Hollywood's El Capitan Movie Palace

by Todd Pickering, contributing writer

If your trip to Disneyland includes extra days in Southern California, checking out the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood should not be missed. It is worth the visit if you are a Disney, music, architecture, or history buff. In addition to seeing a movie here, you can also take a tour of this lovingly refurbished 1926 classic. If it is the first few weeks of any Disney movie, it is a safe bet that you can see that new motion picture at El Capitan. There are often pre-shows consisting of the characters from the film you are about to see if it is an animated Disney or Pixar film.

Across the street from Grauman's Chinese Theatre and just east of the historic Roosevelt Hotel sits the El Capitan movie palace, built in 1926. Photo by Todd Pickering.

While the attendance of Avengers: Infinity War was a record breaker around the world, the crowds at El Capitan were light. Upon asking a cast member, we found out that they aren't as well attended as Star Wars and the animated films. Ant-Man and the Wasp is not playing there, so we may see a change in the programming for the Marvel franchise. Disney may also pull films out of the archives for anniversaries or special holidays—like showing Wall-E for Earth Day. There are weekday matinees with the lights turned up a little and the volume turned way down for families with smaller children; these are called Tiny Tot Tuesdays and it happens to be conveniently on a Tuesday. You can also book private parties at the theater. For more information on all of these events, check out the theater's website to take a look at programming, exact location, and parking.

All of the new Disney releases play here, but classics like "a bugs life" and "Wall-E" (for Earth Day) are also shown periodically. Photo by Todd Pickering.

El Capitan is located directly across the street from the Hollywood & Highland complex that surrounds the Chinese Theatre where famous movie stars have left their hand prints. Also across the street is the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars are currently presented. Due west is the classic Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Oscar Ceremony was held. To the east of El Capitan is the Ghirardelli Ice Cream Store that also sells some Disney merchandise including exclusive trading pins. Next door to the west is the old Masonic Temple where the Jimmy Kimmel Show is now filmed. If you are looking for a lot to do, you can spend the whole day on this block and have a great time.

Many Disney-related stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are in front of El Capitan. The current ticket booth was added in 1940. Photo by Todd Pickering.

The History of the El Capitan Theatre

The theater was developed by Charles E. Toberman—also known as the "Father of Hollywood." He helped build The Roosevelt Hotel, Masonic Temple, Grauman's Chinese and Egyptian Theatres, and The Hollywood Bowl, which all stand today. El Capitan was the first live theater venue in Hollywood, and opened its doors in 1926. Its exterior is an example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. The interior has many styles, but it is mainly East Indian. Remember that the exotic was all the rage in the beginning of the 20th Century (think Egyptian and Chinese Theatres). During that time, downtown Los Angeles had many live theater venues, and vaudeveille was going strong. When the Depression hit, it slowed down live performances, and when Orson Welles had a hard time finding a movie theater for his controversial film Citizen Kane, El Capitan accepted. That film premiere was in 1941, and the writing was on the wall.

Even the outdoor entryway's ceiling is beautifully ornate. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Paramount Picture bought the theater in 1941, remodeled it, and renamed it the Hollywood Paramount Theater when it reopened in 1942. All of the gorgeous and ornate facade was covered up by sleek modern lines and bright and shiny materials. The tickets were originally purchased from three windows located on the west wall of the exterior lobby. A movie booth was added to the center of the interior lobby, and those windows were used for movie posters. The lobby also used mid-century modern styles, and the beautiful light fixtures were taken out.

Before it was remodeled, there was no wall separating the orchestra audience as it was a live venue and mostly hosted evening performances. A wall was added to keep it nice and dark for motion pictures. Inside the theater itself, the theater boxes were taken out and everything was covered by draperies to give it a streamlined look. Clean lines were in and ornate was out.

The three original ticket booths are now used for upcoming attraction posters. Photo by Todd Pickering.

