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Capitol Theatre: A jewel preserved

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The Capitol Theatre in downtown Yakima.

It may be an overly optimistic outlook, but looking for the silver lining in unprecedented times is an understandable coping mechanism. It can also be productive. With a year in forced closure, the Capitol Theatre staff has had the time to more fully evaluate all of the operating and technical systems of the theater and delve a little deeper into the decisions that created those systems.

If, by the fall, we are able to reconvene and enjoy large events as a community, there will be some significant changes to note in and around the theater. Some may be more visible than others but all will be meaningful. Some of these projects would have required an extended shutdown to accomplish, so, therefore, the silver lining. We’ll let the specifics be a surprise.

Nonetheless there is still a lot to consider and a lot of planning to do for the future. The history and preservation of the theater are worth revisiting as we consider not only the past but the future of this valued venue at the center of the cultural landscape of the Valley.

Built in 1920 by the Mercy family, the Capitol was part of the Pantages Circuit of theaters showcasing both vaudeville and film. Greek-American impresario Alexander Pantages favored the same architect, B. Marcus Priteca, and muralist, Anthony Heinsbergen, for the creation of what is now called The Capitol Theatre, as well as many other venues on the circuit. At its peak, the Pantages Circuit included 84 theaters across the United States and Canada. While the Capitol’s Italian Renaissance-inspired exterior is distinct, the interior is almost a carbon copy of its nearest sister venue, the Pantages in Tacoma. That was especially useful when decorative molds were required for rebuilding the Capitol after the fire in 1975.

So few of these glorious venues survive after 100 years. Like the Capitol, the remaining venues have undergone major restoration and/or expansion to meet contemporary expectations for technology, code compliance and even comfort. The primary effort to restore the Capitol’s historic spaces occurred more than 40 years ago, and many accommodations were made to maintain the historic registry status awarded to the theater just a couple of years before the fire.

When Yakima was rebuilding the Capitol, the historic Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., was undergoing its own renovation and the Capitol acquired 1,800 of its seats, which were from the same era as the Capitol’s original seats. With a 1,500 seat capacity at the Capitol, that provided a buffer for repairs and replacements. Forty years later, those replacements are exhausted. The new seats that were installed in Constitution Hall 40 years ago are now being replaced again due to their deteriorated condition. The Capitol Theatre seats are now a century old.

Also, size matters. Over a hundred years, the average width of a theater seat has increased at least 3 inches, which accommodates the average increase in the human frame. Add 3 inches to every seat and the Capitol’s seating capacity would diminish greatly. At 1,500 seats, the Capitol provides an attractive financial potential for the larger and most popular touring productions while still providing affordable prices for the Yakima community. Altering the seating could also impact the historic registry status of the facility.

There is no doubt that the Capitol is a stunning venue. The look on the face of a first grader as they enter the theater for the first time will tell you everything you need to know about the appreciation of this venue and the place it holds in the hearts of its community. The recommitment of this community to restoring and then expanding the Capitol facilities is a true testament to that as well. There are more decisions to make and the community’s input will be vital to determining the best way to balance all the issues and find the best path forward for preserving and improving a jewel as prized as The Capitol Theatre.

• Charlie Robin is CEO of The Capitol Theatre. He writes this monthly column for SCENE. For more about The Capitol Theatre, visit capitoltheatre.org.

Charlie Robin is CEO of the Capitol Theatre.

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