Rome’s Capitol Theatre Renovations Continue

Editor’s note: The following is reprinted from the Capitol Theatre Newsletter originally published on March 9, 2021 and written by Assistant Director Julie Whittemore.

The 1928 theater is undergoing extensive renovations thanks to a $2.5 million New York State Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant. The project includes extensive renovations to the interior of the theater to restore it to its 1928 look and the installation of a new marquee intended to replicate the original.

The Capitol Theatre is the anchor for Downtown Rome’s Arts District. In addition to the 1,728 seat theater, the complex also hosts two small cinemas that screen independent films year-round. Several tenants also occupy the Capitol’s footprint, promoting and enhancing the arts in Downtown Rome. In total, the complex hosts nearly 1,400 performances each year between the main theater and cinemas.

To donate to the Capitol’s capital campaign, visit their website here.


MARQUEE GETS MANUFACTURED

There are many people who are thrilled about the re-creation of the Capitol’s marquee and for a wide variety of reasons. City of Rome representatives see it as a signal that Rome’s downtown has officially re-opened for business. Patrons will be excited to visit a venue with such a beautiful façade. Meanwhile, the Capitol’s board and staff are simply eager to complete our restoration with this enormous and historically-accurate cherry on top. It’s an exciting time to be involved with the Capitol!

One of the questions I am often asked is if this marquee will be identical to the one locals remember as children. The answer is a resounding “Absolutely not!” The Capitol, in fact, had two marquees in its time. The first was installed when the theater was under construction. The second was erected in 1939, since by this time the 1928 marquee was a bit old-fashioned and stuck out like a sore thumb among the more modern looking W. Dominick Street businesses.

You may ask why our Restoration Committee elected to restore our 1928 marquee, as opposed to the 1939 model. There are many reasons. First of all, while Romans would like to see the one they remember from their childhoods, this is not the point of our restoration. We’re not just here to make people happy, but to restore the theater as accurately as possible. Secondly, the 1928 marquee was actually more impressive! It included a 40ft. vertical blade sign that extended over the building and this was so prominent you could even see it as you entered the city.

It was not an easy task to plan this monstrosity. The money had to be raised, first of all, and without the City of Rome’s awarding the Capitol $2.5 million from its Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, it never would have happened. Sure, efforts have taken place over the years. You may remember the paper light bulbs that were once plastered all over our lobby in sponsorship of the marquee. The snag? The replica costs about $900,000. Good luck raising that with $1 donations!

We started working with Wagner Electric Sign Co. of Elyria, OH about 20 years ago to see what would be involved in re-creating our original marquee. This was long before we had the means to actually purchase it, but there was no harm in planning. Many have asked why we did not opt to hire a local firm to do the work. To them, I ask, “There are historic marquee experts in Central New York?” A marquee is not a sign. It is an engineered structure. They have complex systems of drains, as well as even more complex electrical components for the hundreds, if not thousands, of light bulbs involved. In fact, ours will hold 2,000.

The blade sign even has ladders on each side, allowing maintenance workers to access the pinnacle.

We have not even touched on the historical component. We have photos of the marquee from several angles but these are all in black and white. It requires experts like those at Wagner to know what was common at the time. They know what materials would have been used and what colors they likely were. They have restored dozens of the most beautiful marquees across the nation and we’re thrilled to work with them.

The pandemic has actually been good for the progress of this specific project. Other theaters had to put their restorations on-hold so the company had more time to dedicate to ours! In a couple of months, we expect the marquee to be delivered all the way from Ohio for the installation. It sure will be a special moment when the lighting ceremony takes place with all of the people who made the project happen.

In the meantime, much remains to be done. We’re planning the rest of the façade restoration, which will include everything from replacing our entrance doors, as well as the uncovering of some beautiful original plasterwork which has been boxed in for decades by a temporary ceiling (while it has unfortunately not been visible, this also means it’s in great shape!). This plasterwork was created in the 1920s so the pattern on the bottom of the marquee could reach all the way to the building. This will be re-created, giving everyone a real feel for what it was like to visit then.

Rome’s Capitol Theatre in 1928

CINEMA SEES UPTICK IN RENTALS

When it first opened, Cinema Capitol operated four days per week, offering the best of current-release independent cinema. Demand was strong and we soon started finding ourselves operating a thriving film program 365 days per year. The pandemic, however, required a slow re-opening. Since November, we’ve had shows four days per week, Friday-Monday.

But running fewer shows for a public audience does not mean that we’re any less active than usual! In the last few months, we’ve had our fair share of private events. These have included birthday parties for kids and adults alike, as well as private shows of movies we’re currently running.

In normal times, it is not easy to accommodate private shows. Operating every day means there is little time for anything else and private events must occur during weekdays, early on Saturdays, or late on Sundays. But having a few weeknights available has allowed us to welcome small groups who want a big screen to play their favorite movie or just get out of the house in a space they know will be sanitized. A recent review by a young man who had a birthday party here expressed that his friends thought it was awesome. I guess if you want to show off, have your birthday at Cinema Capitol!

I am not sure how much longer we will be offering $80.00 cinema rentals but if you would like a unique party option with fresh, buttery popcorn and ice cold soft drinks at a discount, we’re the place to do it. It’s a great idea for morale-boosting business gatherings and families who want to get out but are wary of public places. Each auditorium is fully sanitized before each show and seats can remain socially-distanced if needed.

CAPITOL’S MÖLLER ORGAN RECEIVES MUCH-NEEDED RESTORATION

The Capitol is not just a beautiful building, it is a historic gem. One of the components that makes it so special is our original-installation 1928 Möller theater organ.

This instrument is one of only three Möller theater organs in their original locations, the others being located at Fox theaters in Atlanta and Detroit. According to insiders, the others may soon be altered, meaning that the Capitol will have the only original-installation of this brand in the nation to not have been digitized in any way.

MÖLLER ORGAN

As you can imagine, it’s not easy being a 93-year-old organ. At our most recent silent film events where we had live organ accompaniment, it was not well-behaved. Ciphers gave our performers much grief, sticking at some of the most inconvenient times. It was time to do something about it, so we called in an expert.

David Peckham has been entertaining audiences with his organ playing skills since the early 1970s. Having studied at the Eastman School of Music and having been born into a family which repaired organs for a living, David was an obvious choice for the project. The fact that he is so close-by, in Horseheads, did not hurt!

David paid us a visit to evaluate the situation, later bringing friends with organ expertise who simply wanted to see our rare Möller. He managed to repair some of the most pressing issues, informing us of the instrument’s condition as he went. The inside of many of the pipes, he explained, was filthy with dust. A plastic bag was even found inside, likely the result of some unknowing performer setting their things down on the organ blower down in the dressing rooms.

We’ve raised about $25,000 so far for the project. Most has come from the Sears Family Foundation, the Griffin Charitable Foundation, and the Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, while many individuals have made contributions as well. However, there is much more work to be done and much more money to be raised! Contributions to the organ’s restoration are always appreciated.

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