history//EL CAPITAN THEATRE, HOLLYWOOD

HISTORY AT THE MOVIES



During a crosscountry trip from Atlanta to Los Angeles in the summer of 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing a screening of Disney/Pixar's Up on El Capitan's giant screen. The theater is grand in every detail and completely takes you back to the days when seeing a movie was a special and magical event. You could almost feel the glitz and glamor, smell the cigars, and see the flashbulbs that Hollywood's finest experienced back in the golden days of golden-aged red carpet film premieres. When most of the theaters around the world offer standard experiences, there's nothing like getting the chance to experience real movie magic in a place built for the ultimate entertainment experience. As we start a new "History at the Movies" series devoted to some of the best movie houses in the world, there's no place better to begin than one of Hollywood's very own finest. 

In the heart of Hollywood Blvd. lies the El Capitan Theatre, an immaculate example of theater goodness. Owned and operated by The Walt Disney Company today, the El Capitan is the site of most of Disney's film premieres throughout the year, as well as being a running movie theater. Housed alongside the El Capitan Entertainment Centre, where "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" is filmed, the El Capitan is notable for its charming and historic architecture and style.

The theater was built and opened by Charles E. Toberman and Sid Grauman in 1926 as part of the pair's vision of turning the Hollywood street into a living and breathing theater district. Three theaters popped up on this lone street: the Egyptian, in 1922, El Capitan, in 1926, and the Chinese Theatre, in 1927. The latter would become famous for the cemented hand and foot prints that fill the main entrance.

When constructed, El Capitan featured a Spanish Colonial Revival style design on its exterior, designed by Stiles O. Clements, and an interior featuring East Indian flair, designed by G. Albert Lansburgh. The lavish designs were the perfect backdrop for the glamorous and dramatic live theater performances that took place, beginning with the 1926 production of Charlot's Revue, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. Other stars who performed on El Capitan's stages at this time included Clark Gable and Joan Fontaine. Over 120 different productions were put up in the first decade alone.

During and after the Great Depression, El Capitan and its sister theaters felt the economic impact. By 1941, productions had become very scarce. Orson Welles looked to the El Capitan to be the location for his Citizen Kane premiere, after having trouble locating another theater willing to show the film. After the film classic's premiere in 1941, El Capitan's doors were shut for a year.

A modernizing remodeling project brought El Capitan into the present and the name was changed to the Hollywood Paramount Theatre. Its purpose as a live-drama theater was now changed to solely motion pictures. The first film to show in the newly designed space was Cecil B. Demille's Reap the Wild Wind, starring John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, and Ray Milland. Like Disney today, Paramount Pictures used the theater to house most of its features.

Because of its location on the high-traffic Hollywood Blvd. and the interest in theater screening agreements and rules, Paramount was taken to court. The US government found Paramount guilty of antitrust practices and seized the theater from the film studio. The theater was then owned by countless different operators and companies until the early 1980s.

Once regulations changed and studios were allowed to own theater chains, interest in the Hollywood Paramount Theater grew. In 1989, the Walt Disney Company purchased the property, spending $14 million on renovations to bring it full circle to its original designs. They also restored the name to its original, El Capitan.

In 1991, Disney's The Rocketeer was the first film to premiere at the newly renovated site. It has now become the site for most of Disney's major film premieres, as well as a prime location for film screenings. A tourist destination, the lobby of the El Capitan also features a Disney store and ice cream/soda shop, featuring specialty snacks associated with whichever film is currently showing.

Inside the theater, guests are entertained prior to showtime by a Wurlitzer Theatre organ. The theater features an exhibit space, which usually showcases props and behind-the-scenes goodies from the current film premiering or playing.

Most recently, the theater held the world red carpet premiere for the upcoming Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy, starring Chris Pratt and Bradley Cooper. 

The theater is listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.

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