Even though the U.S. government states that the millennium will not end for another year, I think we can at least look at what was the most important Hollywood event of the 1990s, an event that will continue to impact historic preservation and the overall community for years to come. That was the decision and implementation by the Walt Disney Co. and Pacific Theaters to restore the El Capitan Theater in 1990 (reopened in 1991 with further renovation in 1997-9). Thankfully Disney 's Richard Cook pushed for this, and he had Ed Collins to implement it, two people who continue to watch over the theater.
Not only did this give Hollywood a major landmark that attracts both locals and tourists, it has served as a tremendous catalyst both here and in New York City for historic preservation and development. It also shows the long-term impacts that a single historic preservation project can have and why each preservation battle is therefore important.
As you may remember, the original plan proposed in 1989 called for the El Capitan, then called the Paramount, to be split into two theaters and renamed the “Boulevard Theater” (how imaginative), the original interior would be covered up with a faux art deco design scheme. After some very intense lobbying and media coverage, Disney and Pacific announced that they would scrap that plan and go with a full restoration, unlike anything either company had ever done, or even planned.
The reopened El Capitan was a huge hit, and the limited stage show before The Rocketeer proved to be a strong draw as patrons paid a premium to see the movie and prologue there. Disney then produced a Christmas show that year with Beauty and the Beast which showed that the live show, even on a miniscule 8ft. deep stage, at a historic theater was a big moneymaker. The El Capitan soon became the highest grossing movie theater in the world, something no one would have predicted prior to the 1991 opening. Most recently, Disney fully restored the stage and added a magnificent Wurlitzer pipe organ.
Inspired by the success of the El Capitan, the Disney company looked to Michael Eisner's home turf, New York City, and attempted to repeat this success in a historic theater there. They found the derelict 1903 New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, the onetime home of the Ziegfeld Follies, that they chose to repeat the Hollywood experiment, with a full theatrical production of Beauty and the Beast. Disney and the city invested over $34 million, resulting in a beautiful restoration of one of the world 's most historic theaters. Disney took it a step further by opening their flagship Disney Store nearby, triggering, by all accounts, the interests This achievement returned to Hollywood when Disney 's David Malmuth attempted to repeat their New York success with a similar project here. Disney dropped out, its plate already full with the Disneyland expansion, and David went to developer TrizecHahn with his Hollywood plan. They stepped up and, under David 's Malmuth 's direction, created the project now being constructed at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, directly across from the El Capitan, where it all started. The project now includes a new home for the Academy Awards in Hollywood and a restoration of the world famous Chinese Theater.
Meanwhile, Disney 's success with the stage version of Beauty and the Beast led to the theatrical presentation of The Lion King (the film grossed over $1 million at the El Capitan with prologue in 1994) which is now coming to the Pantages Theater next fall, resulting in a multi- million dollar renovation of that theater and millions more coming to local businesses.
As a sidebar, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) had supported the remodeling and cutting up of the Paramount Theater (as did Mayor Bradley, Councilperson Woo, chamber of commerce, L.A. Conservancy, and about everyone else). They felt left out when the theater reopened without their involvement. When development plans by the CRA for the two blocks around the Egyptian Theater failed, United Artists Theaters threatened to close the theater and turn it into a swap meet in 1992. With everyone pointing to the success of the El Capitan Theater, the CRA bought the Egyptian in 1993 with the intention of the American Cinematheque (it was a favorite site of Cinematheque co-founder Gary Essert), occupying it as their Hollywood home. Two previous Hollywood locations for the Cinematheque had failed to materialize and their board was then looking elsewhere in LA for a home.
Negotiations with the CRA and the city continued until the 1994 Northridge earthquake provided federal funds and insurance money to start rehabilitation of the structure. The American Cinematheque took control and raised millions more to reopen a Hollywood landmark that otherwise would have been demolished after the earthquake.
The earthquake also helped to bring a new owner to the El Capitan Building, CUNA Insurance of Wisconsin. CUNA realized the problems of the building and the success of the theater 's restoration, and moved forward to rehabilitate the offices and retail sections, spending millions to restore the building to a state-of-the-art “A” rated office building. The Disney Company responded and finally opened a Disney Store there in 1998 (such a move was looked at as early as 1991).
One might say that this is a lot of activity to credit to the battle over whether to restore or remodel the El Capitan Theater back in 1990. But, like the acorn that grows into the mighty oak tree, it is unlikely that most, if not all, of these events would have occurred if a remodeled "Boulevard Theaters I & II" had been opened across from the Chinese Theater.