It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: Burnin’ Down the House – Part III

Dave Sikula, keeping promises, making history.

Okay, so after two long digressions, we’re finally (almost) here.

Come with me back to Thursday, December 14, 1978. To appreciate my actions, you have to realize that I’ve been reading Superman comics since I was three. I taught myself to read with them, so when the prospect of a serious big-screen Superman movie presented itself, there was no way I was going to miss it. Now, remember, we’d finally the summer blockbuster era, so I expected long lines. While nowadays, a movie like that would open with a midnight show kicking off opening day, the first show then then was scheduled for something like 8:00 am Friday morning. Anticipating those long lines, I drove up to Hollywood, expecting to sit or stand in line at the Chinese Theatre all night.

Well, imagine my surprise to get to Hollywood and find – no lines. I had three choices: drive back home and come back extra early the next morning, sit on Hollywood Boulevard all night by myself, or pull off to a residential street and spend the night sleeping in my car. Being young and stupid, I chose the last, waking every couple of hours to drive by the theatre and make sure that a line wasn’t forming. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)

It was about this crowded.

It was about this crowded.

The sun rose around 7 a.m., so I decided enough was enough and drove to the theatre, parked in the lot behind the Max Factor building across the street (soon to play a major part in this narrative), and bought my ticket. Long story short (too late!): I loved the movie then and still do. Sure, it has plot holes and problems a-plenty, but the strengths – and Christopher Reeve’s performance – outweigh the weaknesses.

Fast forward to what must be Sunday, January 7th. My sister is home for the holiday. I’ve caught a cold and don’t feel great, but she decides she wants to see Superman. I don’t feel well enough to drive (and despite what a lousy driver my sister has always been, when you go somewhere with her, she drives), so she gets behind the wheel, I get in the passenger seat, and up the freeway to Hollywood we fly.

Now, my sister being who she was, she decides that the best way to handle not only the drive, but the movie as well, is to smoke a joint on the way there. I, being sick, pass (and never really did like smoking dope; it mainly gave me a sore throat). We get to the theatre, park in the Max Factor lot, buy tickets for the last show of the evening (10 p.m.?), and see the movie. We have a great time, leave the theatre, and head for the car.

This is where the fun starts.

We get to the car, and, in her altered state, she can’t find the keys. We look in the car, and, because of the darkness of the garage, can’t really see inside, but can tell they’re not in the ignition. After a discussion of a few moments, she thinks she might have dropped them on the floor of the theatre. We go back to the Chinese, and find that, in the time it’s taken to walk across Hollywood Blvd. twice and discuss losing the keys, the theatre’s been locked up as tight as a nun’s knees. The staff had disappeared like they’d been abducted by a UFO.

Crickets, tumbleweeds, and us

Crickets, tumbleweeds, and us

We marched back to the car. Still no sign of the keys. Back to the theatre. We started pounding on doors, hoping that, despite the way it looked, someone might be there. No answer.

I got the idea to start prowling around, hopeful that maybe there might be some way inside. In those days, the Chinese was, more or less, a free-standing building, with parking lots on both sides, so the auditorium doors were right out in the open. (In the decades since, those areas have been developed and there are buildings on both sides.) I tried a couple of the exterior doors, and lo and behold, one was ajar and we were able to slip into the lobby.

It was mostly dark inside, but illuminated enough that we could find our way around. The auditorium itself, though, was as black as Dick Cheney’s heart. I wondered if there was any way to turn on the house lights, so poking around behind the concessions stand, I found a circuit breaker box. I started flipping switches, hoping that one of them might illuminate the theatre, but nothing happened. Lobby lights went on and off, and I have no doubt the front of the building lit up like a pinball machine, but nothing in the auditorium. (I ended up figuring the house lights must have been controlled from the projection booth.)

What to do? We knew – or, at least, suspected – that those keys were in the house somewhere. I was suddenly hit with an idea. I knew generally where we’d sat, and would know specifically because there’d been a sticky Coke patch on the floor. Since we hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight, there was only one solution.

Taking my sister’s lighter (remember the joint?), I found a giveaway newspaper in the lobby, trod gingerly into the auditorium, using the poor illumination the lighter provided. When I got to the approximate location of our seats, I rolled up the newspaper and lit it like a torch. Like an angry villager, I waved it around until I found the Coke slick and verified that the keys weren’t there.

Did you look there?

Did you look there?

By this time, the flames were getting pretty close to my hand, so I blew out the torch, dropped it, and stamped it out to the best of my ability. Resignedly, we left the theatre and figured that, since the keys were nowhere else, they had to be in the car.

In the forecourt of the Chinese were payphones, so we called AAA and told them that we were locked out of the car. We were told that a tow truck would be there presently, and, in one of those once-in-a-lifetime miracles, not only was a truck there in less than five minutes, it was followed almost immediately by a second truck.

We explained the situation to the driver, met him across the street at the garage, and with a flick of his wrist and his slim jim, the car door was opened, and, lo and behold, the keys were there on the floor of the driver’s side where my sister had dropped them.

We got in the car, started it, and drove away into the night. The entire trip home, though, I insisted on keeping the radio on KFWB, the all-news station, because I fully expected to hear a breaking news bulletin that the Chinese Theatre was engulfed in flames and that arson was suspected.

Obviously, it didn’t.

But that, at long last, is the story of how I nearly burned down Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

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