When the newly renovated Capitol Theatre opens tonight, it will become a cornerstone in the effort to revitalize downtown Clearwater. The historic building has had an $8 million face lift, and if expectations are met it will bring people downtown for entertainment with more restaurants and bars to follow. This is just what Clearwater needs to bring residents and tourists downtown to start to build on the cultural energy that is nourishing other cities such as St. Petersburg and Tampa. Credit Zev Buffman, Ruth Eckerd Hall president and CEO and the mover behind the project, for partnering with the city, county and state to make the theater's revival a reality.
Buffman has been behind seven restorations of old theaters in his storied career, but he says the Capitol Theatre was the most challenging. The project started with three separate buildings built between 1915 and 1921, or "three ancients with rusty bones and termites" as Buffman characterizes them. They were transformed into a single, seamless structure while doubling the theater's size. The stylish result evokes the theater's past as a former vaudeville venue and movie house that opened in 1921. National acts have already been attracted to the 737-seat venue, with many sold out or nearly so.
The project is an example of tax dollars wisely spent to spur economic development and protect historic structures. The theater is one of the oldest in the state. It would not have survived without investments by the city of Clearwater, which purchased it in 2008 and handed it to Ruth Eckerd Hall to run. Most of the renovations were paid for with Penny for Pinellas dollars and a state grant. The soft opening tonight is part of the lead-up to the gala opening on Feb. 9 when departing Tonight Show host Jay Leno will appear. The theater should put downtown Clearwater on the cultural map again and spur more interest in redevelopment.