The theater shut down in the 1970s when Hollywood took quite a down turn. Disney along with Pacific Theatre lovingly restored El Capitan in name and design back to its original design and reopened the theater in 1991 for the premiere of the film The Rocketeer. Since then, El Capitan has hosted nearly every movie premiere in the Disney company. Make sure if you see a movie there to go upstairs to the balcony lobby and see the display cases full of photographs.

There are original photos of Hollywood before 1926, snapshots of the original El Capitan, photos of the Hollywood Paramount Theater, images of stars and premieres from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and photos of the restoration. There are also loads of photos from Disney premieres, such as Toy Story, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Inside Out, and Avengers to name a few.

These beautiful light fixtures were lovingly recreated from old photos. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Catch a Film at the El Capitan

If you are just going to see a film, make sure you arrive early enough to enjoy the lobby and the upstairs photo gallery. If it is the opening week of a new film, the crowds will be heavy; try to avoid peak times and weekends as you may not get in until the show is starting. They don't kick you out right away so there is time to look after the film is done. Notice the light fixtures were recreated from the old photographs you can see of the original lobby. Disney goes to great lengths to recreate the past. All photos that you have seen so far are things you can see by simply attending a show. Also keep in mind that during a big opening like Incredibles 2, the Indian mural was covered by images of the film and characters so enjoy the picture below.

The mural refelcts the interior's Indian design inspiration. The mural is often covered with promotional pictures from films that are currently playing. Photo by Todd Pickering.

When inside you will notice that Disney has restored the boxes that were taken out. These are no longer functional, and many times they put displays or images from the motion pictures that are showing. For example, during Cars 3, there were road signs and cut outs of the characters giving the theater a really fun look. The interior is so grand that one never gets tired looking at it. If the high ticket prices give you pause. note that the other theaters in Hollywood boast comparable prices and no other movie theater is as beautiful as El Capitan. The Chinese Theatre is very nice, but its interior is not as ornate as its exterior.

Disney restored the theater boxes, but they are not functional. The grand curtain and proscenium are fantastic. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Unfortunately it is difficult to know when the organ is being played at El Capitan. The only confirmation I could get from cast members is that it is generally before the film during weekend shows. I think it is subject to change at any show, like the Disneyland Resort parks shows. Different cast members gave different answers. If catching the pre-show organ concert is in your game plan, make sure you ask at the box office before you purchase your tickets.

If you are seeing a weekend show, the organist plays for about 15 minutes; the playlist consists of some tunes such as "Hooray for Hollywood," but is mostly Disney tunes. Before Incredibles 2, we heard a medley of songs from Mary Poppins, and tunes like "Bear Necessities" from The Jungle Book. After the organ concert, there was a show with lots of lights and images of concept art from ncredibles 2 with the characters coming out and dancing live—including Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Frozone, and Edna Mode coming out last on the Mickey Lift (more on that below).

The beautiful Fox Theatre organ is played during most weekend evening shows. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Take a Tour

For those of you that like a look behind the scenes, the El Capitan tour is for you. The tours are 45 minutes long, and the $12 per person price includes backstage access, a small box of popcorn, and a small drink as of June, 2018. These tours are held while movies are playing, so the orchestra and balcony of the theater will be dark. If you want to see everything pictured above, it is recommended you enjoy a film. If backstage viewing is more important to you by all means take the tour. Talking to multiple cast members at El Capitan, I got many different answers on whether there were tours that day or if I needed reservations. If you have only one day, make sure you call ahead to find out about tours as they may be subject to availability. For example when a big premiere of a film such as Incredibles 2 is about to happen, the theater is dark (closed) for a few days prior and no films or tours take place. Also, large groups may book a tour blocking out a certain time. Our tour was a walk up during an early show and it consisted of just me.

