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Ruth Eckerd Hall announces details of plan to renovate Clearwater's historic Capitol Theatre

CLEARWATER — One of Florida's oldest theaters is getting readied for a makeover.

The Capitol Theatre, opened in 1921 for vaudeville and opera, will soon see a massive renovation, Ruth Eckerd Hall leaders announced this week.

Called downtown Clearwater's crown jewel and the best hope for rousing the area, the theater on Cleveland Street will get a new look, bigger backstage and lots more space for seating.

"This thing is going to look gigantic," said Eric Blankenship, marketing director of Ruth Eckerd Hall, which manages the theater. "We can compete now with an 800-, 900-, 1,000-seater. Before, the gap was too far away."

But change will not come easily. Plans originally pitched as a full historic restoration are being scaled back to save money, time and manpower. Yet Blankenship said the renovation, which aims for an October 2013 completion, will allow the theater to grow while keeping its Jazz Age look "true to its roots."

The outer facade will be redone in soft beige, with a green-tile trim and vintage signs. The look will wrap around the corner of Cleveland Street and further south down Osceola Avenue, which Ruth Eckerd leaders said will make the theater look four times larger.

Inside, seating will grow from 485 to 600 with a bigger balcony and new "loge" seats (as popularized by the Muppet Show hecklers Statler and Waldorf). The new backstage area will extend into what is now a rear alley, and there will be more space for a kitchen and concessions.

The theater's extra room will be made possible by the Lokey building, a former dress shop next door that the city bought along with the old theater for $2.4 million in 2008. The front lobby, "donors' lounge" and rooms for crew and chorus members will fill that extra lot.

But a few early ideas won't be used in the renovation, Blankenship said. The theater floor, originally designed with a deeper incline, will stay the same. A back wall that was going to be knocked out and rebuilt will remain standing. And a plan to dig an orchestra pit was ditched.

The construction, led by Clearwater-based Creative Contractors, will no doubt require the theater to be closed temporarily, but when crews will start working and how long it will take remain unknown.

Also a mystery: the price, and where the money will come from to complete the project. Hall leaders pledged to raise $3 million for theater renovation and $5 million for an endowment fund, alongside the city's promise of $3.8 million for renovations.

But the fundraising campaign has so far garnered only $275,000, most of which came in January from an anonymous donor. Blankenship said the nonprofit was always fundraising, but they wouldn't know how to fund it until they heard estimates on the renovation's cost.

For decades a cinema and playhouse, the Capitol has seen record-breaking growth under Ruth Eckerd's management, with more than 100 events a year, including sold-out shows. The city pays Ruth Eckerd $148,000 a year to help operate the theater.

Mayor George Cretekos said he is excited about the new drawings, concerned about costs but confident in Ruth Eckerd. The work, he added, will give the Capitol new life, allowing Ruth Eckerd CEO Zev Buffman to pursue a blossoming idea of hosting children's theater classes there.

"This would give him a venue where he can do that," Cretekos said. "I'm as excited at that as I am at the drawings."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

Ruth Eckerd Hall announces details of plan to renovate Clearwater's historic Capitol Theatre 04/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 8:05pm]
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