El Capitan Theatre

Where Movies Remain Old-Fashioned Magic

The pipe organist has slowly, dramatically descended back into the floor and out of view, while two giant rodents scamper mischievously onstage, tugging at the soon-to-be-parted curtains. Our 3 1/2 year-old daughter shrieks not in horror, but with pure, exalted delight.

We’re back at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre. If only for a Sunday matinee, the Gershwin family is trading in our DVDs and streaming video for a day at the movies, relishing our proximity to old Hollywood glamour (we are only several decades and a 15-minute drive away from the glory days). El Capitan opened in 1926, and Disney’s lovely restoration of the theater provides a living link to our community’s cinematic roots. Like Disney’s theme parks, El Capitan is as much an exercise in soothing nostalgia for grown-ups as it is a wondrous novelty for kids.

Also soothing here is that tickets for mom, dad, and daughter can be had for less than the price of a single children’s ticket to that little amusement park in Anaheim with the long lines where it costs $15 to park.

But do those bargain prices still get our family that Disney “magic”? Absolutely. It’s unmistakably here, starting with the live musical performance by Rob Richards on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, 2,500 pipes strong–easily the most complex musical instrument ever created. Those rodents for whom we didn’t call Terminix, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, are perfectly played by cast members no doubt delighted to trade a day at the park for a day at the movie theater–especially one featuring a stunning, intricate, East Indian interior.

My wife and I are amazed–our daughter a bit less so–by the 1933 Mickey Mouse cartoon short that opens the program. We’re watching Mickey flee Minnie’s house after a misunderstanding over what should or shouldn’t have been in a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates. I’m in awe imagining how this was made without the benefit of computer-generated images or offshore animators: the painstaking, incremental work of the artists who drew the cartoon cells depicting a row of picket fence posts being uprooted in perfect succession by Mickey’s oversized foot. After it’s discovered that Pluto surreptitiously exchanged Mickey’s gift of chocolates for a dog bone, Mickey and Minnie make up. In a G-rated way, of course.

After a few previews (hey, what’s Disney without a little product placement?), it’s time for the main event: a re-release of Lady and the Tramp (1955), replete with a Peggy Lee soundtrack, looking as fresh as ever. The first animated feature ever to be produced in CinemaScope, Lady and the Tramp is visually stunning enough to engage our daughter in that unmistakable movie stare. Instead of picket fence posts, it’s the images of raindrops in a puddle that inspire awe here. And the cute puppies, our daughter would surely add.

I miss some of the film’s finer plot points, stepping into the lobby to secure enough provisions–popcorn, M&Ms, and apple slices–to get us through the performance. I make sure to sample the M&Ms to ensure they are fit for family consumption (they are). On my way back in, an army of helpful Disney cast members ensures that I don’t spill my food purchases in the aisle, not only opening the door for me but shining a flashlight onto the steps to show me back to our seats. We may be watching a movie, but at the El Capitan, you’re at the theater.

Our daughter has decided to choose this particular outing as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how well she has become potty-trained, so we miss some more of the movie in the process. Even though she’s accustomed to pausing any onscreen performance for similarly pressing breaks at home, she knows that’s not possible at the movies. She’s already developed a solid appreciation for the communal movie-going experience. Had we started her out at the multiplex, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be the same cinephile-in-waiting we’re sitting with today.

The feature presentation is over, and after our daughter gets a Lady and the Tramp-themed double-share twisty straw as a parting gift, it’s time to head back out into the midday sun on Hollywood Boulevard. We see legions of tourist families with their own children seeking the same magic of Hollywood, diluted a bit by the legions of aggressive, semi-amateur street performers and unlicensed movie characters. Still, it’s hard not to be taken in by the moment. After we pause at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to peek at the handprints in concrete, I’m almost surprised we can drive back home instead of to a hotel.

We still haven’t told our daughter about the occasional pre-movie Disney character breakfast shows. We have to draw the line somewhere on the magic, at least for now. That’s another $20 a person on top of the movie, and what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. As it is, our outing to El Capitan has already made her day–her week, rather. And my wife and I are perfectly happy to have seen first-class entertainment in a beautiful setting on one of the most famous streets in the world.

Besides, I’m not a big fan of dining with rodents at the breakfast table.

David Gershwin, a Los Angeles-based public affairs consultant and Zócalo Public Square board member, is eagerly awaiting an El Capitan-screened revival of his personal Disney favorite, The Apple Dumpling Gang.

*Photo by David Gershwin.


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