Curtain slow to rise on Capitol Theatre's renovations in Clearwater

CLEARWATER — For 90 years old, the Capitol Theatre doesn't look half bad.

Its gold-framed walls, chandeliers and red stage curtain still show glimmers of grandeur. Its snack bar, red carpeting and balcony seats look primed for the silver screen. Even the lobby's tiled water-fountain nook, a Jazz Age original, retains its sheen.

Clearwater's oldest landmark — and one of Florida's oldest theaters — shines as a jewel from an antique age, nestled anachronistically between Starbucks and a condo tower.

Yet the theater also embodies one of the city's biggest hopes for a renewed, revived downtown. The city has poured millions of dollars into preserving what's called by many "the Cap," with yearly payments going toward ensuring the theater hosts 100 shows a year. Mayor Frank Hibbard said it's "without a doubt … one of the best investments we've ever made."

But obstacles remain to the theater's long-awaited renovation. Stalled by the sluggish economy, a critical fundraising campaign for the theater, owned by the city and run by Ruth Eckerd Hall, has yet to get off the ground.

Last summer, Ruth Eckerd president Robert Freedman said a fundraising campaign, approved in 2008, was in the "quiet, planning phase" but would be re-energized within six months. This week Freedman said the campaign remained "on a significant hold," too early to tell when it could begin.

That has caused some worry among those invested in downtown, who would like to see the Cap still gleaming for another 90 years.

"I'm disappointed, as are other people, that we haven't been able to raise the funds," council member John Doran said. "We need to share the history with the young people, and the Capitol is part of Clearwater's history."

Late last year, the city decided to spend $148,000 a year in downtown property taxes to triple the theater's performances to about 100 a year.

But it might be tough to hit that mark. Since New Year's the Cap has hosted 27 events. Only 19 more are planned through November.

• • •

The Cap opened in 1921, on what is now Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street, as a stage for operas and vaudeville. In the early days of lax fire codes, it sat an audience of a thousand. (It now fits half that.)

In the 1930s, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, its owners christened the theater a cinema. In 1943, a military band played outside before the showing of Du Barry Was a Lady, starring Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly. Admission was by war bonds only.

In the 1970s, as audiences flocked to newer multiplexes, the movie house closed. It found new life when a Clearwater High graduate named Bill Neville leased the theater in 1979 to screen classic films.

The theater's revival seemed under way. A local community theater troupe — named the Royalty Theatre Company, after the building's new name — began remodeling it as a playhouse.

But the theater's darkest moment came soon after, in 1981, when Neville was found gagged, stabbed and beaten in the balcony before the troupe's first production. His killers, whom Neville met in a lounge, were each sentenced to 25 years in prison.

So began decades of instability in the small theater. The troupe folded in the late '90s. The city and Ruth Eckerd talked of buying and restoring the theater in 1999, but never struck a deal.

That year, a wild-haired Dunedin dance teacher named Socrates Charos bought the theater for $250,000 from a Tarpon Springs businessman who used it to host Calvary Baptist Church youth worship programs. Private lenders helped him pay for renovations.

Charos' reign was at turns spiritual and eccentric. A devout Greek Orthodox, he hung messages of the Holy Spirit in the marquee and said he saw Jesus appear at center stage. After saying he saw a mustachioed ghost in a blue fisherman's cap, he summoned a priest, sprinkled holy water, painted crosses on the walls and bedecked the lobby with angel statuettes.

Charos declared bankruptcy in 2007 and lost the theater to lenders owed $1.2 million. In 2008, the city bought the theater and the Lokey building next door for about $2.4 million, as a commitment to the city's downtown core.

"This is a magnet that will make downtown Clearwater a success," council member George Cretekos said at the time. "This will be the catalyst."

•••

Alongside the city's plans to pay $3.8 million for renovations, Ruth Eckerd Hall pledged to raise $3 million for renovations and $5 million for an endowment fund. Leaders there estimated it would take more than two years to raise the money.

Though any big work on the theater could be a long time coming, the theater could soon see some early steps of progress. This past Friday night, Ruth Eckerd planned a benefit concert for the Cap at the Hyatt Regency resort on Clearwater Beach, with music from teen singer-songwriter Suite Caroline. In March, Ruth Eckerd announced three new hires for the theater, including venue and production managers.

Hibbard said the theater is already paying dividends, drawing visitors downtown who may have never been there. Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, said the theater nets nearby restaurants and hotels big bumps in business, especially on nights with sold-out shows.

David Allbritton, chairman of the Downtown Development Board, said renovations could mean a lot for the theater he visited as a kid. Being in there, he said, is like "walking back in time."

But he's in no rush.

"Even though it can be remodeled and bigger and nicer," he said, "I'm happy to have it just the way it is right now."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Curtain slow to rise on Capitol Theatre's renovations in Clearwater 05/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 2:27pm]

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