Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Backstage Magic at The El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood

As the nation's attention turned to Hollywood for last weekend's Academy Awards, let's stay in that area for a look around another historic theater.  Last October, I had the chance to visit a monument to Hollywood's past, the The El Capitan Theatre, as part of the Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic tour.

The El Capitan opened in 1926 as part of developer Charles Toberman's plans for a theater district.  Toberman was also involved with the building of the Roosevelt Hotel (a block down the street) and Grauman's Chinese Theatre (almost directly across the street), so it appears his vision was not only a success in his lifetime, but has also stood the test of time.  For much of the El Capitan's lifetime, the building operated under the Hollywood Paramount Theatre moniker, but an early 1990's restoration brought the property back to its glory years and restored the original name.  The Walt Disney Company assisted with those restoration efforts and today acts as the primary tenant of the theater, which shows films from the Disney Studios' library and current releases from the various Disney film companies.  A brief history of the theater is available of Disney's web site.

Our tour group saw a 4D production of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, which runs annually in the weeks leading up to Halloween.  In addition to the magnificently restored details around the building, the El Capitan features a Wurlitzer theatre organ, imported from San Francisco's Fox Theatre, and they don't let it go to waste.  Renowned organist and one time "Organist of the Year", Rob Richards performed a wide range of Disney standards before the organ sunk into the floor and the theater fell dark when it was time for the movie to begin.  This YouTube clip isn't exactly what we heard, but gives you an idea what the prelude to the movie was like.

In classic theater tradition, the Donald Duck short Trick or Treat ran before the feature presentation, followed by a brief (video) introduction by Director Burton.  The 3D feature was clear and smooth and the movie sounded great.  The fourth dimension to the 3D film adds effects in the theater to the movie, such as Christmas lights, smoke, and snow at different times, synced with the film.  The add-ons to the movie didn't change the cinematic experience all that much, but could be a fun addition to a familiar film and are definitely not part of any DVD or Blu-ray extras that you can see at home.

After the show, I looked around the balcony area of the theater for a short time, seeing pictures of movie premieres from this location, including Citizen Kane!  I didn't linger upstairs for too long and did not have the chance to see the downstairs exhibition space, which at the time included items from the production of one of Tim Burton's films (I don't recall if it was The Nightmare Before Christmas or Frankenweenie).  The theater offers tours and had I planned to spend more time in Hollywood it would have been worth investing some of that in learning more about the building's past.

Adjacent to the theater is Disney's Soda Fountain & Studio Store, a good place to grab a snack before or after your trip to the theater.  The Soda Fountain also hosts regular events for the always active Disney pin trading community, including limited edition releases (I left with one of a 500 pin Limited Edition run recognizing this year's showing of Nightmare, featuring Oogie Boogie).  The night after we saw Nightmare, our Adventures by Disney tour treated us to an "ice cream social" at the Soda Fountain and afterwards some of our group got to see the El Capitan play host to the world premiere of Disney's Wreck-it Ralph.  In our short time there, we saw evidence of just how busy Disney keeps this theater.  We got a taste of the history of the property and a glimpse into its role in modern day Hollywood.

In perusing the El Capitan web site, tickets to the theater appear to be on the pricey side, but compared with the cost of seeing a concert, sporting event, or other theatrical production it's not a bad deal.  You get more from a night at the El Capitan than you would from one of those more conventional entertainment options.  At the very least, take a look around the interior of the building next time you're on Hollywood Boulevard.  It is an impressive part of Hollywood's past and present.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Backstage Magic at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood

Fans of the Academy Awards may want to visit the site where their favorite celebrities walk down the Red Carpet each year, but only steps away from the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater is a far more interesting and iconic building that was once the home of those Awards.  The Chinese Theatre, for years known as Grauman's Chinese Theatre in honor of its founder Sid Grauman, has always been a highly sought out location for Hollywood movie premieres and was the first theater to host the Academy Awards ceremony, after the event outgrew the hotel ballrooms where it was originally held.  The Chinese Theatre is also known for its Forecourt to the Stars, home of celebrity hand and footprints.  I had the chance to tour the Theatre in October, as part of the Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic tour.

The Theatre's Lobby Announcer, Levi Tinker, greeted us in the Forecourt, where our tour group had taken some time to explore the marks celebrities ranging from the voice of Donald Duck to the cast of the Harry Potter movies have left their marks for generations.  Levi took us through the lobby and into the main building, where he offered a brief history of the origins of the Theatre before taking us into the seating area.  The history of the property is reasonably well documented on the Theatre's web site and Levi fired out facts faster than I could write them down, so my attempt to tell the site's history will be far less complete than what you can read elsewhere.  What I can tell you is that Theatre is a significant part of Hollywood history, having hosted premieres, as a shrine to the luminaries who have brought films to the public for many years, and even as a location where movies continue to be filmed to this day.  Our tour touched on all of those elements.

