The El Capitan Theatre - Examining a Hollywood Showplace
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Garan Grey:  I've always thought that some movie venues were worth more than others, and the El Capitan is a very good example.   It certainly succeeds as a memorable movie showcase, albeit to varying degrees.  The first point in its favor: it is a real THEATRE, which beats a bland multiplex any day...

The show begins on the sidewalk:  The El Capitan has a great marquee - essentially a large video screen in a showy frame.  A marquee's main purpose is to herald the current feature.  Often, however, it has been entirely possible to pass the theatre and be mislead about what is playing at the moment.  Whoever programs the marquee seems to forget that most people see it only briefly in passing.  For about a third of the time, the marquee is often entirely taken over to plug the next show.  You could actually look at the marquee for several seconds before you saw what the current attraction was.  It's fine to promote an upcoming feature, but not by taking up the entire sign.  The front and side panels are big enough to have a coming attraction mentioned on PART of the screen, but one should never take the entire marquee away from the current feature.  

The Boxoffice: With a showy, faux classic look, it has the capacity to handle five patrons at a time, but it never does.  I once stood in line for over 25 minutes, only to find that the current show was sold out.  There are now programmable lighted signs in the windows for prices and showtimes.  Hopefully, these are changeable easily enough to indicate sold-out shows as soon as the tickets are gone.  If you look at the front of the theatre and the box office in relation to the ornamental pattern above, you'll see that the B.O. is built just slightly off-center. 

The Prices: Yes, the El Capitan really IS worth more than any multiplex (certainly including the ArcLight).  However...  Added attractions, like stage shows and walkthroughs out back, can add a lot to the price.  ENCHANTED, with its own youth-oriented walk-through, cost Adults $20 ($18 for matinees).  That priced this family showplace right out of the budget for many families, and quite a few single folks.  (Having said that, The 2008 Holiday Show with BOLT, at $16 for Adults and $14 for Children, was a better value at a more affordable price.)  While this theatre is definitely worth more than most others, I wish they would have an affordable alternative.  A lot of adults with tight budgets would like to be able to buy a ticket at a lower rate that doesn't include youth-oriented the walkthrough thing out back.  It would be a win-win situation if unsold side seats were offered at reduced prices a few minutes before each show...  Instead, they sell the center section for more...   

The VIP deal: A premium priced "VIP" ticket gets you a reserved seat, no waiting in line (well, it's the first line they let in), a small, covered bucket of cold popcorn (that's at least 2 hours old), and a bottle of soda.  At the two VIP pick-up stations (one in the rear of the orchestra, and another in the balcony) there are coolers for the sodas, but there were no warmers for the popcorn.  Interestingly, popcorn warmers were added some time after we posted that comment.  At least now the VIP popcorn might be as warm as it is at the regular concession stands.  

Now to be fair, the concept of offering premium-priced options for those who could afford it* is nothing new.  Radio City Music Hall charged extra for reserved seats in the classy First Mezzanine (the rest of the 5000 seats were general admission).  Broadway musicals now sell the first few rows at astronomical rates, because they can, and some people will gladly pay that much, because they can. 

When the El Capitan first introduced, its VIP deal, I found it rather objectionable.  As they had done with their special Imax tent in West LA for FANTASIA 2000, the Disney Marketeers took over the entire center section at the El Capitan, right up to (one row from) the top of the balcony, for higher "VIP" prices.  Not everyone sprang for the VIP deal, and a lot of disgruntled patrons were stuck in the side sections, watched by staffers hired to keep them out of the better (and often empty) Center VIP seats. 

While it is nice to choose a desired location in advance, and not have to scramble for seats on arrival, reserved movie seating can be a big drawback for today's spontaneous moviegoers.  If you run into friends you'd like to sit with, or if there is someone tall in front of you, you're usually out of luck.  My suggestion for reserved seating in today's movie scene has been to sell whatever specific seat location one wants, up to a set time before the house opens, and then cover just those seats, allowing the rest of the patrons to fill in whatever else is open. 

I should point out that the El Capitan has addressed this issue to a degree... Perhaps as a result of patron complaints, or because of the sea of empty seats that often resulted from arbitrarily taking away all the decent locations for VIP sales, there seems to have been a policy change.  Now, I notice that they only cover the seats that were sold as VIP, (presumably plus a few more to sell at the last minute) and the rest of the theatre is available for us regular "General Admission" folks...  so at less populated showings, one can sit in many of the center locations, except the front of the Balcony.  Big improvement, and bravo for that.

HOWEVER... if the movie is new and/or popular, forget it.  Disney is absolutely shameless about shafting the "General Admission" ticket buyers in favor of selling as many expensive VIP tickets as possible.  For ENCHANTED around Thanksgiving, or even the opening night of SLEEPING BEAUTY, you could get stuck waaay out on the extreme sides, or waaay up in the back of the balcony.  I imagine the same was true for BOLT.  You do get a full view of the theatre's beautiful grandeur from up there, but it's kinda far away.

One of my two favorite seat locations in the El Capitan (I'll never tell where) is always within the VIP section, the other is often not.  I try to go to weekday late shows (to avoid big crowds and loud kids) and usually find one of my favorite places available.  Again, if it's a new Christmas or Summer release, you're probably out of luck unless you spring for the higher rate.  

The difference in price between the standard Adult and VIP ticket has usually been $10-12.  For about the same $10-12, you can buy a large souvenir bucket of popcorn that comes with a free refill (fresh & warm from the popper), almost two bottles of soda (they're pretty small) or one soda and another snack item.  So I can't see that you get all that much real value for the extra cost.

Value Added: With the VIP deal, you used to get a "program" (the ones studios print for press screenings, with nothing but credits) but that was discontinued a while back.  Here is a real missed opportunity.  It wouldn't cost too much to print up a simple program with pictures.  Another option would be to print a larger program, with color pictures, cast bios, production stories, etc. - it would make a nice souvenir for the VIP seats, and and you could sell it to the regular folks as well.  Radio City used to hand everyone a simple, one-piece folded B&W program with a couple pictures, a cast list, a little text, and a couple ads.  Something along those lines, or more elaborate, like a Playbill, could pay for itself from (carefully chosen) ads. 

