CLEARWATER — After the ribbon was cut, and the speeches about the history-making moment ended, Frank Hibbard stood inside the Capitol Theatre a few hours before its grand reopening Wednesday night and laughed.
Hibbard was mayor when the city bought the fading theater in 2008 during the financial crisis.
"Plenty of people thought we were crazy," he said. "This is a culmination of a dream."
Criss-crossing search lights on opening night added dazzle to what city leaders expect to be an economic beacon for a still-blighted downtown.
Nancy Cartwright thinks so. The famous voice of Bart Simpson clutched her tickets outside, saying how she'd crushed on Michael McDonald, the ex-Doobie Brother who christened the 737-seat venue, since she was 16.
She said the $10.7 million investment of public funds would help restore Clearwater's gleam.
"It's like a diamond in the rough. They're scraping all the crust off to expose the special-ness of Clearwater," said Cartwright, a Scientologist who visits the city several times a year.
Whether the show would go on was an open question until almost the last minute. Crews worked through the night to attach seat cushions that had been delayed by an Indian port strike. But when the doors opened in the Ruth Eckerd Hall-managed facility, all was sparkle and buzz.
Young women dressed in red-starred jackets and faux-fur hats balanced shot glasses of vodka on server's trays. Other servers with flutes of champagne worked their way through the ribbon-cutting crowd and the VIP lounge was packed.
McDonald, who apologized for being sick with the flu, belted out a mixture of Christmas songs and Doobie Brothers standards to start the scheduled two-hour sold-out show.
Up in the mezzanine, amid some grumblings about cramped leg space, there was plenty of excitement.
"I was in here about 15 years ago and it was creepy," said Chet Metcalfe of Dunedin.
Janie Coleman, 60, was more than happy to drive from Brandon to see McDonald. She worked as a bartender during the Doobie Brothers heyday and saw them for $8 in 1972 or so.
On Wednesday, her mezzanine ticket, with fees, cost her $102.50 and was worth every penny, she said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago