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Faded Star : Preservationists and Disney in Tug of War Over the El Capitan


Hillsman Wright was exploring the attic of the former 1920s-era El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard one afternoon last fall when he happened across a hole in the floor. Flashlight in hand, Wright lowered himself into a cramped cavern suspended high above the orchestra pit.

Balancing himself on struts and support wires, Wright aimed the light at an arch of ornate plaster sandwiched between the attic and the suspended ceiling below. His discovery was a preservationist's dream come true.

"It was clear that this theater was imminently restorable," Wright said of the decorative East Indian-style auditorium, which had featured live performances by such Hollywood stars as Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth before being converted into a television studio and later a movie theater.

But what was obvious to Wright, president of the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation, was far less evident to his hosts that day, officials of the distribution arm of the Walt Disney Co.

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution Co. and Pacific Theaters Corp., which leases the building from the landowner, had invited Wright to the 65-year-old theater to show him their plans for an upbeat Art Deco-style flagship for new Disney movie releases. The opening would be the premiere of the much ballyhooed "Dick Tracy" in June.

The plans left no room for a restored auditorium, which Disney has said needs to be "more fun" and "more entertaining" than its intricate cast-plaster patterns and columns. The building's unusual exterior would be preserved, but the 1,500-seat auditorium would be broken into two theaters, with the original design--including the massive arch stretching above the stage--buried beneath a streamlined gypsum-board facade.

Wright is not alone in his love for the original designs of San Francisco architect G. Albert Lansburgh. A small group of preservationists and community activists want to see the El Capitan restored in its entirety.

But Disney is irritated by the criticism, according to sources, and last week company officials let it be known that they may walk away from their El Capitan plans because of the resistance they have encountered. Meanwhile, the project could be stalled by questions raised by the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, which is to decide this week whether the proposed make-over conforms to federal restoration standards.

Disney's interest in languishing Hollywood Boulevard has had boosters of the once-glorious cinema capital grinning from ear to ear. City officials have struggled for years to re-establish the boulevard as the world's premier center for movie palaces, and they see Disney as their ticket to Tomorrowland.

Now, the prospect of Disney giving up on its Hollywood plans has set off a flurry of activity at City Hall to persuade the company to stay. Councilman Michael Woo, who represents Hollywood, has assured both Pacific and Disney that they are welcome. The Community Redevelopment Agency, which oversees development along Hollywood Boulevard, has done the same.

Woo said last week, "I think we need to send a very clear signal that we welcome the return of refurbished movie theaters to Hollywood," he said.

Disney's critics, however, complain that Hollywood deserves more than a partially restored theater from a company that has built an entire theme park in Florida around a re-creation of historic Hollywood Boulevard.

"They have been stealing Hollywood's architecture and history, and making millions off of it in Florida, but when it comes to the real Hollywood, they are trying to cover it up," said Robert Nudelman, a theater buff who heads a Hollywood group concerned about renewal.

Opposition to the renovation plans has already caused so many delays that Disney has abandoned any hope of holding the "Dick Tracy" premiere in Hollywood. Several weeks ago, the company suspended work on the theater's inside, where crews were removing layers of plaster and paneling that had been tacked to walls and ceilings over the past 50 years.

Although Disney officials are hopeful the problems can be worked out, Richard Cook, president of Buena Vista, said they are reassessing their interest in the Hollywood project. "We are considering everything."

The city's Cultural Heritage Commission has the power to delay the project for up to a year with City Council concurrence. After one year, the commission loses authority over the project.

The El Capitan, known as the Paramount when Pacific Theaters closed it last fall, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. At a recent meeting, the city commission recommended that it be designated a city landmark. This Wednesday, the commission is expected to decide whether covering the auditorium's original walls and ceiling would violate standards that govern historic buildings.

The commission's staff architect, Jay Oren, has expressed reservations about the appropriateness of the auditorium renovation in light of preservation standards.

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