There is a sizeable hardcover book about Disney's restored New Amsterdam Theatre, but, amazingly, it has only a few actual pictures of the place.  The El Capitan is more than worthy of at least a full-size, full-color souvenir book.  (Radio City had one of those as well)  The El Capitan book could contain pictures of the theatre, (past & present) details of its long and varied history, shots of past events and productions, and the story of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ.  If offered for sale in the theatre, the studio store and by mail, this book could be a good source of extra profit, and a fine way to show off what an outstanding showplace Disney has here.  For those in upper management looking for more "Added value at a premium price" options, they might consider higher priced "Ultra VIP" or "Patron" packages, with a meal at the fountain, the CD soundtrack of the latest feature or the hard-to-find CD of Rob Richards on the Mighty Wurlitzer, plus the souvenir book.

The Concession Stand: It is attractive, with a somewhat classic movie theatre look.  A roped-off line during busy periods assures that people are generally served in order of appearance. The popcorn, tasty without being over-seasoned, is popped right there in front of you, and you can sometimes get yours hot from the kettle if you ask.  The butter topping is available from the nearby condiment station.  (calorie & fat counters, beware)  And, inbetween event pictures, they even have the theatre's signature artwork on the big popcorn buckets (which are souvenir quality and re-usable at home).  It used to be on the drink cups, too, but... 

Now, all the soda is in bottles, which contain about half as much soda as you would get in a similarly priced cup at any other cinema.  Upper management chose to sell bottles as an expedient, to make sales move more quickly, but this is a major disservice to the patrons.  While they save time, we get less soda, and they make the same money.  If they must use bottles, then how about pricing them accordingly?  Top priced soda should be a bigger bottle, the current size should be no more than $2. This is bad value, and a real drawback in an otherwise great theatre. 

(Ed:I wonder if the extra money goes to pay Disney's award-winning recycleteers to sort through the all that extra trash)  The El Capitan, and Disney in general, are very good about recycling everything, so when you discard your plastic soda bottles and souvenir popcorn tubs, you can rest assured that they are NOT going to end up in a landfill.  The company calls it Waste Minimization.  It's part of their corporate culture, and they have won awards and praise from the EPA for their efforts to recycle. 

The Service: I have had plenty of good experiences with El Capitan staff, from thoughtful information regarding the most desirable showtimes, to someone kind enough to find a couple of left-behind souvenir popcorn buckets to round out a collection.  Most of the staff don't know much about the theatre or the show, but how many patrons, besides me, will ask if they are using a second screen when alternating between a 3D feature and a regular one... or whether a favorite curtain has been removed or replaced?  I met one of the El Capitan managers, a nice gentleman who actually did know of such things, and it was a delight to find someone on the premises who is actually interested in theatrical showmanship (though it's often not done as well as it used to be).

The Look: From the ornate decorations and handsome custom-made displays out front, the El Capitan makes a great impression... this place can certainly take you away from real life.  The auditorium is breathtaking.  A true movie palace.  It's easy to forget just how great this place is to look at.  Attractive details everywhere, and it all looks good as new.  I cannot emphasize this enough - the El Capitan is an amazingly beautiful theatre.  This is not like a multiplex where you just run in and sit down at the last minute.  There is so much to look at here.  Don't short-change yourself by showing up late.  When they put displays for the current attraction in the lobby, or in big downstairs lounge, (which they don't do much anymore) it's yet another feature that makes this place special - and worth arriving early for.

The Projection: either digital or a new print, comes from a booth that is close enough to throw a bright picture, at a level enough angle to avoid geometric picture distortion.  The theatre opened with a THX approved sound system, and the original THX promo with the organ crescendo here was, well... orgasmic.  I once traded email with Tomlinson Holman (the TH of THX), and when I asked, he agreed that the El Capitan was his favorite THX showcase.  However, the THX specs require a fixed sound wall behind the screen speakers.  It was eventually decided to make the entire El Capitan stage available for a variety of presentations, and the screen now has to be able to fly out to open up the full stage.  So the sound wall is gone, and the THX certification went with it.  The sound is less impressive, but it's still a good show.  3D presentation is noticeably darker, as a result of the glasses filtering out half of the picture, and so far, the El Capitan has not been running dual projector for 3D (which would double the brightness).  They do, however, use a silver screen, which is crucial to 3D, but surprisingly, is not any more reflective, so it does not make the picture any brighter than a regular screen.  PS: in association with the RealD company, they recycle all the 3D glasses.

The Presentation: When Disney first reopened their newly restored/renovated El Capitan in 1991, every movie was presented with a very theatrical prologue: opening three different curtains, accompanied by timed music and light cues.  This impressive element was created with a great attention to detail by designer Joseph Musil.  Not only did he design three different curtains, he designed how they would each move differently:  When the show began, you would hear a gong, then an image of a peacock would appear on the front curtain, and you heard "Welcome to the El Capitan Theatre" by a voice familiar to Disneyland visitors.  Beautiful music swelled, as the gold contour "waterfall" curtain, gently gathered upward, to reveal a second curtain: a traveler painted with an art deco image of Fred & Ginger.  (Yes, Astaire & Rodgers)  As dictated by Mr. Musil, this curtain had spacers inbetween the rollers, so it would simply part like a solid wall.  The third: a silver glitter curtain behind shiny mylar strands, was intended to gather back from the center like a conventional traveler.  This whole prologue was impeccably timed to the music and lighting cues, all specifically programmed by Mr. Musil.  This sequence used to run in reverse at the end of a show, timed to an instrumental of "Hooray for Hollywood."  The ending sequence began with a blue-sky/cloud projection on the screen as the silver curtain closed.  It was all so classy, even the most jaded folks were impressed with the opening, and some even hung back to watch the closing. 

