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Historic theaters of California

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Many old theaters in California were originally built for live theater events. As the technology of moving pictures was commercialized many theaters were fitted with a projection booth and screen. In the modernist period between 1950 and 1970 many of these theaters were updated, their original facade hidden behind sheet rock and 2x4s. In the 1990's declining movie theater attendance caused the industry to re-examine their value proposition to their customers. Realizing that home theaters offered another option, movie houses recognized that they were not just selling a ticket to "a movie", but a ticket to "a theater." This led to the renovation of many old theaters. Often when the dry wall was removed the restorers found the original stucco and plaster moldings intact with their original paint still bright and lively. Today old theaters have often led the revitalization of decaying urban centers.

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Hollywood

El Capitan

6834 Hollywood Boulevard

Built in 1926 for live theater, the El Capitan is done in a beautiful, elaborate Spanish Revival design by the architects Morgan, Walls, and Clements. In 1941 Hearst-ian politics made it impossible for RKO studios to find a movie theater willing to show the new film Citizen Kane. Instead, RKO rented the El Capitan and installed the equipment necessary to show the film. At the end of the movie run RKO left the equipment behind and the El Capitan began its life as a sometimes movie theater.

The El Capitan was in great distress until restored by the Disney company in 1989. At first Disney planned to modernize the interior and split the grand theater in two. Public outcry from historic preservation groups delayed the modernization. At one point Michael Eisner toured the theater. Upon seeing the beautiful exposed original interior he reportedly said, "restore it." That led to a $7M restoration and the installation of a Wurlitzer pipe organ taken from the San Francisco Fox theater. The El Capitan is the highest grossing movie theater in the world. It has been reported that when The Lion King opened, the El Capitan grossed $250,000 on the first weekend.

The renovation of the El Capitan led to the restoration of other Hollywood theaters and the revitalization of Hollywood boulevard.


Grauman's Chinese Theater

6925 Hollywood Boulevard

A rather gaudy theater with a highly stylized Chinese motif. Originally built for $2M The chief architect was Raymond Kennedy. Keye Luke painted many of the interior murals. The ceiling contains over 3,000 light bulbs in different colors; in the early days a light show proceeded each film. The Acadamy Awards were held here 1943-45. The cement in front of the theater holds the impressions of movie stars hands, feet, and shoes.

The first film shown at Grauman's Chinese in 1926 was The King of Kings. Originally Grauman staged a live prologue before each film. The theater can be seen in several movies including: A Star Is Born, Blazing Saddles, Twins, and Hollywood Homicide.


Grauman's Egyptian Theater

6712 Hollywood Boulevard

Built in 1922 for $800,000 by C. E. Toberman with Sid Grauman as partner and theater operator. Grauman's Egyptian has a large entry court and outdoor lobby. King Tut's tomb was discovered just weeks after the theater opened. As with Grauman's Chinese, short live theater presentations preceded each movie.

In severe disrepair, the theater closed in 1992. The theater was bought by the LA redevelopment agency and sold to the non-profit American Cinematheque in 1993. The back wall of the theater was knocked down in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. An insurance settlement paid for a majority of the renovation. In this renovation large steel pipes were fitted as a structural box inside the confines of the old theater. Retractable acoustic panels line the sides and hide the original stone theater walls, unless they are pulled back. When retracted, one can see the outlines of bas relief figures that were cut off the walls in previous "remodels."

It is now operated by the non-profit American Cinematheque showing independent films.

Pantages Theater

6233 Hollywood Boulevard

Pantages opened in 1930 as Hollywood's largest movie theater, seating 2800 people. More than one third of the interior is utilized in the largest lobby in Los Angeles. The theater offers incredible art deco artworks and designs. The Academy Awards were staged here from 1950-1959. The first televised Academy Awards occurred at the Pantages in 1952, hosted by Bob Hope with commentary by Ronald Reagan.

RKO Pictures, under the control of Howard Hughes, bought the theater in 1949. In 1960, three huge 15 foot chandeliers were removed by Hughes for cleaning and never seen again. In 1977 the theater transitioned from movies to live theater under the hand of the Nederlander Company. It then became the most successful theater for touring Broadway musicals. The famous concert movie Stop Making Sense by The Talking Heads was filmed here. The Lion King opened at Pantages in 2000.

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