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Clearwater hopes Capitol Theatre leads downtown revival

CLEARWATER

For more than nine decades, the Capitol Theatre has been a landmark, albeit one with a boxer's battered nose.

Clearwater's first downtown theater, like the surrounding blocks, gradually fell on hard times. But the venue is back after an extensive restoration and expansion that had shuttered it since March. And fingers are crossed that it will open on time.

On Wednesday night, Doobie Brothers alum Michael McDonald is to be the featured act opening the newest incarnation of the Capitol, which debuted in 1921 with a stage tromped by vaudeville acts and with a player organ to accompany silent movies.

A last-minute wrinkle — a port strike that has delayed the theater's seat cushions — simply sprinkles a dusting of panic on the froth of excitement surrounding opening night.

Officials with Ruth Eckerd Hall, which manages the Capitol, say they'll pull out every stop to get it open for business on time.

Among the changes theatergoers will see:

Bigger: The rehab and expansion increased capacity from 450 to 737 seats.

Flashier: Thanks to a wraparound exterior balcony and rooftop terrace overlooking the street, a state-of-the art-sound system and a VIP lounge.

Ambitious: Ruth Eckerd Hall envisions the theater as an "incubator" of artistic innovation.

Yet by the time McDonald sings Ain't No Mountain High Enough on opening night, the pressure already will be mounting for the city-owned theater to revive Clearwater's debilitated downtown core.

The $10.7 million used to turn the Capitol into a modern venue came from a state grant and Penny for Pinellas dollars. Hopes are high that it will deliver.

Capitol general manager Jeffrey L. Hartzog stood last week on the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue and said the theater behind him would do its share. "This is now the cornerstone of Clearwater," he said.

Breathing life back into downtown is part of the mission, said Ruth Eckerd president and CEO Zev Buffman.

Last month, city voters gave the Clearwater Marine Aquarium permission to proceed with plans to build a new aquarium on Osceola Avenue, which could fill the downtown with visitors each day. Buffman says his job is to keep downtown busy at night.

"Downtown is filled with unfinished opportunities. The mood is changing rapidly. The aquarium (vote) was a signal of changing opinions, changing times," Buffman said.

But even the best-case scenario puts aquarium construction more than three years away. For now, the Capitol is expected by city officials and downtown boosters to pump life back into downtown's main street, Cleveland Street, now emptier than ever since the Church of Scientology moved the bulk of its workers into its new Flag Building several blocks to the south.

"I think the feeling is that for the first time in a long time, we've actually created a presence that will attract people downtown," said City Manager Bill Horne.

The project hasn't been without snags. This summer, Ruth Eckerd Hall requested $500,000 from a city construction contingency fund to pay for unexpected problems and modified flourishes like the rooftop terrace and exterior balcony.

And the latest crisis? A strike at the port in Mumbai, India has delayed the shipment of the theater's seat cushions and some chairs. Worsening matters, the Port of Newark, where the ship was to offload its cargo, is closed this weekend.

On Monday morning, fingers will be crossed that customs and Homeland Security checks go quickly. Buffman has contacted U.S. senators and representatives in three states for help.

Bonuses of $1,000 will be dangled for truck drivers who will transport the cushions to make it to Clearwater by mid-afternoon Tuesday, where double crews of workers will labor around the clock to attach the seat cushions to the already-secured seat backs. Even so, the first seven rows of chairs in the theater will be loaners from Ruth Eckerd Hall's dining room.

"This is what happens. I've never opened a project without some sort of mega-crisis happening at the last moment," Buffman said.

Not all surprises have been unpleasant.

Earlier this year, workers uncovered an honor roll of Clearwater veterans of World War I inscribed on a wall that had been covered up. The names had been painted there for Armistice Day in 1919.

Hartzog, who has given about 50 tours of the building, has fallen in love with its history. He can tell you that its original facade was damaged by Hurricane Donna in 1960; that three years later, the theater was desegregated.

Contrary to what some believe, the theater never showed porn movies, although it did a stint as a dollar movie theater and another as the Royalty Theatre with local theater productions. For a time, the marquee carried Bible verses instead of performance dates. And the story that a previous owner's ghost haunts the place still makes the rounds.

Mayor George Cretekos hasn't been on a tour. It's not for lack of interest. Like other elected officials, he hopes the theater will spark reinvestment downtown. There's another reason.

"I want to be wowed like everyone else on opening night," he said.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com.

Clearwater hopes Capitol Theatre leads downtown revival 12/14/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 14, 2013 10:09pm]

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