The El Capitan had THREE, count 'em, THREE curtains, (now four, if you count the cheesy new electric fan drop) but every time I have seen them used in the past few years, they still opened onto a totally blank screen!  This didn't happen here in the beginning, by the way, only after time.  The cardinal rule of classic movie showmanship has always been that you NEVER show any part of a blank screen!  You mustn't remind the audience of the technology by exposing a part of it that's not being used at the moment.  It's tacky and unprofessional.  This goes back to the golden age of movies, and especially the Roadshow era, where studios sent out presentation instructions that required timing of the curtains to avoid exposing a blank screen.  The vast majority of today's projectionists (and apparently Disney show directors) have no idea of such things.  In the theatrical world, (one that certainly should be respected by those creating "Disney Magic") - the screen does not exist.  The whole purpose of stage curtains is to reveal... to open a window and transition into another world (the movie).

Not long ago, a gentleman involved in the stage presentations at the El Capitan told me flat out that the person in charge of entertainment at Disney considers it ugly to project a picture onto moving curtains, and this person insists that the curtains reveal a fully naked screen before starting the projector!  Of course, that notion is totally bass-ackwards, and there is plenty of documentation (studio presentation cue sheets, etc) to indicate that old-school showmanship absolutely forbids such things, but let's just use Disney-Speak and call it "bad show" to reveal the technology.  It would be like going through Pirates of the Caribbean and seeing all the wires and speakers that run the Audio Animatronics.  If they insist on showing a bare screen, why bother with the curtains at all?  Showing a blank screen is inexcusable, and I deduct points for it.  It's a very careless and correctable blemish on this otherwise exemplary showplace. 

While there is really nothing unsightly about a curtain opening onto a picture, and every studio's opening signature sequence has become long enough to open four curtains before you even see the name of the studio, if the entertainment head insists on having every frame of their precious signature opening play on a fully exposed screen, here is how it could be done with the existing equipment: The El Cap already has a cloud projection effect that used to come on at the end of a film - which, by the way, served precisely the same function I am about to suggest.  An easy fix would be to add that cloud projection to the end of the curtain prologue and start the movie on the clouds, which can then instantly fade out. 

A better solution: I'd much rather see something more creative come onscreen as the last curtain opens: How about a signature for the theatre itself?  Maybe fireworks over a Disney castle, like the beginning of the old "Wonderful World of Color/Disney" TV show.  The way Disney slaps their brand onto everything these days (you literally can't watch any Disney movie on home video without being forced to watch an overlong vanity card spelling out "DISNEY DVD" - and their 3D features are all branded DISNEY DIGITAL 3D" - though they didn't invent the technology) I'm surprised they haven't come up with something branding the Disney name to precede every presentation at the El Capitan.  If done right, it can be a classy detail that adds a touch of "Disney Magic" to the presentation.  While Disney did not invent the DVD or 3D, the Disney company, most particularly one hero in its upper ranks, is entirely responsible for transforming, via Mr. Musil's imagination, the run-down old Paramount into the Glorious El Capitan, and for that, the company deserves to brand the presentation here.  Especially if it is used to cover the blank screen while the curtains open!

Mr. Musil has noticed some unfortunate deviations from his carefully planned designs: He designed all the stage curtains to reveal the full height of the stage, but at some point, black stage portals (also called "teaser/tormentors") were added in front of the second and third curtains.  Perhaps they were hoping to hide extra lights for the stage shows, or just save money by building smaller sets, but those stage portals diminished the classy look of the original design..  (they now have apparently been removed after several years)  Mr. Musil has also noticed that spacers were put inbetween the rollers of the silver curtain, making it slide back in two solid pieces like the Fred & Ginger curtain did, but they're not supposed to be there, because he designed the silver curtain to gather from the center like like a normal traveler, so that each curtain would move differently than the others.  There were also decorative green cords and tassels hung in front of the proscenium that were probably removed for the ugly ALADDIN fly-track, or for Christmas decorations, and never put back.  Rumor has it that they were put into a box and then disappeared.  Pity.  Like all of Mr. Musil's design flourishes, they were a nice touch.  

There are those who scoff at our picking out so many specific details, but let's not forget: it's the sum total of countless details that make something special.  Mr. Disney knew that.  Too bad his entertainment department doesn't.

ENCHANTED was preceded by the usual fine organ concert, but instead of using the theatre's main curtain, it was done in front of a rich burgundy curtain that was gathered up in the middle, to frame the organist.  (pictures of which are on the El Capitan Photo tour page)  A cutout of the movie title hung over the opening.  When the movie began, we saw that it was not a working curtain, just a drop that flew up in one piece.  Behind it was the silver curtain, that still parted to reveal a blank screen.  No fanfare, no light cues, no magic.  Very below par for this theatre.  This curtain was adapted for the promotional 101 DALMATIANS run that followed.

Instead of just hanging letters on a curtain-like drop, they could have projected the movie title onto the main curtain during the walk-in: a more versatile, and "magical" effect, in my opinion.  It was very nice to see a rich, red curtain out front, but I'd have preferred it to be a functioning tableaux style curtain.  That would really add some class to the opening.  You would then have three curtains that open in totally different ways, and the effect would be uniquely beautiful.  That would follow Mr. Musil's style perfectly.

With the Summer 2008 debut of WALL-E, the El Capitan unveiled, or rather unleashed, a new curtain prologue.  And it only emphasized how impeccable the original one was.  The handsome art-deco Fred & Ginger curtain was gone, and what followed made people miss it very much.  The main curtain rose to reveal a flat drop that looked something like a sunrise, with an inexplicable wavy black bottom (it should have been painted to look like a landscape, now it just looks like they ran out of paint) Without allowing us to see the drop as it was painted, it immediately lit up in a fan shape, then all kinds of busy curlicue "S" curves lit up inbetween the lines, and the whole thing quickly started flashing like a pinball machine, or a Vegas marquee on Fremont Street.  This flashing quickly became monotonous - doing the same thing on and on until the music nearly ran out, then the black bottom lit up to reveal a cute little model of Hollywood at night.  In the last few seconds of the music, they quickly yanked the third (silver) curtain out of the way, as the Vegas peacock drop went up...  Revealing, of course, a totally blank screen. 

