Hollywood landmark up for sale

Times Staff Writer

The historic El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, where “Citizen Kane” had its world premiere and a generation of children have watched actors dressed as Disney characters cavort onstage, is for sale.

The $31-million price tag includes the six-story, 1920s office building into which the theater is built.

Walt Disney Co. will remain the long-term tenant at the theater, which the studio renovated in the early 1990s and has used to showcase many of its recent children’s movies.


The building also houses several entertainment industry tenants, including the studio and offices of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

In its gilded splendor across Hollywood Boulevard from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood & Highland entertainment complex, the El Capitan is the picture of prosperity now, but it’s had more comebacks than many an actor. Since its debut in 1926 as a live theater, many of Hollywood’s best-known performers have appeared there.

“The El Capitan has a bright history in the entertainment industry and we really want to find a buyer who will maintain its entertainment legacy for a long time,” said Rick Uhlmann, a spokesman for owner CUNA Mutual Group, which came to own the property by happenstance and ended up holding on to it for many years.

The Madison, Wis.-based financial services company came into possession of the property after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Its then-owners walked away and left CUNA Mutual holding title and facing some hard decisions. The quake’s force had compromised the building’s frame and emergency sprinklers flooded the interior. Public safety inspectors deemed it uninhabitable.

Hollywood at the time seemed to be in an intractable funk of seediness and squalor, with a well-deserved reputation for danger after dark.


One of the few bright spots was the El Capitan, which had been restored by Disney and Pacific Theaters in 1991. The $6-million renovation restored the building’s colorful outdoor lighting and the architectural features created by theater designer G. Albert Lansburgh, who also planned Los Angeles’ Wiltern and Orpheum theaters, as well as the Shrine Auditorium’s interior.

With Disney remaining as a tenant, CUNA Mutual spent almost $10 million bringing the structure up to safety codes, while also restoring the commercial space upstairs from the theater. The firm attempted to keep it looking as developer Charles Toberman envisioned it in the 1920s. Toberman, sometimes called “the father of Hollywood,” was also a partner in building the Chinese and Egyptian theaters with Sid Grauman.

Upon completion of the restoration, CUNA Mutual dared to ask for high-end rents in a decidedly low-end neighborhood -- and eventually succeeded. The rebirth of Hollywood that followed the 2001 opening of Hollywood & Highland brought businesses back to the area, and today the El Capitan offices are fully leased.

Commercial real estate brokerage CB Richard Ellis will shop the building to wealthy individuals, Hollywood landlords and investors in Europe and Asia, broker Timothy L. Bower said.

“We’re not insulated from what is going on on the national stage,” Bower said of the current credit crisis. “But Hollywood remains one of the strongest markets we have in L.A.”

Disney confirmed Tuesday that it would remain a long-term tenant at the El Capitan. The building, which housed Barker Bros. Furniture Emporium in its commercial space for nearly 50 years, is a designated national landmark and one of several prominent historic structures that have come to market in recent years.


Other historic Hollywood properties that have changed hands in recent years include the Hollywood Palladium, the former CBS broadcasting building and the former Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures movie studios. The Magic Castle and Yamashiro restaurant are on the market.


Times staff writer Dawn Chmielewski contributed to this report.