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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 hosting “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.
The streamline “art moderne” renovation 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 in 1989.
In 1989 the Walt Disney Company joined forces with Pacific Theatres to restore the theatre to its original configuration, in a project led by renowned theatre designer Joseph J. Musil. 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 mast was also restored. The theatre was declared a Historic Cultural Monument by the City of Los Angeles in 1990 and reopened in June 1991.
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. It 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.
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 and organ performances helps preserve the early 20th Century movie experience for generations to come.
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 © 2002-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2020 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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