by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This year is the 30th anniversary of the operation of the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood as the Walt Disney Company’s venue for premiering its animated films with live stage shows, with the inaugural showing taking place in mid-June 1991. The theatre, however, had its debut in early May 1926 after it was hailed as the first legitimate theater venue in Tinseltown.
The venue’s founding father was Charles E. Toberman (1880-1981), a preeminent figure in the development of Hollywood, whose uncle James, came to Los Angeles in 1864 to be a federal revenue assessor during the Civil War and was mayor during two periods in the 1870s and 1880s. Toberman’s handiwork including much of the surrounding hills, including Outpost Estates, and such major structures as the Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theatres, the Roosevelt Hotel, the Max Factor Building, the Hollywood Masonic Lodge Building, and the Hollywood Bowl.
Just about three years after it opened, the El Capitan, located on Hollywood Boulevard just west of HIghland Avenue hosted a run of the popular Broadway comedy/drama, Burlesque, written by George Manker Watters and Arthur Hopkins and which debuted in 1927. Star Hal Skelly (1891-1934) was born in Pennsylvania, though raised in Iowa, and, in his mid-teens, left home to join a circus. Shortly thereafter, at sixteen, he made his first stage appearance in Chicago and he was widely known for his work in minstrel shows, light opera, musical comedy and burlesque, with his unusual dancing garnering particular attention.
His costar in the original Broadway production of Burlesque was an unknown actor named Barbara Stanwyck, appearing in her first lead role in just her twentieth year. After a successful year her first husband was a Burlesque costar, Frank Fay), she went on to film, while Skelly took the play on the road with a new lead actress, Laura Hamilton. Among the cast was a young pianist and actor, Oscar Levant (his surname was rendered as “Lavant” in the program), who went to significant fame and notoriety.
Skelly played a character, just known as Skid, who, his wife Eunice Sauvin, who performed in a team with him for years, felt was much like her husband and the story a mirror of their life falling in love while performing together and going through the ups and downs of marital life in a demanding business. Sauvin told the Los Angeles Times, in its 14 April 1929 edition,
“Burlesque” is almost our life. Why, we met on the burlesque wheel out of Chicago fifteen years ago. He was a comic and I was in the chorus. When we read the play together before Hal went into it in New York, we sat down and cried. It was so real.
For his part, Skelly exclaimed that Eunice couldn’t mean what she said, telling the paper “we were in burlesque, but we were in a lot of shows. Yes, and I was once a medicine-show barker and mixer, a clown, a buck-and-wing dancer, an eccentric lead” as well as a Broadway performer. He called his character “a great guy” but merely a creation of Watters and Hopkins and demurred that “I just play him.”
The article noted that this was the first role Skelly had that included dramatic elements and that his friends were concerned that it would not be a successful transition. Hopkins was undeterred and it was reported that one particularly poignant scene, in which Skid learns his former partner was to remarry and “does a rhythmic-saddened dance burlesque of a wedding march,” the audience at the Broadway premiere leapt to its collective feet at the end of the act to applaud his performance.
Since that night, 1 September 1927, Skelly played the role nonstop, including a film version with shooting just completed in New York before the actor joined the new production in Hollywood, and which was retitled The Dance of Life. Premiering in August 1929, the film version starred Nancy Carroll, who’d just risen to stardom the prior year, as Bonnie. The piece added that Eunice was now has husband’s handler, taking care of correspondence and making sure the hard-working showman had as smooth an experience as possible, including his deciding whether to continue with films or to return to the stage.
In fact, Skelly pursued both, though he worked in film for the next several years, with his next film being a drama called Woman Trap and pairing him with Evelyn Brent. A 20-year old newcomer, Joseph Mankewicz had a bit part, but went on to great fame as a screenwriter, director and producer, whose older brother was the brilliant screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, the subject of the recent David Fincher film.
In 1930, he worked with William Powell. Kay Francis and Fay Wray in Behind the Make-Up, starred in Men Are Like That and, the following year, was lead in The Struggle, one of two sound films made by D.W. Griffith. His last film, a 1933 low-budget affair, The Shadow Laughs, featured a new talent in Cesar Romero. The following year, Skelly was killed when the truck he was driving was hit by a train in Connecticut—he was just 43 years old.