Like a kid with a new toy, who ignores the rest of his playthings, this new curtain totally dominated the prologue, and very quickly wore out its welcome.  Let's go back to TOY STORY for a minute, when the kid neglected his longtime play-pal  Woody in favor of the new technology of Buzz Lightyear.  New technology has its place, but enough is enough, and you don't use it to replace something that time has proven to be classic.  This new prologue had no finesse, no timing, no magic, it was just flashy... and frankly, tacky.  The sore thumb is that new drop, which is the theatrical equivalent of a very classy man, wearing an impeccable tuxedo... with a big, oversized red necktie that lights up and flashes "Merry Christmas" over and over.

Again, not everyone is a Joe Musil, and being able to entertain theme park-goers with a big show like FANTASMIC! doesn't necessarily make someone a master of theatrical showmanship.  What the folks at Disney Entertainment need is to defer to a master.  Mr. Musil has specialized in theatrical showmanship for decades, and he would tell you that a key to good presentation is to BUILD up to a peak (which is why he put in three curtains in the first place).  Remember the most fun musical numbers in the movies LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST?  "Under the Sea" and "Be Our Guest" both started out simply, and built up to a rousing ending.  (Unfortunately, the huge production number in the middle of ENCHANTED forgot that crucial rule and suffers as a result.  But you get the idea, right?)  Even the first, simple "in one" El Capitan stage shows started simply and built to a satisfying finale.  Now, I vowed I wouldn't criticize something without offering a way it could be done better...

Okay, so you've got a drop that looks kinda like a sunrise/sunset, with a hidden payoff at the bottom.  Paint the black bottom to look like mountains or something. (If it's a scrim, it's already transparent enough to disappear when it's lit up from behind, even if it is painted)  Otherwise, that black bottom is incongruous and risks tipping the gag.  Let the audience discover this new drop in stages.  Keep the lights inside it off for at least a few seconds, long enough for us to fully appreciate how it's painted.  Bring up the front lights on it slowly, (like a morning) then slowly light the inner lights (Just light the straight lines, not the curlicue stuff inbetween) gradually up from the bottom (like a sunrise!)  Don't rely entirely on the lightbulbs behind the drop, add some front light effect to simulate a sunrise.  When you reach a full bright sunrise, let the curlicue lights (if you must use them at all) flicker BRIEFLY, (5 seconds max) then reverse the process - (like a sunset!) dropping the lights down almost completely, to reveal the lit-up Hollywood Night thing at the bottom.  Give the audience about ten seconds to "awww" at that, then turn it all off.  Take ALL front lights off that drop, and raise it to reveal the blue-lit Silver curtain. 

After the drop clears the stage, take at least ten to fifteen seconds, and hit the silver curtain with some kind of an image, even if it's just the cloud effect that's been setup for years, and THEN open the silver curtain to reveal the screen with the clouds on it.  Then the Disney logo at the beginning of whatever movie or trailer you're showing can come on over the clouds, which quickly fade off.  Sound good?  This may not be the ultimate best idea, but it does tell a little story, has a beginning, middle and end, which is what the original designer intended.  Ideally they should re-engage Joseph Musil, because no one at Disney (or elsewhere that I know of) can design and program that prologue as well as he can - and has.  The farther they get away from what he designed, the poorer the overall showmanship gets.

Note: with the opening of Disney's BOLT in November 2008, the prologue was altered somewhat: the peacock projection is back, bigger and brighter, and the favorite Fred & Ginger curtain was also back, looking (or at least lit to look) good as new.  The cheesy Vegas/fan curtain still dominates, it's on far too long, and is still too wacky with all the flashing lights, but progress is progress.

The Pre-Show: From the opening in 1991, a small, live pre-show also preceded the feature - originally, just a simple song and dance by performers in vintage usher outfits.  Audiences were surprised and thrilled to have a little live entertainment at no extra cost.  Beginning with ALADDIN in November of 1992, the stage show became an elegantly simple Disney program.  Back then, the screen was fixed in place behind the silver curtain, so the entire show had to be performed "in one" - meaning the few short feet between the edge of the stage and the third curtain.  A cute opening number, with the original Disney princesses and their princes, was followed by Ariel singing "Part of Your World" from up in the left stage box.  As she finished, Sebastian appeared up in the the right stage box, then warbled "Under the Sea" as festively attired dancers bounced in the aisles and bubbles filled the air.  Next, a stained glass window appeared on the main curtain, which rose to reveal Belle, with an amazingly costumed Beast, (a true "goose bump moment") doing a simple dance in a cloud of white fog.  Later, Aladdin swung down from the balcony to the stage for the finale...  Simple and impeccable, magical and enchanting.  It worked.

The next stage show, with THE LION KING, got more ambitious.  Ugly holes were poked into the beautiful newly restored ceiling, to hang a plainly visible track that "flew" Aladdin and Jasmine across the front of the stage.  There was some Debbie Allen Oscar-type choreography, and a "romantic" ballad from a pair of singers who clearly had no chemistry.  In my opinion, the pre-shows went downhill from there.  At some point, the idea of a Disney theme was abandoned entirely, replaced by generic amusement park fare, devised by, the people who do the shows in the Disney parks...  

One holiday pre-show, before the live-action remake of 101 DALMATIANS, looked like an old Perry Como Christmas special.  Flat set pieces, guys in "holiday" sweaters, and the immeasurably tacky idea of substituting "puppies" for deity references in classic holiday songs: "Joy to the World, the Puppies Come!"  The pinnacle of bad taste came when Beethoven's classic Ode to Joy was desecrated by the entire cast singing "Puppies! Puppies! Puppies! Puppies! Puppies! Puppies! Puuuuh-up-peeees!"  At that point I sank down in my seat, slid the program over my face, and instantly amused more of the audience than the show did.  Whoever came up with that mess should have their nose rubbed in canine residue and be swatted with a rolled up newspaper until they learn not to dump that stuff on paying patrons.

