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Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre, which hosted vaudeville and maybe Jesus, turns 100

The downtown theater celebrates its centennial on March 21.
The auditorium at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater.
The auditorium at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 16
Updated Mar. 16

CLEARWATER — Capitol Theatre featured vaudeville acts and silent movies in the 1920s.

Renamed the Royalty Theatre in the 1980s, it became a playhouse, the site of an infamous murder and the place where a man claims to have seen Jesus.

The city of Clearwater later purchased, restored and expanded the structure. Its original name was restored, and Ruth Eckerd Hall stepped in to run operations and book national acts.

A $2.5 million donation in 2019 rebranded the venue as the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre.

March 21 marks the theater’s 100th birthday.

CEO Susan Crockett says all its history — the good, the bad and the weird — should be remembered.

“One thing that has been constant is that this has been a community place,” Crockett said. “We hear a lot of stories from people about how their grandparents were on dates here. Then they came here for dates too. It’s just been this important part of the community for a century.”

A portion of the Panel of Honor displaying the names of local World War I heroes was discovered during the 2013 renovation of the historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater.
A portion of the Panel of Honor displaying the names of local World War I heroes was discovered during the 2013 renovation of the historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

History lessons can be found throughout the 20,000-square-foot building.

A bandstand was the first entertainment venue located at what is now 405 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater, Crockett said. “It was like a park and people came out to listen to music.”

Back then, the names of locals who served in World War I were etched on the exterior wall of the bandstand’s neighboring Clearwater Sun newspaper building.

Titled the “Panel of Honor,” the wall was hidden when the theater was built in 1921 but rediscovered in 2013 when the newspaper building was demolished. The wall was saved and incorporated into the theater’s interior during an expansion.

A pair of theater seats from its opening year are on exhibit in the lobby. There were originally nearly 1,000. Today, the theater’s capacity is 750 for events such as comedy shows and concerts.

When asked how more people fit in a smaller building a century ago, Crockett said with a laugh, “I guess people were skinnier.”

Except, perhaps, for one person.

Clearwater resident Donald Roebling, who invented the Roebling Alligator amphibious assault vehicle made popular during World War II, needed a doublewide chair for his large frame.

“He loved to come here to watch movies,” Crockett said. “So, he had a seat built especially for him.”

Today, the theater has a modern couchlike seat to honor Roebling.

And there are the ghosts.

“Of course there are ghosts,” Crockett said. “A little girl used to appear in the exterior lobby. She was waiting for someone to come get her.”

The Capitol Theatre, circa 1921, at 405 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater.
The Capitol Theatre, circa 1921, at 405 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater. [ COURTESY OF RUTH ECKERD HALL | Courtesy of Ruth Eckerd Hall ]

The theater, originally owned by Largo businessman John S. Taylor, opened with a screening of the silent comedy Dinty, according to its website.

IMDB.com says Dinty is about “a newsboy whose fight to care for his ailing mother leads him into conflicts with the other boys on the street and then with drug smugglers in Chinatown.”

Capitol Theatre would go on to become a hub for the Clearwater community, according to news archives. It hosted private parties, issued war bonds and booked vaudeville stars Sally Rand and Fred Stone.

“My mother had a lifetime pass to get in for free,” Taylor’s great-granddaughter Suz Carter Priest, 68, said. “In that era before malls, that’s where you went to see movies. Clearwater had three theaters: Capitol, the Ritz and the Carib. We went to the Capitol of course.”

When Jaws screened there in 1975, the marquee read, “Going swimming? See Jaws first!”

The movie "Jaws" premieres in 1975 at the Capitol Theatre at 405 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater.
The movie "Jaws" premieres in 1975 at the Capitol Theatre at 405 Cleveland St. in downtown Clearwater. [ COURTESY OF RUTH ECKERD HALL | Courtesy of Ruth Eckerd Hall ]

But vaudeville died, multiplexes became moviegoers’ preferred destination and the Capitol Theatre shuttered in the late 1970s. Its screens and stages stayed dark for a few years.

Then, in 1979, Clearwater High School graduate Bill Neville leased it from the Taylor family to screen classic films.

A theater group took over the lease in February 1981, rebranded the building as the Royalty Theatre and began remodeling work. A month later, Neville — who was no longer associated with the theater — was found beaten and stabbed in the balcony section. News archives reported that Neville met two men at a nearby bar and let them into the theater with a key he never returned. The men were convicted of first-degree murder, according to news archives.

The Royalty Theatre officially opened in December 1981 with a performance of Oliver, according to news archives, but the theater troupe folded in the 1990s. Once again, the building changed hands. Dunedin dance teacher Socrates Charos bought it for $250,000.

“He was a character,” Crockett said. “He was an ordained minister and a ballroom dancing champion.”

Charos kept it a community theater, added opera and a museum, brought back silent movies and renovated the interior with a Greek Orthodox twist. Newspapers reported that he decorated it with religious signs and statues of angels. He claimed that Jesus once appeared on center stage.

“The theater was in shambles” when Charos purchased it,” reads a letter to the editor published in the St. Petersburg Times in 2008. “It was full of rats, mice and vermin. Socrates Charos had the foresight to take those shambles and turn them into a beautiful place to enjoy music and shows.”

Still, Charos lost the theater to foreclosure that same year.

From left, Gianna, Elena, Danny and Arianna Rioseco of Miami cross Cleveland Street in front of the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater. The historic theater has been a staple of downtown Clearwater culture since its March 21, 1921, opening.
From left, Gianna, Elena, Danny and Arianna Rioseco of Miami cross Cleveland Street in front of the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater. The historic theater has been a staple of downtown Clearwater culture since its March 21, 1921, opening. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The city then purchased the theater and the adjoining buildings on either side and forged a partnership with Ruth Eckerd Hall.

A $10 million public-private facelift that included expansion into the neighboring lots began in 2012 and was completed the following year.

“In a world where everything is changing,” Priest said, “it is nice to know that some things remain.”