The space once was a grassy gathering spot with a bandshell. Soon bricks enclosed the town meeting place. It became a vaudeville venue and moving picture palace, heralded for its grandeur, then a second-run movie theater where talk of renovation swirled for decades.
Work on re-imagining the classic Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater took years of planning and millions of dollars. The result of all that effort is a first-class live performance venue that officials hope will be a catalyst to economic development.
Work to renovate and expand the 400-seat venue took about a year and cost more than $8 million. When the Capitol Theatre reopened in December 2013, it featured modern amenities in a Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco setting, seating for 763, a rooftop terrace and a wrap-around balcony.
“At the end of the day, we feel (Clearwater performance venue) Ruth Eckerd Hall is one of the top buildings in the industry. … We fully anticipate the Capitol will be one of the best,” said Eric Blankenship, spokesman for Ruth Eckerd Hall, which will run the facility. “It will be a catalyst to downtown development.”
Culture and history
The Capitol Theatre is one of the oldest venues in the state.
It was built by Sen. John Taylor during Clearwater’s first boom, opening in 1921. Movies ran throughout the week and vaudeville performances were Friday nights.
The Capitol was one of the “most attractive moving picture houses in the state,” according to a May 30, 1924 Evening Independent article.
“It was a premier theater in Clearwater for many, many years, although it wasn’t the first,” said Bill Wallace, president of the Clearwater Historical Society.
Through the years the facility fell into disrepair. Some plans included tearing it down to make way for a parking lot, according to a Dec. 12, 1979 St. Petersburg Times article.
“Some city planners say the fate of the theater is a pivotal point for the downtown,” according to a Dec. 27, 1979 Evening Independent story. “... And if it succeeds, then restoring other areas also will be successful.”
The theater was purchased with plans for a renovation in 1981 but those plans never materialized. It was used with limited success until the city purchased the space in 2009 and partnered with Ruth Eckerd Hall to plan events there.
Since that time there have been more than 34 sold out shows and 226 events and concerts. Watermelon-smashing comic Gallagher was the last to perform in the original Capitol Theatre at a March 24, 2012, show.
Singer/songwriter Michael McDonald was the first performer to grace the stage when the venue reopened Dec. 18, 2013.
Walls can talk
The project was not without its challenges and surprises.
The city purchased the buildings on either side of the Capitol Theatre and vacated the alley way behind it to be able to expand the space and offer modern amenities.
The Clearwater Evening Sun headquarters, built in 1914, was one of the buildings destroyed as part of the renovation. Its historic designation was removed and the building was demolished when it was determined not to be sturdy enough for the planned wrap-around terrace.
Losing one of the oldest buildings in the city was a price to pay to resurrect the Capitol.
“It’s a big asset much more now than it was,” Wallace said. “It’s a big improvement and a lot of it is reproducing the original look and feel of the Capitol.”
If not for the renovations, another piece of Clearwater history would not have been found.
Crews discovered a Wall of Honor, a memorial to World War I service members, beneath the aged plaster during construction. A roughly 3x8 foot panel from the wall was saved and is part of the interior wall in the main lobby of the renovated theater.
New, bigger, better
When the Capitol Theatre reopened, patrons saw a reimagining of the original building and, at its core, some components from the original structure.
The exposed brick walls are the original Capitol exterior walls. Original wood flooring was salvaged and used in some places as well.
Tiffany-style lamps adorn the walls and three other similar styled chandeliers welcome patrons in the front lobby. Special wrought iron-wrapped glass doors made in Bolivia are used throughout.
The concession stands located on each floor are made from rich, red mahogany and have granite counter tops. The second floor seating has been reopened as part of the renovation and six loge boxes were built into the sides of the theater. The second floor balcony seats about 75 people.
There is also a new stage, as well as new lighting, sound and expanded space for performers to prepare for the show.
The new facility is also alluring from the street. The rooftop terrace bar offers bird’s-eye views of downtown. The original theater sign was uncovered under the facade and is featured on the front of the building.
If you go...
What: Capitol Theatre
Where: 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater
Contact: Call 727-791-7400 or visit www.atthecap.com