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EL Capitan Theatre Review by Garan Grey

The crowning Jewel on Hollywood Boulevard is the glorious El Capitan Theatre.   For people seeking a classic theatrical movie palace experience, it doesn't get much better than this.  Disney operates this theatre as a showcase for their films, and, when it is operating at its full potential, the El Capitan can make almost any movie an event.

Located across Hollywood Boulevard from the legendary Grauman's Chinese theatre, The El Capitan has a much more enticing exterior.  The flashy marquee commands your attention, featuring animated displays that are programmed by computer directly from the Disney Studios in Burbank.  It's interesting that a theatre has a marquee capable of displaying the entire film showing within...

Originally designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, The El Capitan opened on May 3, 1926 as a legit (live) theatre, with the famed Charlot Revue featuring Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan.  The theatre was used to premiere Orson Welles' controversial CITIZEN KANE, and then later remodeled and renamed the Paramount, premiering many big films, including DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, DOCTOR DOLITTLE, THE MUSIC MAN, GIGI and WAR AND PEACE. 

The Disney company made a deal with Pacific Theatres to pay for a full scale restoration/renovation in exchange for the rights to program the theatre under it's original name.  Pacific paid for the architect & design, and Disney paid for the transformation.   Expert theatrical designer Joseph Musil was engaged to provide an appropriately glamorous look.  Musil was first asked to design the El Capitan as a "piggyback" duplex with a second screen in the balcony.

Original design for the downstairs/original stage

And the proposed second screen in the balcony.

Pacific wanted two screens, presumably because they felt two choices would increase profit potential.  Disney was looking for a large theatre with a workable stage.  It would seem they had Radio City Music Hall in mind - a movie and a stage presentation with organ music between shows. 

The final approved design...

Became a reality in 1991.

Photo © Disney Enterprises; Theatre Design by Joseph Musil

The Glorious El Capitan Theatre reopened in the spring of 1991 with the premiere of Disney's THE ROCKETEER, which was preceded by a simple stage show featuring singing and dancing ushers.  There was no extra charge for the live pre-show, and each show began with an elegant presentation: three curtains opened in synchronization to specially chosen music (Bruce Broughton's theme from THE BOY WHO COULD FLY). The curtain/light show resumed at the end of the film, to a recording of HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD.  Both curtain presentations were created by theatre designer Joseph Musil,  The music and cues were programmed on black film spliced onto the feature.

But at the El Capitan, the show begins on the sidewalk...

Mr. Musil's New marquee design looks nothing like the original, but it suits this showplace perfectly.

Photo © Disney Enterprises

Like most classic movie palaces, The El Capitan has a free-standing boxoffice out front. 

It's designed to match the old-fashioned look of the exterior, but with thoroughly modern technology.

This roomy boxoffice can handle up to 5 patrons at a time, for both current and advance sales.

The El Capitan's outer lobby has been restored to its original opulence.


A proper movie palace sweeps you into another world, a place that looks and feels special in every detail.  The Theatre's showcase windows often feature multi-layered theatrical displays, with custom designed curtain frame and individually cut-out letters, just another hint that this is far from a typical moviehouse.  The El Capitan is a Theatre with a capital T.  This is as close to a functioning classic movie palace (in regular operation) as Hollywood has. 

The main level concession stand pops fresh popcorn, which comes in 3 sizes, up to a large souvenir bucket with artwork from the current feature, or El Capitan's own design, and comes with one free refill.  A nearby condiment station has a pump for butter-flavor topping.   Downstairs with the restrooms, a handsome lounge sometimes features elaborate production displays for the latest Disney event picture.

The original back wall of the orchestra level has been pushed inward to make room for a new projection booth (with a more direct throw angle than the balcony booth), two wheelchair access seating sections (that look like royal boxes), and an accessible restroom.  Another concession counter serves as a pickup station for the small pre-packaged popcorn buckets and soda bottles that come with a VIP ticket.  This wall seems to render Mr. Musil's artwork from a vivid Disney color palette.  From those doors you pass through a short entryway...

...into a movie paradise.

The platform in front of the stage hides the lift that raises virtuoso organist Rob Richards, on the El Capitan's historic Mighty Wurlitzer organ.  Richards has a large repertoire, and though he studies and rehearses his programs, he makes it look and sound effortless. 

Rob Richards has been honored by the American Theatre Organ Society, which has posted their own very informative page on the El Capitan.

The left and right stage boxes, once performance spaces for live pre-shows, now fill the theatre with music from the organ pipes hidden behind the purple curtains.  The seats covered in gold are the general location of the higher priced VIP seats, which, depending on sales, can take up most of the center section, right up to the next-to-last row of the balcony.

The balcony lobby has a second concession stand for busy days, and a row of showcases illustrating the El Capitan's long history.  A wide video screen cycles clips from past premieres and special events.

There is a second pickup counter for the VIP popcorn and soda bottles.

A view from the balcony reveals the full grandeur of this beautiful showcase. 

The gold satin contour curtain gathers from the bottom like the one at Radio City Music Hall in New York.  Behind it was a flat painted traveler Musil designed with a silhouette of a dancing couple, known as the "Fred & Ginger" Curtain. 

Photo © Disney Enterprises; Curtain Design by Joseph Musil

This curtain was removed a few years ago, to make room for the silver screen necessary for 3D features.  The "Fred and Ginger" curtain was gone for so long that fans thought they would never see it again until it made a very welcome comeback with the 2008 holiday show, looking good as new.  During the run of ENCHANTED and 101 DALMATIANS, in the position formerly occupied by the Fred & Ginger curtain, there was a new red drop that looked like a drape.  Rather than an actual curtain opened partially from the middle, it was fixed into that position, and moved up all one piece like a solid stage drop.

The third curtain is a silver glitter fabric behind silver mylar strands.  This one is lit from the sides in blue, and when it opens, the side lights make an interesting cross-pattern on the screen.

The showmanship doesn't stop there.  The fully functional stage can handle some elaborate live pre-shows, and the theatre is often decorated in a theme to match the feature. 

All 3 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies featured elaborate displays above the marquee and in the lobby, there was a huge set piece hung at the top of the proscenium, and the stage boxes were dressed with props and cannons.  The show began with ominous music, and a cannon, "shot" from a stage box, blew a hole in a Pirates themed curtain, which then dropped to the floor and was pulled offstage.  Festive decorations bring a warm spirit for the holiday season.  The top of the marquee has held eyecatching displays for HONEY, I BLEW UP THE KID, PIRATES, 101 DALMATIONS, NARNIA and other features.  The Glorious El Capitan is a special place.                              

- Backstory & most Photos by TJ Edwards 

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