The producers of Disney stage shows seem to have a huge affinity for confetti.  Disney is generally good at spectacle, and a confetti blast is an inexpensive way to provoke a little rush at the end.  Cheap spectacle can still be very effective, but confetti blasts have become the inevitable button at the end of every show.  Sometimes replaced by (nice) soapy "snow," sparklers, or Roman candle pyrotechnics, confetti is a Disney show staple, and it's here to stay.  There is often a pile of it onstage throughout the movie.  Sometimes during the movie, a few bits waft down in front of the screen from the rafters, and as you walk out, the place looks like Times Square the morning after New Year's Eve.  Imagine cleaning up all that mess five times a day, just for one moment of spectacle.  It's common here.

After Disney began making feature films from their theme park attractions, (who can forget the Haunted Mansion movie?  Oh, right...You have)  they unleashed THE COUNTRY BEARS, right after they closed the Bears' attraction at Disneyland.  (Nice timing, huh? Whose idea was that?)  It was a cute, forgettable movie, but the presentation at the El Cap was exceptional.  The end credits bridged seamlessly into a "live concert" by The Country Bears!  The stage was set like a real concert, with flashy lights and projections, the costumes had articulate animatronic heads just like in the movie, that made the bears seem real...  The idea may seem kinda lame, but it was very well done, and a lot of fun.  I've an embarrassingly low resistance to well-orchestrated spectacle... I actually got goosebumps.  I'll get razzed for that, but it's true.  I still miss the Bears at Disneyland. 

MEET THE ROBINSONS was preceded by a strange little intro: two rubber-head characters from the movie came down the aisles and up onto the stage.  They just stood there, and kept repeating the same two little gestures to some kind of pop music, then they walked offstage and the movie began.  What the heck was that about?

Like generic theme park acts, (though they may have some Disney characters) recent El Capitan pre-shows seem to be aimed straight at hip-hoppy tweeners.  I thought I'd never live to see Mary Poppins boogie like she did in the RATATOUILLE pre-show.  (Yikes!  At least she didn't rap)  As an adult, this kid-rock stuff leaves me cold.  The simpler, early pre-shows (before they started charging extra for them) had more direct representations of classic Disney favorites, that bridged all generations and appealed to everyone.  I miss that.

I have no interest in the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN movies, but I was very impressed by the extra showmanship they were presented with.  Displays atop the marquee and props in the theatre, a big set-piece over the proscenium, special Pirates curtain, etc..  Why can't we see that kind of stuff for non-violent movies?  The NARNIA movies get a similar treatment, perhaps more elaborate.  There was a little onstage prologue for the Prince Caspian sequel, but it wasn't quite the seamless bridge into the film I had expected.  Basically a very nice Narnia themed scrim dissolved to show a guy dressed as Caspian, climbing over some set pieces, then posing in the center as a big cutout of the title rotated into place.  This maybe took 45 seconds.  Then the main curtain came down, and paused long enough to fly in the screen.  I would have had the scrim light up again from the front, adding some kind of projected effect like smoke or fire, until the screen was in place, and let the projected effect fade away as the movie came on and the scrim rose to reveal the screen.  That would have been a smooth transition into the movie.

I was graciously invited by the El Capitan's stage production manager to come photograph the NARNIA/CASPIAN prologue, and, meeting the stage personnel, I learned that the folks handling these presentations in the theatre itself are nice people who want to make it look good, but not everyone is a Joe Musil, and the concept of why and how you can do a presentation without calling attention to the mechanics, just hasn't occurred to them.  When I explained to one of the stage managers why you shouldn't show a blank movie screen, she totally got it.  (While I was there, I also took about a hundred new shots of the theatre architecture that somehow would not download from my camera until recently, so check back for those)

The stage show preceding WALL-E was pretty lame.  First of all, the idea of using movie clips as a background at the back of a deep stage isn't such a good idea.  Projecting a movie on a much bigger screen than you will show the feature on, makes people wonder why you don't just show the feature on THAT bigger screen.  Actually, most older theatres of this type usually had the movie screens closer to the back of the stage, behind another set of curtains.  Doing that here would produce a bigger picture, and solve some technical projection issues.

The WALL-E pre-show consisted of nothing but dancers prancing around in front of clips from Disney movies,  That's it.  No story, no singing, no dialogue... and the only thing tying it together was a squadron of girls dressed in white - with matching white Carol Channing wigs - waving their arms around.  Occasionally a costumed Disney character would skitter by, but never to any decent effect.  We saw clips of Peter Pan flying around, then a costumed Peter and Wendy just walked across the stage.  Why not FLY them?  (The show people thought nothing of poking holes in the carefully restored ceiling to fly Aladdin out front, but they won't use a basic flying rig onstage?)  If you're not going to fly Peter Pan, use another character!  Through most of the show, when we saw a clip from a movie, some kind of costumed character from it would come out, but when they showed scenes from CARS, all we got was the Carol Channing Girls again, waving their arms around with racing flags.  Surely someone could have done better than that.  Especially since they saved so much money on scenery and costumes. 

Perhaps some new creative talent is needed in Disney's show division.  I get the idea that whoever's in charge of these shows has been around for years and thinks they're just fabulous, and, like the emperor's new clothes, no one around them has the nerve to tell them they're missing the mark. While I really like FANTASMIC!, and thoroughly enjoyed the clever 25 minute stage version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST that was done at the parks before becoming a full-scale Broadway show... to me, much of the live entertainment in the parks is hit-and miss.

"And now, for something you'll really like!"  There is more news to report than just bashing the curtain prologue and the stage shows.  It's time to point out something that really is being done well...

