palaces and pieces of history that do not survive. They are quick to point out that once something like the Egyptian is gone, it’s gone forever.

Now, after six years and $14 million, the legendary theater lives on — a triumph that gave the people at American Cinematheque a reason to burst with pride and emotion. Taking the microphone before the assembled audience, director Barbara Zika Smith said with a lump in her throat, “I don’t know if I can get through this without crying.” She couldn’t.

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