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Dolby Theatre | © Adam Fagen / Flickr
Dolby Theatre | © Adam Fagen / Flickr
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A Brief History of LA's Dolby Theater

Picture of Juliet Bennett Rylah
Updated: 2 March 2018
The Dolby Theater, previously known as the Kodak Theatre, can be found in the bustling tourist intersection of Hollywood and Highland. It’s the destination where out-of-towners stop to take photos with costumed street performers, visit the Hard Rock Cafe and snap selfies with their favorite celebrity stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also fitting, The Dolby Theater was constructed to host the annual Academy Awards in the heart of Hollywood, just across from the ceremony’s original venue.

The annual Academy Awards ceremony is now synonymous with the pinnacle of Hollywood’s success. And, it’s ceremonious history leaves a rich mark on Los Angeles’ landscape. In 1929, the cornered Roosevelt Hotel, with a rich history of housing Hollywood elite, saw the very first ceremony in the form of a dinner. This first show occurred back before the name “Oscars” was ever added. That year, the 1927 war drama, Wings, took Best Picture. And from that point forward, the Academy Awards changed venues multiple times. Spanning from 1930 to 1943, the venue alternated between the still-standing Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles and the Ambassador Hotel in Koreatown — a landmark that was demolished in 2005. The latter venue was the infamous site of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination. A public school complex, known as Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, now stands in its place. The Pantages Theatre in Hollywood hosted the show through the fifties, followed by the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica for the better part of the sixties. From 1998 until 2001, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles shared the duty with the Shrine Auditorium, located near USC.

Though all these venues are significant to Hollywood’s history in their own right, none of them were designed and constructed with the Academy Awards in mind — that is, until, the Dolby. The theater broke ground in 1997 and cost a total of $94 million to build. David Rockwell, of the Rockwell group, worked with Theater Projects Consultants, specifically with the idea that the Academy Awards would be held there, to create a grandiose space that would bring to life the magnitude of the ceremony itself.

“It had to be glamorous and beautiful, which we believe it is,” Bob Rehme, former president of the Academy, told Variety at the time. “We wanted it designed to hold a live TV show, with a permanent main camera position. It had to have a large stage, like the Shrine or Radio City Music Hall. And it had to have a very large orchestra pit that could hold 75 musicians — no Broadway show has that big an orchestra.”

That orchestra rehearses each year just down the street at the iconic Capitol Studios Tower. In past years, the musicians actually played live from Capitol, while fiber optic lines that ran from Capitol to the Dolby piped in the sound.

Other considerations when building the theater included a large ballroom (catered exclusively by Wolfgang Puck’s company), hidden cords that ran underground and through pillars, convenient seating for nominees and a walkway for the show’s magnificent arrivals. A grand staircase, adorned with red carpet, makes for a majestic entrance, while columns feature the names of previous Best Picture winners.

Neil Patrick Harris hosts the Academy Awards in 2015 | Disney ABC Television Group/Flickr

The 3,400-seat theater officially opened on November 9, 2001, and would host its first Academy Awards in March 2002. Whoopi Goldberg hosted and A Beautiful Mind won Best Picture. Back then, it was called the Kodak Theatre, as the Eastman Kodak Company signed on for a 20-year deal in which they paid for naming rights. In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy and was allowed out of that deal. Audio company, Dolby Laboratories stepped in and signed a deal for naming rights for 20 years, also committing to a routine upgrade to the sound system. At that time, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences also signed a contract with CIM Group, who owns the complex in which the theater is located, keeping the show in the venue until at least 2033, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, then an L.A. city councilmember, said, “I’m thrilled that the Oscars are staying right where they belong — in Hollywood.”

When it’s not time for the Oscars, the theater hosts a variety of concerts and performances. Guided walking tours of the theater are offered daily from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., every 30 minutes, though not when the Academy Awards are happening, of course.