The Special Appearances: There have been many onstage panel discussions on the opening night of those pre-DVD release engagements.  I haven't been able to get to many of them, but I'll always remember watching Jodi Benson talk about the production of THE LITTLE MERMAID, sitting right next to the girl who was the physical model for Ariel... then the screen behind them went up, revealing Alan Menkin at a piano, and he accompanied Ms. Benson singing "Part of Your World" - just as we heard it in the movie.  VERY nice.  I wish I could see something like that for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, because Paige O'Hara deserves more exposure and appreciation than she gets (and if Robby Benson comes around, I might get another chance to see his very talented wife).  Since Disney is preparing to reissue B&TB IN 3D, maybe I'll get my wish.  It was a nice little thrill to see Karen Dotrice (wow, she grew up pretty!) reminiscing about MARY POPPINS with Richard Sherman... Any appearance by a Sherman Brother is an event, there is always something fun to hear about, and those of us who grew up with so many of their songs have a built-in fondness for those guys. 

Animation producer Don Hahn has made a fine moderator, and we've seen top-notch animators like Andreas Deja, and director Roger Allers talk about their work.  Early in 2008, The El Capitan scheduled two weeks each of THE ARISTOCATS and 101 DALMATIANS, but ARISTOCATS was cancelled to extend ENCHANTED, and most of us missed out on the ARISTOCATS opening night event, which was held anyway, without any notice, and featured one of the voice actors.  I would have liked to see that.  And really, instead of cutting ARISTOCATS out entirely, why couldn't they have just split the remaining two weeks with DALMATIANS, which has already had plenty of screen time at the El Capitan?

The opening night panel discussions were pretty good to begin with, and have only gotten better.  The screen behind the panel is not left blank on these occasions, it is handsomely occupied by the cover art for the DVD, and as people are speaking, images (probably from the DVD) come up behind them, perfectly timed with whatever is discussed.  Still pictures don't just pop on and of, they move with style.  The full screen is used whenever possible, Motion footage is masked off properly, and all the visuals are handled with real finesse.  Someone at the studio obviously puts a lot of effort into making these presentations look good.  I spoke briefly with someone involved in these visuals, and was told they were prepared far in advance, then rehearsed at the theatre before the house opened.  These folks deserve a standing ovation.  Bravo! 

In a rare series of non-Disney films that had opened at the El Capitan, (including the Paramount Theatre years) it was great fun to see THE MUSIC MAN on the big screen (though a new stereo print would have been much better).  Even more fun came in the panel discussion.  When the moderator mentioned Hermoine Gingold being so funny in the "Grecian Urn" sequence, Buddy Hackett snapped "Now she's IN one!"    (Editor's note: Now HE is too!)

Ambiance: When Disney first opened the renovated El Capitan, there was recorded organ music - a real throwback to the golden days of the movie palace, where a live organist was part of the program.  Not having been around in those days, it reminded me more of Radio City Music Hall in New York, which always featured a grand organ between shows, until it stopped showing movies in the 70s.   I imagined that Disney's intention was to recreate the special "movie and a show" policy that made the Music Hall special. 

A few years ago, a classic Wurlitzer organ was installed at the El Capitan.  I would have preferred to see them extend the full width of the stage with a curved apron, only about 2-4 feet at center, and the organ lift cutting partway into the existing stage when raised, and filling in the space when it wasn't used.  At least then it would still look like a normal stage.  Instead, several rows of seats were removed to make way for a big platform/lift, extending several feet into the house, but only from the center of the stage. That wastes a lot of stage and/or seat space on either side.  The good news, is from that lift, we get the talented Rob Richards, riding on one of the biggest organs in the world.  Walking into a movie palace with a live organist playing is an exceptional experience, especially given Richards' talent and repertoire.  You get the feeling the minute you enter the theatre that something special is happening.  (When Mr. Richards is unavailable, another experienced organist takes his place and does quite well)

The Programming: I miss the good old days, when Disney would routinely reissue its animated classics back into theatres every seven years.  I know the Home Video market may have cut into their theatrical potential, but I don't believe that the entire Disney film library should be forever banished from theatres after the DVD comes out.  Theatrical reissues of animated classics stopped when the Eisner administration began to act as if there was no animation before his regime and Mr. Katzenberg oversaw THE LITTLE MERMAID.  I do like that the El Cap often runs a classic animated film as advance publicity for an upcoming "Special Edition" DVD release.  Of course it's easier for them to show a recent DVD release, because they can project it digitally, without having to strike any film prints.  But why limit that to new DVD promos?  Such engagements have sometimes been used to fill in gaps in the schedule, but I wish they would be more imaginative with the titles they choose.  At this point, THE LITTLE MERMAID and 101 DALMATIANS have had more than their share of screen time here.  How about the rest of the library?

I, (along with countless Disney fans) really wish they would run more of the Disney library product during the downtime between event pictures.  I'd love to see my Disney favorites presented as they were intended to be seen, with some theatrical showmanship, on the El Capitan's big screen.  How about a Disney Girls movie series featuring Annette Funicello, Hayley Mills, Jodie Foster, Suzanne Pleshette (add Lindsay if you must)...  A series with classic Disney leading men: Dean Jones, Fred MacMurray, Dick Van Dyke, Kurt Russell, Roddy MacDowall...  an Animation/Live Action series: MARY POPPINS, BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, PETE'S DRAGON, ROGER RABBIT, and the long sequestered SONG OF THE SOUTH...  Disney Musicals: THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE, BABES IN TOYLAND, FAMILY BAND, NEWSIES, etc.  A Disney Adventure series: SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, CASTAWAYS, ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD...  A Science/Fantasy series: TRON, THE BLACK HOLE, 20,000 LEAGUES, WITCH MOUNTAIN, FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR...  A Classic Disney Animated Feature series is a no-brainer.  The Disney vaults have so many fun features that could still pack a few houses.  There are still some people around related to those movies, who might agree to appear for panel discussions... the possibilities are considerable.  I just hope someday someone will actually consider them.  

When to Go:  (Editor: My first time at the glorious El Capitan was November 1991, for a 5pm showing of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  Loved the movie, loved the theatre.  A couple days later, I went back to a 10pm show, with a predominantly adult audience, and it was a revelation!  They appreciated the movie on another level, got more of the humor, and reacted accordingly.  Their reaction enhanced mine, and it was one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life.)  

