A rendering of what the Capitol Theatre should look like when renovations are complete.
CLEARWATER – The historic Capitol Theatre has survived a World War, tropical weather and a few close calls with the wrecking ball, but it is now facing what city officials hope will be a rosy future.
On Dec. 11, dignitaries participated in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new entertainment venue centered around the downtown landmark.
“We’ve located drawings and plans of the building’s interior and facade in the (19)20s and ‘30s and will use them in the restoration,” said Zev Buffman, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, which also operates the city-owned Capitol.
“This is really an exciting time, not only for the Capitol Theatre, but also for all of downtown,” said Kevin Dunbar, the head of Clearwater’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The 1921 theater will be restored and the buildings on either side will be razed so the land can be used to enlarge it. A three-story building behind the theater also will become part of the complex, which will have a 1920s-style Mediterranean Revival façade.
“At the end of construction, you won’t know there were four buildings,” Buffman said. “There will be only one building. The entire stage will be updated and redone, and the lobby will be triple its current size.”
He added that the seating capacity will be increased from 500 to 700 and the restroom capacity, a frequent source of complaints in the past, will be greatly upgraded.
In its heyday, the Capitol was the hub of a bustling downtown Clearwater. During World War II, Hollywood stars sold war bonds on the sidewalk near its door, and Donald Roebling, grandson of Brooklyn Bridge builder Washington Roebling and inventor of the Roebling Alligator amphibious assault vehicle of World War II fame, had his own doublewide seat in the front row to accommodate his 421-pound frame.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the theater went downhill, and in 1981, there was a murder in the balcony. In the 1990s, the city passed up an opportunity to buy it for $250,000.
Socrates Charos, who owned the building from 1999 to 2008, claimed that it was haunted and liked to show visitors photos of what he claimed was a ghostly apparition that materialized in the balcony and floated down to the stage.
The city eventually bought the theater and the adjacent Lokey Building for $2.6 million. It is estimated that by the time the theater reopens in November 2013, the city will have sunk $7.1 million into the project.
Buffman, who has overseen the restoration of six other historic theaters and produced 40 Broadway hits, says that with the Capitol revitalized he expects downtown Clearwater to become “a destination like nothing you ever dreamed of.”
“I really do believe it will be an anchor” for downtown, former Clearwater Councilmember John Doran agreed.
“This is exciting, in capital letters,” Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said. “The Capitol Theater is going to be the catalyst not only for the redevelopment of Cleveland Street, but for the entire Tampa Bay area.”
He added that special events now periodically bring people downtown, but the Capitol will draw a crowd almost every night.
U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis, whose district includes downtown Clearwater, sent a letter saying that he is “thrilled” that the city and Ruth Eckerd Hall have teamed up to save the old theater and make it the focal point of a revitalized downtown business district. But Buffman said that Ruth Eckerd Hall is being given too much credit for a renaissance that was already under way thanks to the city’s Cleveland Street beautification program.
“I think this downtown is much farther along than people give it credit for,” Buffman said. “And the new Capitol Theatre will be the anchor for the thousands of people to come.”
Perhaps the loudest applause of the day came when State Representative and former Clearwater Councilman Ed Hooper told the crowd gathered in the closed-off street in front of the theater, “I’m going to do whatever I can to find you some money to help you become successful.”