The star dressing room directly offstage right is named after the Disney legendary songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Off of stage left you will be taken into the Richard and Robert Sherman dressing room. They are the songwriting team responsible for the songs in Mary Poppins, and that ear worm of a song to many, "it's a small world" from the attraction of the same name in Disney theme parks. They share a star located on the same block on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For more information on the Walk of Fame, stay tuned here on MousePlanet for the ultimate guide to touring the Disney stars on the Walk of Fame and part three of this series coming this autumn. There are many great stories your tour guide will give you about the opening of this dressing room when the folks at El Capitan surprised Richard Sherman with the dedication (Robert had already passed away). The stories about Cher and Elton John were particularly fun.

The interior of the Richard and Robert Sherman dressing room. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Offstage left is the Bob Hope dressing room. Photo by Todd Pickering.

On the other side of the stage are many smaller dressing rooms; one is dedicated to Bob Hope, and is furnished with fantastic costumes and props from some of the older pre-shows throughout Disney's tenure in the building. Back in the day when the shows were bigger with casts of many, there were quite a few dressing rooms on the floors above that have now been converted into offices during the refurbishment. For example ABC, which is owned by Disney, produces The Jimmy Kimmel Show, which is directly next door. Mr. Kimmel and his staff have offices in this building.

One of the three Mickey Lifts installed by Disney. The other two are in Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. Photo by Todd Pickering.

If you are fans of "Fantasmic!" in either Disneyland or Magic Kingdom, seeing the Mickey Lift at El Capitan is quite interesting. This is the third lift installed on a Disney owned property. It is a hydraulic lift that pops Mickey (and any other character) onto stage from below. The difference between the Mickey Lift and a regular lift is that this lift works at a very high speed, producing the illusion that a character has magically appeared (or vanished), often accompanied by a burst of smoke. Due to safety issues they do not allow you to try it (and we definitely asked).

The crown jewel of El Capitan is the organ. Photo by Todd Pickering.

The attention to detail on this instrument is wonderful. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Disney bought the "Mighty Wulitzer" organ that was originally in San Francisco's Fox Theatre, which was torn down last century. What a fantastic find and an amazing addition to El Capitan. Keep in mind that when you buy an organ, you get the instrument with all of its pipes. There are over 2,500 pipes all around the theater. The smallest is the size of a pencil, and the largest is the size of a telephone pole. The room housing the organ is small, and is on a lift, which is much slower than the Mickey Lift. When the show is over, the organ slowly lowers back into the floor, and the doors close automatically sealing up the stage. The room is very small, and not for the claustrophobic, but you if you want to, you can get up close and even get your picture taken on the bench. Checking out the attention to detail is amazing and the sides have an "F" for Fox with the little critters holding up the crest. This is a detail that is lost on all but the front few rows, and is a real highlight of the tour.

The Fox Logo on the side is an amazing detail. Photo by Todd Pickering.

Getting up close to this amazing organ is a highlight of the tour. Photo by Todd Pickering.

The Gentlemen's Smoking Lounge

The Gentlemen's Smoking Lounge is the only room that has original paneling and light fixtures left from 1926. Photo by Todd Pickering.

For you architecture buffs one of the highlights is seeing the Smoking Lounge. This room is the only one that retains the original paneling and lighting fixtures from 1926. You can see pictures of this room in the display cases up on the balcony level. During Avengers: Infinity War you could go into this room, but sadly they placed a display case on both sides of the room that blocked off all of the paneling and light fixtures. The two chandeliers that were original were still not put back when we visited, so it is our hope they will return. We did get a picture of the wall sconces that are done in the same style. This room may be locked while movies are showing; it wasn't clear if it is only open for tours.

One of the original wall sconces from 1926. Photo by Todd Pickering.

I hope you are all enjoying these articles outside of Disneyland. Look for live feeds in front of El Capitan at movie premieres on Instagram. Our Instagram followers seem to all give the thumbs up to information outside of Disneyland that involves Disney-related themes. Please leave questions and comments, and I will do my best to answer any concerns or questions. Look for Part 3 of this series coming in autumn. See you at the movies!

El Capitan's neon marquee is a wonderful addition to Hollywood Boulevard at night. Photo by Todd Pickering.