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Capitol Music Hall reopens

By Staff | Aug 25, 2009

Wheeling’s Capitol Music Hall is set to reopen this month as a performing arts center after more than two years of darkness, with the 2,600-seat theater lighting up Sept. 23 and the Wheeling Symphony — the venue’s new regular tennant — playing their first show in their new home on Sept. 25.

The Capitol, which will lose from the marquee the “music hall” portion of its name, will form a pillar for downtown Wheeling, and the theatre’s programming will consist of Broadway productions, comedians, concerts, dance school programs and film festivals.

The re-opening celebration actually begins at 7 p.m, Sept. 22 at the Ohio County Public Library, which will host a free showing of “Romance of the Underworld,” using an original 16 mm print from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Live piano music accompanies the film. The library’s auditorium will be transformed that night to resemble the Capitol in 1928.

Why preserve these ‘architectural dinosaurs?

You may ask, why preserve these architectural dinosaurs of another era? I challenge you to visit either venue and have the same opinion afterwards. When constructed, the movie palace itself evoked a luxurious, fantasy inspiring location to forget troubles and inspire optimism.

For those who have not visited the Capitol, this interior description comes from Cinema Treasures:

“The primary color scheme [in 1928] was mulberry, delicate green tones, ivory and various shades of golden russet. Along with two balconies, sculpted figures graced the 44-foot wide proscenium. The ceiling lighting fixtures measured eight feet in diameter and contained hundreds of amber color prisms and diffusing bowls. The lobby had two box offices, as well as Cylinder type lanterns with prism head lighting fixtures.”

However, to answer the economic revitalization thesis, one need only look to Cleveland, Ohio, where the reinvigorated Playhouse Square (State, Allen, Ohio, and Palace) had turned that city’s downtown into a mid-West Broadway. Saving the theatres did not come all at once, either; preservationists originally staged weekly dinner theatre showings in the block long lobby of the State.

The decision to purchase and reopen Wheeling’s Capitol did not come swiftly. The Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau and others conducted extensive studies that showed a $5.5 million dollar economic impact, spin off jobs and an estimated $174,000 in new tax revenue.

Opening night at the Capitol will feature a “high quality local artist event,” which will introduce the theatre to all members of the community. Denny Magruder, executive director of the Wesbanco Arena, told Graffiti that the event will be ticketed, but free of charge.

“We want everyday people to be part of opening night. This is the community’s theatre,” Magruder explained.

He revealed that a portion of the performance will “tease” upcoming events such as an ensemble from the Wheeling Symphony and a brief Broadway segment, which will precede an announcement of a four show season at the Capitol.

Not alone

Separated by hundreds of miles but joined by their proximity to the Ohio River and calling the Mountain State their home, the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling and the Keith Albee Theatre in Huntington have some commonalities.

Billed as a “$2 million temple of amusement,” Huntington’s Moorish styled palace opened May 8, 1928. Located in the Northern Panhandle, the Capitol, Wheeling’s Million Dollar Wonderland of Entertainment, opened Nov. 28, 1928, showing Mary Astor, Robert Elliott and Ben Bard in the gangster melodrama, “Romance of the Underworld.” According to the Wheeling Intelligencer, 15,000 people attended the gala opening, which cost 60 cents per person.

Both of these state movie palaces adapted to the changing movie attendance patterns. The Keith Albee remained a full-time, first-run theatre until 2006, when it closed due to competition from Pullman Square’s new 16-screen stadium seating complex operated by Marquee Cinemas. Doom and gloom enveloped the town, but the announcement of Warner Bros. on location shooting of “We Are Marshall” in the Spring 0f 2006 gave the Keith national exposure for the plane crash film’s World Premiere, attended by all of the A list stars and filmmakers.

With proceeds from the premiere as a start, volunteers removed two  “mini theatres,” which had on the left and right split the main auditorium, allowing the palace to operate as a movie multiplex. The conversion in the 1970s was done delicately, so that one day the partitions could be removed making the auditorium whole again. After a semester in limbo, the Marshall Artists Series returned to its home.

Wheeling’s Capitol suffered from the changing movie industry, too. However, the weekly Saturday night broadcast of the Wheeling Jamboree on 50,000 watt WWVA provided the Capitol with a revenue stream. Through the years, a “Who’s Who of Country Music” has appeared on the stage at the Capitol, including Buck Owens, Grandpa Jones, Mel Tillis, Ronnie Milsap, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Lee Greenwood, Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, Charlie Daniels, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, and many others.

The Jamboree, the second longest running live radio show, went off the air in December 2005, leaving the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville, Tenn., as the longest running program. Clear Channel converted the AM station to a talk format. However, the Capitol auditorium remained available for touring shows.

But in May 2007 the fire department declared it unsafe, thus closing its doors. It had been built with a sprinkler system that had become non-operative. To reopen, a new one protecting the seating areas would be needed.

Reopening ‘legalistically tricky’

Reopening the doors to both movie palaces was legalistically tricky.

For the Keith, the Marshall Foundation had control of the land for another 20 or so years. The Hyman family held a lease until then. After an outpouring of community love shown for the theatre, Derek and Jack Hyman donated the remainder of the lease to the Foundation.

The Capitol was owned by Live Nation, a spin off from Clear Channel Radio. The CVB bought it in the spring and began Phase One of renovations, which will maintain the beaux arts architecture and add ADA compliance.

As for the radio Jamboree, a re-invented version — the Wheeling Jamboree County Music Show — began playing in February 2009 at Wheeling’s 700-seat Victoria Vaudeville Theatre; however it is not affiliated with WWVA or Clear Channel. It has potentially an unlimited audience by broadcasting over the Internet and is now syndicated to traditional radio stations, too.

Their Web site states, “country or rock, we’ll take both.”

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com