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Historic Capitol Theatre ready for rebirth


Published:   |   Updated: December 13, 2013 at 04:21 PM

After eight months and $8 million in renovations, the 92-year-old Capitol Theatre begins a new life next week as an entertainment venue with the promise of being a beacon to bring people and business back to this city’s sleepy downtown.

“Clearwater is turning a corner with the Capitol Theatre being the new bell cow, the crown jewel of downtown,” says Zev Buffman, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc.

Ruth Eckerd has been operating the theater for the city of Clearwater since 2011, booking acts and overseeing the renovations. Before it shut down for the massive facelift last March, the venture was on the road to success with numerous sold-out shows.

The Capitol reopens with a gala Wednesday night featuring singer Michael McDonald. Formerly with Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, McDonald is the first of more than 30 acts booked for the coming months. Among them: Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, Jackie Mason, Michael Bolton, Aaron Neville, Judy Collins, Don Mclean and Katherine McPhee.

“As talent agents are learning about the Capitol, we’re getting more acts wanting to perform here,” says Buffman. “We’re excited that blues legend B.B. King wanted to kick off the New Year (on December 31 and Jan. 2) in the Capitol. He usually performs at Ruth Eckerd, but he liked the intimacy of the Capitol. He’s 88 and he said he wanted to play in a building older than he is.”

“But this is not just about packing seats for the shows,” says Buffman, “We want to do more. We want to make a difference.”

He says a thriving theater can revitalize an area. “I have seen it happen before, including my first theater renovation project at Coconut Grove in Miami in the 1960s,” he says. “The area was dead and the theater brought it to life.” Buffman also was involved in renovation projects in Orlando and New Orleans.

The Capitol, a fixture on Cleveland Street in Clearwater since 1921, still has an Art Deco Mediterranean Revival-style façade. But the building has been expanded, absorbing two smaller structures on each side, including the former Clearwater Sun newspaper building (known as the Lokey Building) and a narrow building that had been built over an alley.

Jeff Hartzog, the Capitol’s general manager, says care was taken to keep the original character of theater. In ripping off the old façade, original lettering “THE CAPITOL” that had been covered for decades was discovered. The etched logo has been preserved as part of the new façade.

Hartzog says the theater originally opened as a vaudeville house and silent movie theater with a built-in organ. “It was renovated several times over the years and managed to stay in operation all these years,” he says.

“We’ve managed to blend the past with present and making it a working facility,” says Hartzog. “And there’s not a bad seat in the house.”

Colorful carpeting and green marble floors inside are new but portions of original brick walls remain, paying homage to the past. In the lobby, part of a brick wall that commemorated Clearwater veterans of World War I is visible. In the balcony, part of a brick wall with “The Clearwater Sun” painted on it is exposed.

Inside, the seating has been expanded from 450 seats to 737 seats. There are six new loge boxes, a balcony, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, an expanded lobby, restrooms, concession areas, a ticket office, dressing rooms for performers, and a backstage area.

Both Buffman and Hartzog point to a couple of outside features that make the Capitol unique: a wraparound balcony on the second floor and a rooftop terrace. Both areas will serve food and beverages.

From the balcony and rooftop terrace (named after Clearwater seafood restaurant Frenchy’s), patrons will be able to gaze down at the city streets or look out to the Clearwater Memorial Causeway and the Gulf of Mexico.

Buffman says this sidewalk café ambiance will make the theater a place to see and be seen.

“Our goal is to book about 200 events a year, which will bring more than 700 people into downtown at night,” says Hartzog, who also is president of the Cleveland Street Business Alliance.

Plans are to book dance performances, off-Broadway plays, comics, musical acts, and an annual mystery theater festival, beginning in the spring of 2014 with a play based on a Mickey Spillane thriller.

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