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Woman's $1 million gift will help restore Clearwater's old Capitol Theatre

CLEARWATER— Geri Trautlein met her future husband Ray when she was 14. For seven decades, they danced, joked and traveled the world together.

"I had such an exciting life with him," she said. "We lived dancing."

But there was one thing Ray wanted and never got before he died in 2009 at 84.

On Wednesday, she gave it to him.

Trautlein donated $1 million to the project to restore the 92-year-old Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater — the largest single gift so far to the restoration of the city-owned theater, which is managed by Ruth Eckerd Hall.

The value of Trautlein's donation "cannot be measured," Ruth Eckerd Hall officials said Wednesday in a news release.

Her gift helps Ruth Eckerd meet its obligation to the city to provide a multimillion dollar endowment and contingency fund for the project, for which the city has budgeted more than $7 million.

More importantly, it allows the organization to provide "an anchor for the comeback of downtown Clearwater," said Zev Buffman, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc.

The Trautleins "have a long emotional history with the Capitol Theatre," Buffman said.

In an interview, Trautlein said she knew her gift was something her late husband would appreciate. After the couple moved to the Island Estates neighborhood near Clearwater Beach in 1972, Ray often would comment about a building on the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue, adjacent to the theater. Ray, who founded LEM Products, a manufacturer of labeling products for industry, would try to talk himself into buying it.

"He always wanted that building," said Trautlein, 86.

One day, Trautlein, who modeled dresses for local women's clothier Pat Lokey, told him her boss beat him to it: Lokey bought the building and made it her signature boutique.

The Lokey building was demolished for the expansion of the Capitol, which will be transformed from a run-down remnant to a 750-seat venue for national acts. Trautlein's gift is a third of the $3 million donated so far.

Opened in 1921 as a vaudeville venue and movie house, the Capitol, one of the oldest theaters in Florida, eventually fell on hard times. It later was renamed the Royalty Theatre, but major acts were few and far between.

The city bought the theater in 2008 and turned over its operations to Ruth Eckerd Hall, which brought in national acts like punk-rocker Henry Rollins, comedian Steven Wright and singer Richard Marx. Based on that success, the restoration and expansion were launched. The theater closed in March and is scheduled to reopen in mid December.

Trautlein, a lifelong dancer, served on the board of the Royalty Theatre. She also danced on its stage in a 1983 production of Sweet Charity.

"I loved that show. And I had so much fun. I always said if I died on the dance floor, I'd be happy," she said.

The couple never had children. Trautlein's accountant recently suggested that she think about making charitable donations.

That made sense to Trautlein. Her philosophy: "Giving while I'm living so I'm knowing where it's going."

A light bulb went off as Trautlein drove by that familiar corner now ringing with the sounds of construction.

"Oh, Raymond, there's your building," she thought.

When she first walks through the doors of the Capitol and sees the new lobby and VIP lounge that will be named in their honor, Trautlein said her eyes will fill with "happy tears."

And with memories of the boy who took her to her first show — a production of Tobacco Road — back in Buffalo, N.Y., when she was in high school.

"I just hope he knows what's going on," she said. "It's give-back time."

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

Woman's $1 million gift will help restore Clearwater's old Capitol Theatre 07/18/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 18, 2013 12:14am]
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