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Architects: Morgan, Walls & Clements (surrounding office building and ticket lobby), G. Albert Lansburgh (theatre)
First Opened: 3rd May 1926 (94 years ago)
Reopened: 19th June 1991
Former Names: Hollywood Paramount, Loew’s, Cinema on Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood Cinema
Telephone: (818) 845-3110
The El Capitan opened in mid-1926, dubbed “Hollywood’s First Home of Spoken Drama”, and was the brainchild of producer and entertainer Charles Toberman. Toberman envisaged Hollywood as a new theatrical and entertainment district for Los Angeles and played an integral part in key developments including the Roosevelt Hotel, Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theatres, and the Masonic Temple (now the El Capitan Entertainment Center and home to “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”).
The design of the El Capitan was a collaboration between noted Los Angeles architects Morgan, Walls & Clements (exterior) and G. Albert Lansburgh (interior). They would later team-up again on The Wiltern; previously Morgan, Walls & Clements had designed the Belasco and Mayan theatres; Lansburgh the Palace, the Orpheum, and the Shrine Auditorium.
The exterior is of Spanish Colonial style with offices above street level, the large-windowed space beside the theatre lobby being retail, originally opened as a Baker Bros. department store. Morgan, Walls & Clements also designed the exterior ticket lobby.
Lansburgh’s lavish interior was inspired by East Indian themes which he noted had never been used in Southern California before. In his own words that was what made the style suitable for Hollywood, because “the residents demand the extraordinary”.
Although initially successful, Toberman found running the theatre hard work and turned it over to theatre manager and producer Henry Duffy within a few years. Duffy ran legitimate productions for over a decade with stars including Clark Gable, Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Joan Fontaine, and Will Rogers.
In May 1941 the El Capitan hosted the world premiere of Citizen Kane (1941) . After the short run the theatre closed for conversion into a movie theatre, reopening on 18th March 1942 as the Hollywood Paramount under the management of brother and sister team Fanchon & Marco, on a long-term lease from Toberman. Toberman was turning his attention to the purchase of a new theatre in Hollywood which would ultimately carry on the El Capitan name.
The streamline “art moderne” makeover of the old El Capitan into the Hollywood Paramount saw ornate plasterwork covered-up with undulating corrugated sheet metal, however the theatre was described at its reopening as “a resplendently modernized establishment”.
Charles Toberman moved his interest – and his theatre name – eastward to the Hollywood Playhouse which he bought in partnership with Sid Grauman and renamed the El Capitan Theatre, largely financed by the leasing of the original El Capitan. With the new Paramount design aimed at movie exhibition and not stage presentation, Toberman arranged for “stage equipment” (the precise details are not clear) to be moved from the old theatre to the new, and the Los Angeles Times reported that his entire staff also made the transfer to the new El Capitan Theatre.
In the mid-1960s management switched hands to Statewide Theatres who carried-out a major refurbishment in 1964. Loew’s took over in mid-1967 followed by General Cinema in 1972, then Century Theatres in mid-1974, and Sterling Recreation Organization in late 1976. Various minor modernizations, further altering the historic fabric of the building, took place over the years of successive management.
In 1985 Pacific Theatres took over, with the theatre ultimately closing four years later in 1989.
Following the theatre’s closure, the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation proactively moved to nominate the theatre as a Historic-Cultural Monument in December 1989, which was accepted and approved by the City of Los Angeles in June 1990.
The Walt Disney Company joined forces with Pacific Theatres to reopen the theatre, in a $6 million project led by renowned theatre designer Joseph J. Musil. It was originally planned to divide the theatre into two auditoria with new Art Deco interiors, however arguments presented by preservation groups such as the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation persuaded Disney and Pacific to return the theatre as close as possible to its original, single-screen, 1926 state.
Corrugated sheet metal was peeled-back to reveal the original 1920’s architecture, and missing features – such as the auditorium boxes and parts of the lobbies – were painstakingly recreated from historic photographs. The iconic “El Capitan” lettering atop the building’s pseudo radio mast was also restored.
The El Capitan Theatre reopened on 19th June 1991 premiering the movie The Rocketeer .
The theatre houses a 4-manual, 37-rank Wurlitzer pipe organ, the last of five magnificent “Fox Specials” built in the 1920’s, designed with all the “bells and whistles” for deluxe movie palaces. The organ was originally installed in the San Francisco Fox Theatre in 1929.
The four organ chambers (two per side) house over 2,500 individual pipes, the largest of which is over 32 feet long. The organ was meticulously restored over a one-year period and installed by G.M. Buck Pipe Organs, Inc. of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rob Richards has been the organist at the El Capitan since 1999.
Today the El Capitan showcases first-run Disney movies, screenings of Disney classics, and hosts innumerable movie premieres. The continued tradition of pre-show entertainment on the El Capitan’s historic stage and organ performances helps preserve the early 20th Century movie experience for generations to come.
* * Due to the Covid-19 pandemic all theatre tours are on hiatus until further notice * *
As of mid-2018 the theatre runs 45-minute tours daily, usually at 8:30am, for $12 per person, subject to availability and/or change without notice. The tour includes the auditorium, backstage, dressing rooms, lower lounge, lobbies and the organ – all subject to availability and current theatre operations.
“Express” tours ($9 and lasting 15 minutes) are generally available throughout the day, dependent on current programming, and cover Front-of-House and lobby areas.
Tickets for all tours are available for purchase in-person at the theatre Box Office; advance reservations are not required. For further information check out the El Capitan Theatre Tour Flyer or refer to the El Capitan Theatre ticketing website . For more information or questions call 1-800-DISNEY6 or visit the theatre Box Office.
Note: movie screenings at the El Capitan often feature specially tailored pre-shows, often featuring the Wurlitzer organ and various entertainment features inside the auditorium, so differing requirements of these programs may restrict tour access to certain areas.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2021 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2021 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
For photograph licensing and/or re-use contact me here.
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