Clearwater's historic Capitol Theatre gets an epic makeover

The downtown venue gets modern updates while maintaining its charm (photos).

click to enlarge The new Capitol Theatre - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
The new Capitol Theatre

click to enlarge The new Capitol Theatre - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
The new Capitol Theatre
  • Kevin Tighe
  • The new Capitol Theatre marquee glows on Cleveland Street.

The Capitol Theatre has undergone a transformation that spans nearly a century — from its origins as a public gathering place on the empty plot of land next to the Clearwater Sun building, to its opening in 1921 as a venue for vaudeville shows and silent films, to its more than four decades (from the 1930s through the ’70s) as a cinema palace with glowing marquee, to its close in 1980 and resurrection in 1981 as the playhouse of Royalty Theatre Company, which remained there until 1999. The City of Clearwater stepped in and purchased the Capitol Theatre building and its two adjacent properties in 2008, eventually bringing on Ruth Eckerd Hall, Inc. to manage the facility and raise funds for a restoration of epic proportions and worthy of the theater’s historic significance. (Words by Leilani, photos by Kevin.)

Jeff Hartzog, the Capitol’s general manager and president of the Cleveland Street Business Alliance, helped oversee the $10.7 million endeavor. He explained that much of the money went toward the build-outs and structural enhancements, like extending the theater into the properties to the east and west and back into the alleyway behind all three, tearing down the Sun building, and completely rebuilding it as a two-story structure with reinforcements strong enough to bear the weight of a brand new second-floor wraparound balcony and a Frenchy’s-sponsored third floor rooftop terrace that overlooks downtown and the Clearwater causeway.

click to enlarge The expanded lobby and foyer, with the "Wall of Honor" top right of the frame. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
The expanded lobby and foyer, with the "Wall of Honor" top right of the frame.
  • Kevin Tighe
  • The expanded lobby and foyer, with the "Wall of Honor" top right of the frame.

You can see the money that went into restoring the place, smell it in the fresh paint and the springy feel of still-lush carpeting beneath your shoes. But the theater still manages to evoke the past in its Mediterranean-Revival architecture (arched entryways, iron scrollwork, elaborate parapets, dramatic stained glass-style lighting and fixtures), and maintains its vintage appeal by keeping elements of its history intact. The “Wall of Honor” memorial, for instance, was discovered during the demo of the Sun building, its bricks printed with names of local soldiers who’d served in World War I. A portion of it is preserved in the newly expanded lobby, and the rest will be displayed at Clearwater Public Library sometime later this year.

But the Capitol’s amenities are firmly rooted in the present, catering to guests and touring artists with state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, lots of restrooms, a real box office, plenty of concessions, and a spacious lobby area with a full-liquor lounge made for pre-show sips and schmoozing.

click to enlarge The theater. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
The theater.

The layout, size and seating orientation of the theater itself have remained the same, but everything’s been adjusted, replaced or improved upon. The thrust stage was replaced by a true proscenium, freeing up floor room for more seats — which can be removed to create a GA dance pit — and increasing the room’s capacity overall from 450 to 737 (brand new) seats, including six private loge boxes — three on either side of the theater, with four cushy chairs apiece and access to private VIP bars, bathrooms and balcony access. The stage has a new rigging system and more space beneath and in the wings, as well as a full-scale backstage area with dressing and staging rooms and a “Star Suite” replete with a custom Marshall speaker fridge. These one-of-a-kind embellishments paired with original art pieces — like the shadowbox sculptures with theatrical themes that are embedded in the wraparound balcony, or the 100 hand-painted Art Nouveau-style tiles in the restrooms — are what stand out most and reveal the careful attention to detail that went into the restoration.

The official ribbon cutting took place in December. Capitol Theatre has been running full steam ahead ever since, with more than 40 events scheduled through May and a few sell-outs already, including the grand opening concert with Michael McDonald in December and the “Grand Re-Opening” featuring Jay Leno on Feb. 9. The City of Clearwater’s biggest move so far to revitalize its downtown seems to be back on track, with generous help from Ruth Eckerd Hall.

click to enlarge Queensrÿche played the theater earlier this month. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
Queensrÿche played the theater earlier this month.
  • Kevin Tighe
  • Queensrÿche played the Capitol Theatre earlier this month.

Capitol Theatre 2014 Season Highlights

Shawn Colvin, January 25; Richard Thompson Electric Trio, January 27; Keb Mo, January 30; Jake Shimabukuro, January 31; Jay Leno, February 9; Melissa Manchester, February 15; Edwin McCain, February 20; Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam, February 21; Southside Johnny, February 26; Art Garfunkel, February 27; Happy Mondays, March 5; Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, March 6; Michael Bolton, March 10; Joan Rivers, March 14; Aaron Neville & Dirty Dozen Brass Band, March 15; St. Patrick’s Night with The Irish Tenors, March 17; Psychedelic Furs, March 25; Jesse Cook, April 6; Steve Hackett, April 3; Judy Collins, April 11; The Zombies, April 12; Air Supply, April 19; Boz Scaggs, April 29; The Mavericks, May 2.

Capitol Theatre is located at 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater, 727-791-7400, More pictures below...

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