When we finally entered the seating area, we sat in rows R, S, and T, where actors, directors, and others prominent people involved in a movie's production would sit for a film's premiere.  Levi  shared more of the history of the building and the events that took place there.  For example, the stage that held the Academy Awards ceremony was removed in the 1950s.  During this time we also learned the Theatre had recently hosted a faux-premier, as part of the upcoming Disney film Saving Mr. Banks, recreating the 1964 premiere of Mary Poppins.  For such period pieces, the Theatre must take on the appearance of an older version of itself.  Levi explained that film producers will often pay to make small cosmetic changes to the interior, such as the installation of plastic covers over the handrails at each seat to mask the current look of the seating area.

After a short time in the seats, we moved down toward the sizable screen, which was covered by an impressively decorative curtain that (like most everything inside the Theatre) was big and red.  Along the way, we had the chance to see the decorative details on the ceiling, walls, and throughout the building, all of which were remarkable.  We also learned that hooks on the ceiling remain from the premiere of the movie Earthquake, when a protective netting was installed to protect patrons from (the illusion of) falling debris during the film.  Standing at the base on the screen and looking back at the seats was where you could appreciate the size and grandeur of this impressive edifice.

Our tour took us back outside the building, where Levi continued to fire out facts about the celebrity hand and footprints in the Forecourt like a machine gun that never ran out of ammunition.  I caught a few tidbits, like hearing that this tradition began in 1927, when actress Norma Talmadge accidentally stepped in wet cement prior to the Theatre's official opening.  We also heard the story of Jimmy Stewart's handprints on a Friday the 13th, when he signed while under a ladder and holding a black cat, but there seemingly are stories buried under each cement slab in the Forecourt and behind nearly every ornate detail throughout the building and Levi seemed prepared to unearth every one of them if you gave him time to do so.  We may have spent a half hour with him, but could probably have stayed the whole day and still had plenty more to learn.  As it stood, the length of the tour was just about right for a Hollywood history neophyte like me to absorb, but a real Hollywood or film scholar would also appreciate having the chance to talk with such a well-versed guide.

For anyone visiting Hollywood with an appreciation of movie history, architecture, or celebrities, a visit to the Chinese Theatre will be time and money well spent.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Naples: Make Your Own Pizza in Disneyland's Downtown Disney

For most Disney vacationers, preparing your own food may not be the first thing that comes to mind when picturing the perfect getaway.  Some budget-conscious travelers may prep their own food to save some (actually lots of) money instead of paying for food in the parks, but working for your meal can also be fun!  As part of the Adventures by Disney Backstage Magic trip last fall, I had the chance to assemble a personal pizza at Naples Ristorante in Disneyland's Downtown Disney.

Before arriving at Naples, my pizza making experience consisted of buying Boboli pizza crusts, pouring on some sauce, then spreading cheese and pepperoni on top.  During this visit, I got some insight into how a real pizza pro works.  We were hosted by Stefano Ciociola, Chef de Cuisine at Naples, who gave a demonstration of how to handle pizza dough, walked us through the process of tossing our own crusts, then gave tips on making your own dough and cooking a pizza.  I didn't take notes while I actually had my hands in the dough, so I retained relatively little of what I was taught, but do recall that we learned to shape the balls of dough out into circles, then further stretch the dough using the tops of our hands to spin our would-be pizzas.  With the dough already prepared, it was relatively easy to work with and actually tossing the dough wasn't that difficult either, but the Chef kept a close eye on anyone who was having difficulty.

While this was a special surprise for our Adventures by Disney tour group upon our arrival at Disneyland, the same experience is available to any group visiting Naples, though I suspect doing so requires reservations and a fair amount of advance notice.  According to the Naples web site you can give them a call at 714-776-4000 to setup your own pizza party.

Some Tips from the Chef

Our gracious host, Naples' Chef de Cuisine, Stefano Ciociola, offered the following tips for us when we went home to try our own hands at pizza making.
  • Naples uses flour, water, and salt to make their dough (no eggs and no oil)
  • Let dough rest for a few hours at room temperature before making your pizzas
  • Make balls of dough and store them as half spheres, then cover while it rests
  • Do not use flour while making the initial balls of dough (though we used copious amounts of flour on the tables while working our dough after it finished resting)
  • We used 8 oz of dough for our personal pizzas
  • When it is time to cook the pizza, use oil on the pizza pan
  • Cook at 475 F for thin-crust pizza or a lower temperature for thicker-crusts
  • Cook pizza until the crust is browned

So, there you have what we learned at Naples.  It turned out to be a great group activity, being both educational and a lot of fun!  What do think of what we were taught?  Does it sound like fun for folks visiting Disneyland's Downtown Disney with a group?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Illuminations Celebrates 25 Years

Last week, Illuminations celebrated 25 years of entertaining Epcot visitors.  While the show has changed over the years it continues to provide a dramatic and sometimes poignant end to the day of anyone who finds a reasonable viewing spot around World Showcase Lagoon.  D23 recently published one cast member's reflections on the show along with some statistics about the spectacle, past and present (Illuminations: 1988 from D23).  I'll share some recent photos from the current incarnation of the show, Reflections of Earth.