CLEARWATER — When Ruth Eckerd Hall leaders pledged in 2010 that the Capitol Theatre would soon host 100 events a year, no one could blame them if they had performance anxiety. The drowsy downtown theater they had managed since 2009 was hosting only three shows a month at the time.
But with the curtains now closed on the 2011 season, Ruth Eckerd officials are heralding what turned out to be a banner year for the vintage "Cap": more than 100 events, some sold-out shows and newly broken attendance records at a theater that is 90 years old.
Bobby Rossi, chief programming officer at Ruth Eckerd, said artists and agents like the intimacy and prestige of playing in one of Florida's oldest theaters. Audience members, some from out of town, "like the simplicity of walking up to an old-fashioned box office and buying a ticket," he said.
"There's a rebirth there ... a re-education," Ruth Eckerd spokesman Eric Blankenship said. "With every show that takes place there, we reintroduce ourselves to a new market."
Since the hall assumed management of the city-owned Capitol in early 2009, 210 events and shows have been booked there, half of which were on last year's schedule.
On Feb. 17, the Capitol sat 467 concertgoers, a new attendance record, for an acoustic show by folk musician Brandi Carlile.
More than 11,000 tickets to shows and events were sold at the 483-seat theater last year, not counting film screenings. So far this year, officials have confirmed 56 performances, including four sellouts, and expect to again exceed 100 shows.
The resurrection of the Capitol Theatre has long been viewed by city leaders as key to increasing traffic downtown. In 2010, in exchange for a promise from Ruth Eckerd to schedule 100 shows annually, the city pledged $148,000 a year for three years to subsidize the theater. Since 2009, Ruth Eckerd has paid the city $45,000 it made in profits from Capitol shows.
The Capitol is far from matching the performance of Ruth Eckerd Hall, a Clearwater venue named by Billboard magazine as the top-grossing of its size for 2010. While nine of the Capitol's 2011 shows were sellouts, on an average night about 100 tickets were sold.
The Capitol's $8 million fundraising campaign, approved in 2008 to create an endowment fund and pay for renovations to the old vaudeville theater, has not taken off. Though energized by a $250,000 anonymous donation in January, the campaign remains "quiet," Blankenship said. Renovations are still being designed.
Yet Ruth Eckerd officials said the Capitol is quickly earning cachet among performers and promoters for showcasing antique elegance in an industry of newer venues.
Last year, the theater hosted New Wave band The Psychedelic Furs, swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musician Leon Russell. Among 2012's scheduled acts: comedian Howie Mandel, spoken-word artist Henry Rollins, pop group Wilson Phillips and country star Glen Campbell.
Ruth Eckerd leaders also plan to use the Capitol to try out new ideas. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said he met with Ruth Eckerd CEO Zev Buffman this week about an incubator concept that would encourage budding artists to launch new shows. And in November, four Agatha Christie murder mysteries produced by Buffman will be previewed at the Capitol before going on tour.
Last fall, about 50 students from the Dayspring Academy in Port Richey visited the Capitol to see Nikki Yanofsky, a Canadian jazz vocalist who sang at the 2010 Winter Olympics. While studying her music as school band members, the students had asked to meet the 18-year-old singer in person.
The afternoon before her concert, Yanofsky joined the students during her sound check at the Capitol and passed out posters, wowing her young fans. Students and their parents, Rossi said, told them the words every venue manager wants to hear:
"We'll be back."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.