Though matinees may be cheaper, there is a strong probability of extra noise, seat-kicking, etc...  One particularly miserable time for me was during HOME ON THE RANGE.  No, it wasn't the movie, I kinda liked that.  A hyperactive toddler was repeatedly kicking the back of my seat.  After enduring it for about 30 minutes, I mustered up enough restraint to simply turn and say "Please don't do that."  The kicking continued.  20 minutes later I tried again:  "Would you PLEASE STOP THAT?"  Instead of actually parenting, the kid's mother just expressed annoyance at me, as if I were the problem.  (see our Cinema Etiquette entry about kids at the movies)

Late-night shows usually have more adults than kids.  However, midnight shows on the night before a major film opens, are often aimed at the noisy 17 to 24 crowd.  For CHICKEN LITTLE, I waited through about 30 minutes of unnecessarily loud music from a live band, before Zach Braff took the stage, and spewed half a dozen four-letter words to an amazingly kid-heavy audience.  I'm no prude, but that was out of place.

An El Cap employee once told me that late shows on weekends may still have kids and rowdy young adults waiting for the nightclubs to open, so the best times to find a less crowded, more adult audience would seem to be weekday late shows, but... I caught the last Friday midnight showing of RATATOUILLE and found just a nice handful of adults.  In the pre-show, when the performers went into the house to bring kids up onstage, there weren't any.  They ended up with a teenager and a very game adult.   Now, that was entertaining!  And the movie itself was a sheer undisturbed pleasure.

The Overall Experience: When it is operating at its full theatrical capability, this unique showplace can make any movie an event.  You will remember the theatre at least as much as the movie, (more so than many) and all the drawbacks I've mentioned are easily fixable.  Practically everywhere you look is handsomely detailed and well-maintained.  I heartily recommended a trip to the glorious El Capitan at every opportunity - its a great theatre with great potential.  

- Garan Grey                                                                  (Ed: I quite agree)

November 2008 Event Review

As the Holiday season is rife with tradition, I'm reminded of one of my own traditions from my time in New York: Every Thanksgiving I would watch the parade, have a nice meal, then go see a movie.  And for the first few years, it was a movie at Radio City Music Hall.  Radio City - called "The Showplace of the Nation"  - combined a feature film with a 45 minute live Christmas show "On The Great Stage."  It was a perfect way to kick-off the holiday season.  We've stated here before that the closest thing we have to such a showcase in LA is the glorious El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. 

The 2008 Holiday attraction at the El Capitan was Disney's new animated movie BOLT! - presented in digital 3D, with DISNEY'S HOLIDAY SPECTACULAR live onstage.  I'm happy to say, this show was well worth the trip...

Unlike last year, the theatre was nicely decorated for the holidays, (not as much as in seasons past) with plump garlands out front, and a little trees on the stage boxes inside.  Elaborately costumed street performers added to the festive atmosphere.  I saw a master juggler there in full court jester regalia, deftly bouncing more balls than I could count.  This affable fellow even looked good in that jester outfit! 

The theatre itself looked clean and fresh inside and out.  When my press kit slipped under the seat, I noticed even the floors looked like they had been wiped clean.  The gentleman performing the live organ recital was, as always, a great enhancement to the classic theatrical ambiance.

As we've noted elsewhere, the curtain prologue that begins the show was initially impeccable, created by Theatre Designer/Historian Joseph Musil, who also worked on the theatre itself.  I have friends who often point out Disney's habit of taking something elegantly simple and "plussing" all the charm out of it, until it's cheesily over the top.  In that same tradition, Mr. Musil's carefully crafted curtain prologue got tinkered with quite a bit in the last few years, including removal of the classy second "Fred and Ginger" curtain, then adding an overly busy electric drop with a pattern that looks more like a Chinese fan or Vegas marquee than the sunrise it's supposed to be.  We voiced strong objections to those changes in our overall review, and we were not alone in that opinion. 

The 2008 holiday show began with a larger, brighter version of the peacock projection that used to precede the original prologue... then the shiny main curtain elegantly rose to reveal the return of the Fred & Ginger curtain, which looked as good as new!  This prompted enthusiastic applause from at least one member of the audience.  The shimmering light effect that originally was used on this curtain was back as well.  Then it parted to reveal that cheesy Vegas drop, which was still waaaay too busy, (all those damn curlicue lights flashing back and forth) and doesn't serve its purpose well.  That drop rose (not soon enough) to reveal what the designer of the El Capitan's 1991 makeover calls the Jewel Curtain: Mylar strands over silver glitter.  Unlike last summer, (when the silver curtain was yanked out of the way as the Vegas drop rose) this time we got at least another couple seconds to see the silver curtain before it parted, again revealing a blank screen.  (on this point Disney's Entertainment department head remains staunchly clueless)

While it still isn't quite right, we believe in positive reinforcement, so we have to applaud the efforts someone made to fix the problems in the curtain prologue.  We didn't see the blank screen as long as we did before, because the lights came down a bit quicker, but they still need at least some sort of projected light effect as they open that last curtain, like the cloud effect they have had since day one, or an image of fireworks over the Disneyland castle.  Even something simple with "Welcome to Disney's El Capitan Theatre" would work.  Or they could just get with it and open the curtain after the picture comes up...  But the thing I'd like to emphasize is that the new curtain prologue is a serious improvement over the last one and, "after all, it's a step in the right direction."

What followed were trailers for the first of the new DisneyNature film series, EARTH (which looked breathtakingly beautiful), a funny teaser for Pixar's upcoming UP, and a tantalizing look at the new RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN.  At least one of the trailers was in a wider aspect ratio than the others, so we saw blank screen at the top and bottom, which for a flagship showcase, is inexcusable.  (The small independent Vista Theatre in Los Feliz has a strict policy of never showing any part of a blank screen, and that includes ensuring that all trailers shown are the same aspect ratio as the movie.  If they can be that diligent, there is no reason Disney can't.) 

