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El Capitan Courageous

Faith, Money Rescue a Gem From the '20s in Hollywood

March 03, 1998|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the El Capitan office building on Hollywood Boulevard was left red-tagged and uninhabitable.

The quake's brute force had compromised the building's frame. Sprinklers flooded the structure's interiors. El Capitan's owner walked away, leaving Iowa-based CUNA Mutual Life Insurance Co. holding a very unpromising mortgage.

But CUNA's officers decided they would not only keep the property, but give it a $9.8-million face lift. At the time, this sounded a little reckless.

Hollywood Boulevard was a distant cry from its 1920s glory. The tacky, crime-troubled stretch of street had proved immune to various attempts to upgrade its image.

Jeffrey Rouze, CUNA's senior asset manager, hoped that by sinking a huge sum into El Capitan's restoration, he could start a chain reaction.

"We wanted this project to be a catalyst for the revitalization of Hollywood," said Rouze, who is based in Madison, Wis. Naysayers countered that Hollywood was too far gone. But Rouze was unconvinced.

To understand the degree of Rouze's ambitions, one has to consider Hollywood Boulevard's free-fall into squalor.

In the 1920s, developer Charles Toberman, often called "The Father of Hollywood," almost single-handedly transformed the area into a colorful theater district. Responsible for 36 projects there during his lifetime, Toberman erected the Max Factor Building, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Hollywood Masonic Temple, and, with Sid Grauman, three "themed" theaters--the Chinese, the Egyptian and El Capitan.

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Designed by Art Deco specialists Morgan, Walls & Clements, the $1.2-million El Capitan theater was a singular jewel. Boasting an elaborate Churrigueresque (peasant baroque) facade, the building drew raves from those who first beheld it. One awed reviewer went so far as to proclaim it "one of the most palatial structures in America."

It featured elaborate friezes and figures in its ornamentation. Its cast-iron colonnades were ornately carved with shields, masks, sea creatures and faces from literature and drama, amid acanthus leaves.

"Hollywood's First Home of Spoken Drama," as it was called, opened its doors in April 1926, and such actors as Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. performed there.

El Capitan's six floors of commercial space were leased by Barker Bros. Furniture Emporium. For nearly 50 years, Hollywood's elite clientele (including director Cecil B. DeMille) shopped at this flagship store.

World War II took a toll on Hollywood and El Capitan, however. During the 1940s, attendance declined precipitously at El Capitan's live performances. Later, television stole further receipts from the once-majestic theater.

And as middle-class families fled their Hollywood bungalows for the distant suburbs, El Capitan finally was forced to shut its doors. It reopened briefly as the Paramount Theater, then suffered through a variety of incarnations as a TV studio and cinema.

The neighborhood declined as well. No longer were the sidewalks of Hollywood paved exclusively with gold stars. They were caked with soot, coated with chewing gum and littered with fast-food wrappers.

"Hollywood" itself--the movie industry, that is--quietly tiptoed to the Valley and Westside in the 1960s and '70s, leaving Hollywood-the-destination a decadent ghost town for tourists bent on buying souvenir T-shirts and placing their Florsheims in John Wayne's cement footprints outside the Chinese Theatre.

Barker Bros. finally closed its doors in the 1970s. And after "Father of Hollywood" Toberman's death a few years later, El Capitan was sold and its commercial space converted into office suites.

In 1991, Pacific Theaters and Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc.--a division of Walt Disney Co.--restored El Capitan's theater, with much fanfare. A second upgrade of the theater is to be completed by November. But it took a natural disaster to trigger the refurbishing of El Capitan's long-neglected commercial space.

While other mortgage-holders might have shuddered at the idea of pumping millions of dollars into an enfeebled, earthquake-damaged building in an "iffy" section of town, CUNA's Rouze foresaw a cinematic happy ending. He became single-mindedly determined to restore El Capitan to its 1920s splendor, and, in so doing, inspire neighboring property owners to take similar action.

The Community Redevelopment Agency lent CUNA $1.3 million at low interest for earthquake reparations, and offered it a $250,000 matching-fund historic commercial loan to repair the building's lobbies, elevators and office complex. CUNA also received a $225,000 federal disaster relief loan for additional seismic repairs. The remainder of the tab would have to be footed by CUNA.

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