On at least two occasional, performances of Burlesque were held for fundraisers. One was for the Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles Realty Board, which relied on an annual event of some kind to supplement support from the board to pay for a secretary and promotional materials. The other was for the Catholic Women’s Club for the Hospital Relief and Scholarship Fund, which also had junior members sell candy at the performance, while the Business and Professional Women’s committee and “Advanced Juniors” were involved, as well.
There was a fair amount of publicity in local papers for the run, including the focus on Skelly, as wel as a featured photograph of Hamilton, who made a couple of films, but was mostly a stage performer. As for the program, it has a very colorful and dramatic cover by Mark Triton and a short article titled “Variety” about actor Eileen Percy, a native of Ireland, who played Sylvia Marco in Burlesque, but who said “my ambition is to act Bonny . . . it is the finest role written for a woman that I know.” While she began on the stage, Percy began filmwork at age 17 and she remained busy for about a decade, through 1927. She does not appear to have acted after completing her work in Burlesque and became an entertainment journalist in Pittsburgh.
With respect to the venue’s owner, The Henry Duffy Players, Inc., it was run by the prolific stage actor and producer Henry Duffy (1890-1961), who acted in over 1,100 plays and produced almost double that number. He was a stock company titan during the Roaring Twenties with over twenty troupes under his control and he owned or leased ten theatres on the Pacific Coast including in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Locally, he operated, from July 1927, the El Capitan and then the Hollywood Playhouse, on Vine north of Hollywood and now known as the Avalon (long operating as the Palace music venue) and the President, on Broadway north of 8th in downtown Los Angeles and which began life in 1913 as the Morosco Theatre and was renamed by Duffy. It became the Globe in the mid-Forties and operated for another four decades or so, though it still survives as a club and as a rental for films and private events.
At the time Burlesque was playing at the El Capitan, the Hollywood Playhouse featured well-known film actor and director Tom Moore in This Thing Called Love, while the Presient offered the descendant of a prominent Californio family, Leo Carrillo, who became a stage actor in his mid-thirties in 1916, began a film career a decade later, and achieved fame as Pancho in the 1950s television show, The Cisco Kid. Duffy operated theaters through the Second World War and, in 1952, briefly operated that Carthay Circle Theatre, a major movie palace in Los Angeles from the 1920s.
The page providing information on the company also has material for patrons, including where the lounges, smoking room, check room, and phones were located. Performance times for thrice-weekly matinees and the daily evening shows were given, as well as ticket prices, which ranged from twenty-five centrs to $1.25. There was also the option for parents to leave their children at Kiddies’ Paradise, located a short distance north of the theatre.
Also of note in the program are the many advertisements, quite a few for upscale women’s clothing, furs, shoes and jewelry. Others are for restaurants; Maddux Airlines; the Gilfallan radio; Forest Lawn Memorial Park; Sparkletts water; Bimini Hot Springs; and offeringd at other theaters. Then, there are some unusual ads, including for the Gittelson Brothers, who asked gents “Have You Lost Your Sex Appeal?” and offered tickets to a program held at the Biltmore and Lankershim hotels that “has started thousands of happy romances” and Madame Anna Till, a “noted psycho-analyst and vocational director” in the Pantages Theatre Building at 7th and Hill downtown and who offered “Scientific Vocational Guidance” for those “who are drudging along in mediocre positions, miserably wretched because they are misfits.”
Also of note were ads for Dr. Josephine Fernald of Hollywood; the Savage Health Motor, which employed an “oscillator belt” for vibration of the back, stomach, neck, legs, and hips, while the user sat or stood, for reducing weight, increasing circulation, or both; Dr. James P. Campbell’s “Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers;” Covey’s rental car service; the Duvrock portable device for trap shooting; and Zobelein’s Eastside Pure Malt Syrup, of which it was merely said “Everbody likes it!” though for what was not explained (hint: it was Prohibition for another few years).
The El Capitan continued as a live theater venue for another eight years, but, in 1937, it was repurposed as a movie theater. Four years later, it hosted the world premiere of the classic Citizen Kane, of which Herman Mankiewicz was a co-writer with Orson Welles (who operated the projector that night) and which just this week lost its 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating because a negative review from its 1941 first release was just located.
After just over a half-century as a movie theater, the El Capitan closed and it was soon bought by Disney, who, with its large ownership stake in the Pacific Theaters chain, undertook a $6 million restoration and renovation of the venue for its 1991 opening. At the end of the Nineties, an incredible Wurlitzer theater organ, originally in San Francisco’s Fox Theatre, was installed and is played at weekend showings.