For the world premiere of the action-adventure film Robin Hood on October 18, 1922, Sid Grauman—owner of Los Angeles's Egyptian Theatre—decided he would embellish the spectacle of seeing stars like Douglas Fairbanks arrive by having them walk on a red carpet. Grauman had workers unfurl the carpet outside the theater on Hollywood Boulevard. It wasn’t just the first time a premiere had used such an adornment—it was the first movie premiere, period.
Grauman probably didn’t realize it at the time, but his selection of color would be imitated at other premieres before being adopted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1961. At that year’s Oscars ceremony, attendees walked a red carpet to arrive at the auditorium, a parade of glamour and social status that might be the closest thing the United States has to a royal class. When the arrivals started airing on television in 1964—and the carpet’s color was telecast for the first time for those owning a color set in 1966—red carpets and Hollywood became intertwined.
If Grauman inspired the Academy, who or what inspired Grauman? According to cultural historian Amy Anderson, he was following in the footsteps of those who considered a red carpet synonymous with wealth, power, and status. In 458 BCE, the play Agamemnon portrayed a king invited to walk a “crimson path” by his calculating wife tired of her husband’s violent ways. In the 15th century, the Aztecs and Mayans considered scarlet-colored carpeting to be a symbol of prosperity, with the dye (made from the cochineal insect) considered a rare and valuable commodity. Like an expensive car or watch, a red carpet implies luxury.
Of more recent history for Grauman was the use of a red carpet for the New York Central Railroad in the early 1900s. Passengers were guided by the path and used it to navigate toward their boarding entrances. He may have even heard that President James Monroe was reportedly invited to walk a red carpet when he got off a riverboat in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1821.
The tradition has become more elaborate than ever. At the annual Academy Awards ceremony, carpet vendors Signature Systems Group will unroll 50,000 square feet of carpet, working a total of 900 man-hours to make sure the 900-foot-long, 33-foot-wide path is ready to be walked upon by the cast of Blade Runner 2049.
Those within a few feet of it might realize the iconic red carpet is not actually red: Signature representatives say it’s more of a burgundy.
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