Yearning to relive your childhood and indulge in a Disney flick? El Capitan’s your spot—the lavish 1926-built theater screens classics like Cinderella, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Finding Nemo, as well as first-run movies from the Disney companies, including Pixar and Marvel. Tickets are indeed pricier than your run-of-the-mill cinema, but then again, where else do you get to see a 2,500-pipe organ be played before the show?
If you’re looking to brush up on some Hollywood history and peek your head in, there are two tours offered of El Capitan. The 30-minute-long Disney Movie Palace & Backstage Tour ($15, 8:30am) takes you into the dressing rooms, behind the curtain and, of course, inside the actual theater auditorium, including a close-up photo op with the grand Wurlitzer organ. The 15-minute Express Tour ($9) runs throughout the day, but because of scheduled screenings it likely won’t take you inside the actual auditorium. We’d definitely lean toward the longer tour (walk-ups are welcome at both), but at the same time, no experience beats simply settling in for a movie.
|Address:||6838 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles 90028
|Opening hours:||Backstage theater tour 8:30am|
|Price:||3-D general admission $20, VIP $30 (includes reserved seat, popcorn and drink); discounts available for children, seniors, 2-D movies and throwback nights; Disney Movie Palace & Backstage Tour $15, Express Tour $5|
El Capitan Theatre is a fully restored movie palace at 6838 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. The theater and adjacent Hollywood Masonic Temple (now known as the El Capitan Entertainment Centre) is operated by Buena Vista Theatres, Inc., a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Distribution, and as such, serves as the venue for a majority of the Walt Disney Studios’ film premieres.
El Capitan early years
In the early 1920s, real estate developer Charles E. Toberman (the “Father of Hollywood”) envisioned a thriving Hollywood theatre district. Toberman was involved in 36 projects while building the Max Factor Building (now the Hollywood Museum), Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the Hollywood Masonic Temple. With Sid Grauman, he opened the three themed theatres: Egyptian (1922), El Capitan (“The Captain”) (1926), and Chinese (1927).
El Capitan, dubbed “Hollywood’s First Home of Spoken Drama,” opened as a legitimate theatre on May 3, 1926 with Charlot’s Revue starring Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. Barker Bros. Furniture Emporium took up the rest of the building in the 1920s.
For a decade it presented live plays, with over 120 productions including such legends as Clark Gable and Joan Fontaine. By the late 1930s, El Capitan felt the economic effects of the Depression, showcasing fewer and fewer productions. This period saw a cycle of experimentation with entertainment. In an effort to boost attendance at the theatre, its management attempted to lure revues, road shows and benefits. Despite these efforts, business was faltering. The theatre then began showing movies. When Orson Welles was unable to locate a theatre owner willing to risk screening Citizen Kane, he turned to El Capitan, and in 1941, Citizen Kane had its world premiere there. The theater then closed for one year as Paramount Pictures purchased the theater.
The building was remodeled in the modern style, with the decor covered with curtains and removing the box-seat balconies. The theatre reopened in 1942 as the Hollywood Paramount Theater. Its inaugural film presentation was Cecil B. DeMille’s feature Reap the Wild Wind.
The theater remained the West Coast flagship for Paramount Pictures until the studio was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the antitrust case U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures, et al. to divest itself of its theater holdings. After this, the Hollywood Paramount was operated by United Paramount Theatres for some years, then by a series of other companies, culminating with ownership by the Pacific Theatres Circuit in the 1980s.
After a 50-year stay, Barker Bros. Furniture closed its location in the building in the 1970s. In 1985, Pacific Theatres purchased the theater from SRO Theaters. The building’s owners, Nick Olaerts and Thomas L. Harnsberger, had assigned authority for the theater’s facade to the Los Angeles Conservancy in exchange for historical building tax credits.
Disney and restoration
Confetti rains at the climax of a show.
Late in the 1980s, Disney purchased a controlling stake in one of Pacific Theatres’ chains, leading to Disney’s Buena Vista Theaters and Pacific renovating the El Capitan Theatre and the Crest by 1989. These theaters became Disney’s flagship houses. They spent $14 million on a complete renovation of the Paramount, restoring much of the building’s original decor as well as the theater’s original name. El Capitan reopened in 1991 with the premiere of The Rocketeer.
In 1990 the City of Los Angeles designated El Capitan as a Cultural Heritage Monument. The 1992 National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation was bestowed on the restorers of the theater. A Michael Jackson mural was approved by the National Park Service to be placed on the side of the building in December 1992.
After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the building’s frame was compromised and the theater had been flooded by its sprinklers and was considered uninhabitable by building inspectors. The owner walked away from the theater leaving the building to its mortgage company, CUNA Mutual Group. CUNA Mutual, having Disney as a continuing tenant, not only refurbished the theater but the office floors above for $10 million. In July 1995, Buena Vista purchased the Lanterman organ from Glendale City Redevelopment Agency.
From the November 18, 1995 Toy Story premiere to January 1, 1996, Disney rented the Masonic Convention Hall, the next door building, for Totally Toy Story, an instant theme park and a promotional event for the movie. In mid-July 1998, Buena Vista Pictures Distribution purchased the convention hall to continue using it as a promotional venue. A Disney Store location opened next to the theater in the El Capitan Building in 1998.
The $3 million 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 which included the sign tower. The Hollywood Entertainment District, a self-taxing business improvement district, was formed for the properties from La Brea Avenue to McCadden Place on Hollywood Boulevard. The office space’s first tenants were TrizecHahn Centers, builders of the 425,000-square-foot development on the other side of the boulevard. In conjunction with the Herbie: Fully Loaded premiere on June 22, 2005, the Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store opened up in the El Capitan Building on the ground floor replacing a Disney Store.
CUNA Mutual having leased the building to full capacity placed the building up for sale in 2008 at a price of $31 million. In November 2013, Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop co-located with the Disney Studios Store next to the theater in the El Capitan building.