El Capitan Theatre: The Story of an L.A. Icon

Enjoy a world-class movie experience in the heart of Hollywood

Photo courtesy of El Capitan Theatre

As couch surfing becomes a long winded sail into the abyss of binge watching, the nostalgic sounds of ripping ticket stubs, the crunch of buttered popcorn, and fizzled slurps of soda pop are becoming a pastime. Unless of course you’re swept away at the El Capitan Theatre, where everything is golden and passing through the box office transports you through generations of Hollywood history.

Dancers perform at the U.S. premiere of "Coco" at El Capitan Theatre
U.S. premiere of "Coco" at El Capitan Theatre | Photo: "Coco," Facebook

Situated across the street from the tourist hub of Ovation Hollywood, the El Capitan Theatre is an epic movie-going experience that transcends a typical cinema house. Appealing to flick fans of all types and an homage to yesteryear, blockbuster films are brought to life as the entire venue plays a role - whether it be a curated display of costumes and props, Q&A events with movie makers, or periodic live celebrations. Recently, dancers and mariachis performed on stage for the U.S. premiere of Disney/Pixar’s Coco, and in December 2017, Star Wars: The Last Jedi brought a 40-foot First Order AT-M6 Walker to overlook a convocation of galactic enthusiasts.

Wurlitzer pipe organ at the El Capitan Theatre
Wurlitzer pipe organ | Photo courtesy of El Capitan Theatre

“You don’t find what we do here at any other theatres,” says Ed Collins, the executive director of operations at the El Capitan. “I think we’re going through a transitional phase in the entertainment business. If the experience isn’t unique, people are going to watch at home or on their smartphones.”

In the early 1900s, Hollywood was a meek mingling of agricultural and residential homes, but with the dawning of L.A.'s architectural boom in the 1920s, things began to shift for the quiet town. Texas real estate mogul Charles E. Toberman moved to Hollywood and envisioned the neighborhood as a pillar for arts and culture to complement its movie-making foundation and glamorous lifestyle. As the upswing rolled out, Hollywood Boulevard evolved into a glistening thoroughfare of restaurants, luxury apartments, and shops, and with Toberman’s direction the opening of three historic theatres - The Egyptian in 1922, El Capitan in 1926, and the Chinese Theatre in 1927. These milestone venues, all situated within six blocks of each other, marked the emergence of Hollywood Boulevard as a studded strip for well-heeled ladies and suited men of show business.

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View of the El Capitan Theatre auditorium from the stage (1926) | Photo courtesy of Water and Power Associates

With globally-inspired influences as the backdrop to all three locations, the El Capitan Theatre stood out for its decadence. With an interior design led by architect G. Albert Lansburgh and exterior designed by prestigious L.A. firm Morgan, Walls, and Clements (The Wiltern, Chapman Plaza et al), an elaborate motif trickled through every scene of the building. The Spanish-Colonial foyer gleamed with 20-foot ceilings and glimmering wrought iron schemes around the windows, doors, and posters. The outer lobby, a more subdued communal area, led into the grand East Indian auditorium, which was gilded with an opulent gold-metal leaf proscenium ceiling, side walls, and organ grills. Illuminated with jewel-like blues and greens, the lavish opera house stylings emulated the riches of another world.

The El Capitan Theatre opened on May 3, 1926 with the stage production “The Charlot Revue of 1926.” The astounding fanfare and the resulting front page Los Angeles Sunday Times headline that read “Dazzling Opening For Hollywood’s First Home of Spoken Drama” captivated the city with more than 120 live productions over the next 15 years.

Until the daunting Great Depression.

During this time, a waning of live theatre patronage pummeled businesses, while movie palaces saw an uptick. The El Capitan Theatre desperately searched for meaning among the sluggish economy. Despite creative attempts to revive itself with a myriad of roadshows, revues, and benefits, the hindering prosperity of the El Capitan led to a careful deliberation and a movie screening that altered its fate.

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"Citizen Kane" movie poster (1941)

In 1941, RKO Pictures and Orson Welles sought an establishment willing to show his controversial film Citizen Kane. Turned away by many but welcomed by the El Capitan, the production company built a temporary movie screen for the occasion. It was met with great success, and the El Capitan Theatre reconsidered its future.

Led by The Paramount Hollywood Theatre Corporation, El Capitan Theatre underwent a thorough renovation to the design and its purpose. It reopened on March 18, 1942 as The Paramount Theatre movie palace with the debut of Cecil B. Demille’s Reap the Wild Wind. For decades, The Paramount was the pulse of Hollywood Boulevard, hosting premieres such as War and Peace, Gigi, and The Music Man. But with the changing times, neighborhood decline, and the influence of TV and other modernized shifts to entertainment, the whimsy of the ol’ El Capitan Theatre seemed a distant memory.

As it slouched through the years, The Paramount temporarily closed and was in dire need of an uplift. In 1989, The Walt Disney Studios, in conjunction with Pacific Theatres, spearheaded a resurrection that would usher it into the modern era and the redevelopment of Hollywood. The initial project aimed to build a twin theatre with fresh Art Deco design and state-of-the-art sound and visuals. However, as the discovery process began (one reminiscent of a careful archeological dig), they broke through the 1942 renovation’s shell and revealed the original foundation and extravagance was still intact. With a screeching halt, along with the nomination from Hollywood’s preservation community to honor the interior with landmark status, the intentions shifted to embark on a proper historic restoration. Supervised by the National Parks Service and led by conservator Martin Veil, architect Ed Fields, and renowned theatre designer Joseph J. Musil, the revitalization commenced. After a meticulous two-year venture, Hollywood’s Golden Age and the El Capitan Theatre’s golden aesthetic shined once again.

Wall of Fame at El Capitan Theatre
Wall of Fame | Photo courtesy of El Capitan Theatre

The El Capitan Theatre reopened on June 19, 1991 with The Rocketeer - an aptly themed film for a skyrocketing project - and the movie palace continues to sparkle to this day. In a time when movie-going simply means moving from kitchen to couch, the El Capitan’s blending of experience and nostalgia is a significant piece of Hollywood’s cinematic story.

“It’s a 100-year-old business and reinvigorating it is important,” says Collins. “Take this 90-year-old building and focus it on the future. The El Capitan Theatre now has state-of-the-art picture and sound and reserved seats. Keep people coming to the movies - they’re intended to be watched on a big screen.”

And as one gazes upon that 44-foot display of motion picture illumination, nibbling popcorn and slurping soda pop, nothing else matters. Because in a setting as magnificent as the El Capitan Theatre, where in the world else would you want to be? Most certainly not a couch.

El Capitan Theatre
6838 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles 90028
(818) 845-3110