For a joint that courts rock royalty, the Capitol Theatre, for the longest time, was about as posh as a smoke-and-poker VFW hall. God forbid you needed to use the restroom immediately. (Hold it, dude — like, forever.) And as for those seats, which seemingly hadn't been refurbed since it opened in 1921? Yikes. They'd goose you good, and not in a fun way.
A couple winters back, however, Zev Buffman, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Capitol Theatre, decided his smaller venue, not to mention his adopted city, needed a jolt, some juice, so why not roll up sleeves on the downtown corner of Cleveland and Osceola?
About $10.7 million later, the new Cap looks, sounds, feels almost nothing like the old Cap, from regal loge boxes to enhanced acoustics and lighting to sparkly bars that are a far, glistening cry from that ol' rinky-dink snack stand. The intimacy has been retained; everything else has not.
Time — and concerts, and standup comedy, and plays — will tell how the place truly flows, what works, what needs tweaking. You don't know how a hall "rocks" until you let the folks in and crank it to 11. But after taking a tour with Cap general manager Jeff Hartzog and public relations manager Katie Pedretty, I found this much to be obvious:
Herewith, the 10 coolest features at the renovated Capitol Theatre:
Capacity of the old Capitol Theatre: 485. Capacity of the new Capitol Theatre: 737. They expanded in a U-shape around the sides and rear of the venue, allowing for all manner of improved, enlarged amenities. That's a significant boost, and the financial impact of extra fannies could prove huge. After all, it costs money to lure big, bold-faced names to a showplace. And now the Cap will have more of everything; there are already about twice as many acts booked for 2014 as there were in its last full year of operation.
THE MARSHALL AMP FRIDGE
Puckish imagination is apparent in pretty much every phase of the project, from architect Steve Fowler's use of pre-existing history to winky in-house signs on the restroom doors to this little detail: The refrigerator in the "star suite" sports the facade of a classic amplifier. Most of you reading this will never spy it — unless you happen to be B.B. King (who plays here Dec. 31 and Jan. 2) or Jay Leno (Feb. 9 and March 29). You won't see the deluxe restroom and shower either. But rest assured, the Marshall fridge will eventually pay off for you, too. For the longest time, celebs would be greeted with an apology of sorts, as the backstage area had all the charm of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Details like this will woo even bigger names to the Clearwater venue. "You have to remember these guys live on the road, so you want them to be comfortable when they're here," GM Jeff Hartzog says.
BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE
I remember watching an unforgettable, emotionally moving Glen Campbell show at the Capitol Theatre — as a serpentine seat coil jabbed at my hindquarters for the good part of two hours. Chairs sloping forward were also a reality, with patrons constantly in danger of face-planting the back of the dude in front of them. But now those cruddy old seats are gone. The fresh ones, shipped over from Theater Solutions in India, have been installed in the orchestra and mezzanine. Up top is where GM Jeff Hartzog likes to hang. "Seat AA 14, front-row center," he says. "That's my favorite seat in the building." So there you go.
PROSCENIUM IS A COOL WORD
Along with new state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, performances will be enhanced by a new rigging system, expanded room in the wings and below stage, and a full load-in area, allowing the Cap to court larger theater companies and productions. "We didn't have a rigging system before," says GM Jeff Hartzog. "We couldn't do a legitimate play or dance. This is now a true proscenium stage (that is, more space between the curtain and the orchestra). This is a true theater."
HAVE A DRINK ON ME
One of the most glaring problems of the old Cap was that you couldn't "hang out" there. The lobby was cramped and dull, and the bar was the size of a shoeshine stand, so you basically just ambled to your torturous seat and waited for showtime. But now, thanks to an expanded lobby, two public bars and one VIP hot spot, the Cap is in play as a come-early destination. The lobby bar is a long, glitzy beauty with Tiffany-style chandeliers merging old charm and new; the mezzanine bar is smaller but arguably cooler. And the VIP hot spot feels elite, special — and when's the last time those words were used to describe the Cap?
HERE COMES THE SUN
Built in 1914, the building housed the Clearwater Sun newspaper, which ceased publication in 1990. As a testament to sturdy early 20th century craftsmanship, the original brick is still in tremendous shape, so interior west walls of the Cap incorporate original exterior walls of the Sun, which were preserved as a nod to the past. Even more jaw-dropping, paint and inscriptions on the brick are still very much visible, and that has been infused into the Cap, too. Search the lobby for remnants of "Clearwater's Wall of Honor," a list of those who served in World War I. In the mezzanine, pose for a selfie in front of the Clearwater Sun wall.
Expanding the theater on its east, west and south sides (about 12 feet) allowed for perhaps the most crucial new seating aspect: six loge boxes, four seats per, an opera-style touch that didn't exist before. Members will get first crack at the luxury seats, including Loge Box A, which basically hovers over stage left, and is my favorite vantage point. Any loge tickets remaining after the initial member sale will be made available to the public.
A second-floor wrap-around balcony and verandah is definitely a bragging point, complete with 25 public-art shadow boxes and accessible to both VIP and regular guests. (Stars will have their own private portion of the verandah, too.)
The Frenchy's Rooftop Terrace, with a partial, albeit spectacular, view of Clearwater Harbor Marina, will be lightly catered by the iconic beach joint, offering drinks and the restaurant's specialty items, including she-crab soup and smoked fish spread.
OH! DE TO ILETTES!
There were four restrooms in the old Cap. Now there are 18 men's rooms, 18 women's rooms and two unisex relief stations. In keeping with sweating over every detail, the restroom signs now feature men and women wearing tragedy and comedy masks — tragedy no doubt representing the previous restroom situation. By the way, select water fountains outside restrooms are situated for water-bottle refilling, which seems like yuppie overkill, but hey, this venerable ol' place sure needed some extra TLC.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.