Then the main curtain came back down, and rose again to reveal the beginning of the stage show.  What we saw was a scrim that was already transparent, because there were more lights behind it than in in front, so we wondered why it was there.  It stayed in place long enough for the eyes to wander to the edges of the scrim and see that it was painted to look like a christmas card, but that didn't work, because the frame portion needed to be opaque and it wasn't. 

The Disney Christmas Spectacular had over a dozen live cast members, "and boy are their arms tired!"  The person who stages these shows has, for some 30 years, established the notorious trademark of incessantly excessive arm gestures (including the ubiquitous waist to overhead arm sweep) making one imagine these shows were choreographed to be seen from a mile away, rather than the intimate proximity of the El Capitan audience.  This show also continued the recent tradition of unstructured, story-free, constant singing and dancing, where nothing really happens.  The majority of the cast was dressed in outfits that recalled old Perry Como or Andy Williams Christmas specials.  Occasionally, a costumed Disney Character or two came along looking for some decent stage business, but all they got to do was futz around with some props... 


Before I start sounding too "scroogy" here, let me point out that the performers, sets and costumes were all quite attractive and appealing, the songs were appropriately cheery, and there were plenty of nice moments to make you (and even me) smile...


Having noticed (from the nifty Apple computers prominently featured in the WITCH MOUNTAIN trailer) that marketing synergy and product placement are alive and well, next came a cute little number from one of the company's most popular franchises, the Disney Princesses.  And your own little princess can have an outfit just like theirs, on sale now...

At one point a beautiful Burgundy curtain came in about mid-stage...

(I hoped they would keep that, but it was a rental)


Here came Goofy Claus...  and what was in his big Santa bag?  Ubiquitous Disney character plush, of course!  Was it a coincidence that the featured plush were perhaps the slowest selling characters?

As the show reached its finale I got a big thrill.  No, it wasn't the charmingly appropriate snow flurries that replaced the usual confetti blast (first onstage, then in the house)...

It was a song, from the opening titles of the movie SCROOGE.  It's called "A Christmas Carol" - written by Leslie Bricusse, and it was a PERFECT choice to create this rousing finale, figuratively and literally ending on a high note.  And then came the feature...

The El Capitan presented BOLT in Digital 3D, which looked cool, but the picture was, like most 3D movies, about a third less bright then it should be.  (More detail about that in our upcoming report from the 3D Summit)  Still, this was a thoroughly entertaining holiday package.  Prices for this experience were significantly less expensive than they were for ENCHANTED, making it a better value and more affordable for families.

In 2009, The fascinating documentary THE BOYS had an all-too brief run, showing us clips from so many Disney Library titles we wish we could see on that screen in their entirety, and again Rob Richards tailored his program with lesser-known but wonderful Sherman tunes, making the show a very good experience.  We enjoyed UP (the movie) very much, but the lame "Lighten UP" stage show that accompanied it... well the less said about that, the better. 

Update Spring 2013:  The US economy nosedive hit a lot of people in a lot of ways.  Around here it turned the luxury of going out to the movies into a very rare event.  An update in Home Theatre equipment contributed greatly to that.  No longer is every major holiday or summer event picture at the El Capitan an automatic must, expecially when the same picture often plays day and date at the Vista for a fraction of the price. 

The El Cap has added Dolby Atmos sound, but when I saw Brave, I did not notice any particular improvement in sound.  What I DID notice was a ton of ugly hardware hanging from, and ruining the view of, this theatre's grand ceiling. 

Another strike on the negative side comes with the engagement of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL - a much anticipated popular movie with the addition of 3D (which a trusted reviewer has said is worth the extra admission cost) and a stage show featuring live magic.  Again this feature is also playing at the Vista, which already has very nice sound and 2D digital projection. 

The difference in price for the El Cap and the Vista ranges from $6-10 less at the Vista, however Disney has once again seized all the best and most decent seats to sell with the $10 surcharge for what they call VIP seats.  I really do want to see OZ at the El Cap, but I do not like paying $16 to sit in the side section.  We've established the stage shows aren't much of a draw anymore and the atmos sound was just a lot of noise, so...

Cinema Sightlines Rating: 4 of 5 stars.

From an otherwise wonderful theatre, points taken off for serving soda in bottles for the same price as a large cup in other venues, (easier for them but much less value for the customer) routinely showing a blank screen at the opening, and letterboxing and/or windowboxing some picture content within open masking.  (this is Bad Show in Disneyspeak).  This world-class theatre deserves impeccable presentation, and it seems someone higher up in charge doesn't understand or consider such details.  I don't think they're evil or stupid, just aggressively ignorant, and that's why we post constructive criticism. 

We further deduct down to 4 stars because they have ruined the look inside by hanging the huge Dolby Atmos hardware (there had been some talk of finding ways to hide it all, but obviously this is not a priority) and they continue to cannabilize the general admission seats at will for more popular features, which means general admission gets you only a side section seat, often at the far ends near the walls. 

One good thing to note is the rare occasion of something called "Throwback Thursdays" where they will show a vintage Disney film (so far it's only been WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL) at a very reasonable price, and include small popcorn and a soda.  (For the latter film, which was an overall verynice experience, we even got soda in good sized cups instead of bottles)  The problem here is they only publicize these events on social media, cutting out a significant portion of their target audience by keeping people who don't get into social media (many of which are in the over 40 category) in the dark.  I would have loved to go to see ROGER RABBIT and I am on Disney's email list for the El Cap, but they didn't say a word about these screenings outside their T or F accounts.  Pity. 

It's still a great place, if your budget allows, but, as Mr. Disney knew, attention to details can make it greater.

DISNEY'S EL CAPITAN THEATRE - 6838 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, CA 90028   323-467-7674

*Wouldn't it be nice if a few of the less affluent masses could occasionally get a surprise upgrade into these premium experiences, like you do on airplanes?

All Images © Disney Enterprises