When on Hollywood Boulevard near Highland, it would be hard to miss the impressive El Capitan Theatre. Built in in 1926 the movie palace was been declared a Cultural Heritage Monument by the City of Los Angeles in 1990. It currently serves as a venue for a majority of the Walt Disney Studios’ film premieres.
The grand theater is built into a six story office building. The design featured a Spanish Colonial Revival style exterior designed by Stiles O. Clements of the architectural firm of Morgan, Walls & Clements. The interior is a lavish East Indian in the main auditorium, English Tudor in the wood-paneled lower lobby and Italian Baroque on the facade.
The refurbished theater features a giant Wurlitzer theatre organ originally installed in San Francisco’s Fox Theatre in 1929. Below the theater is a small exhibit space, often used to display props from the films, such as costumes or set pieces. Next door is the adjacent Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store, where patrons can purchase ice cream themed to the film currently playing in the cinema next door. And of course there is a large assortment of Disney and movie merchandise there.
History of the El Capitan Theatre
In the early 1920s, real estate developer Charles E. Toberman (the “Father of Hollywood”) envisioned a thriving Hollywood theatre district. In addition to over thirty other projects he was involved in, he and Sid Grauman, he opened three themed theatres: Egyptian Theatre in 1922, El Capitan Theatre in 1926 and the Chinese Theatre in 1927.
El Capitan opened as a legitimate theatre (meaning spoken Drama as opposed to Comedy etc) on May 3, 1926. For a decade it presented live plays, with over 120 productions including such legends as Clark Gable and Joan Fontaine.
The depression took a toll on El Capitan and by the late thirties it was attempting to book revues, road shows and benefits. In 1941, the El Capitan Theatre was converted from a playhouse to a movie theatre.
Orson Wells, seeking a theatre in Hollywood that would premiere his controversial film, Citizen Kane, rented the El Capitan. It premiered at El Capitan on May 8, 1941, as his first feature film. Shortly thereafter, the theatre closed for a two month renovation and modernization. It reopened in March 1942 as the Hollywood Paramount.
Control of the theatre and the name changed many times over the next three decades. It became Loews Hollywood, the Hollywood Cinema, and then Pacific’s Paramount Theatre. In 1989, the Walt Disney Company joined forces with Pacific Theatres and launched a two year, museum quality restoration of the historic theatre, led by renowned theatre designer Joseph J. Musil.
After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the building’s frame was damaged and the theater had been flooded by its sprinklers. It was considered uninhabitable by building inspectors. The owner walked away from the theater leaving the building to its mortgage company. Disney who by then was then a continuing tenant in the theatre portion of the building, not only refurbished the theater but the office floors above for $10 million.
The seismic retrofitting was finished in time for the June 21, 1996 premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The building’s full restoration was completed in December 1997. The Disney Soda Fountain and Studio Store opened up in the El Capitan Building on the ground floor at that time.
Seeing a movie at the El Capitan is taking a step back in time to the glory days of Hollywood in a fully restored grande old theatre… equipped with the most state of the art projection and sound equipment. Make sure you check it out and take in a movie if you can when you are visiting Hollywood.