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Capitol Theatre: A Work in Progress

February 23, 2011

WHEELING - More than 52,000 people attended shows at the Capitol Theatre in 2010, which means the local area received a financial boost of about $5 million, Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said this month during his annual State of the City address.

The Capitol, owned by the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, seems to be a success story for the city. But that success hasn't come easy.

Renovation of the Capitol Theatre is a challenging task. As planners work to reinvent the venue for modern use, they keep an eye on its historic attributes.

Article Photos

More than 52,000 people attended shows at the newly renovated Capitol Theatre in 2010.

Denny Magruder, executive director of the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority, oversees renovation work at the theater and also schedules the entertainment.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "The first thing we had to do was get the theater up to code and usable by the public. We have hauled 190 dump truck loads of debris out of there, just for starters."

Work began in early 2009 after the Convention and Visitors Bureau purchased the 83-year-old, 2,400-seat theater from Live Nation for $615,000. The building had been closed since the spring of 2007 when it failed an annual safety inspection and was hit with multiple fire code violations. Magruder said his agency, the CVB and the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. work jointly on the theater project.

Fact Box

The Capitol Theatre has been open for more than a year now. Has it been successful?

If this month's performance of "Fiddler on the Roof" is any indication, when there was hardly an empty seat in the house, then re-opening the Capitol Theatre was the right call. Mayor Andy McKenzie, in his State of the City address, said 52,700 people attended shows at the Capitol in 2010, meaning the local area experienced a financial boost of at least $5 million. It seems the biggest challenge with the Capitol is booking enough shows through the year.

"So far, we have spent $2.8 million, which includes the purchase price," he said, referring to renovation work.

The lion's share of the money went for a more than $450,000 fire suppression system and emergency exit upgrades in every part of the building; $426,000 for a new fire escape capable of emptying all levels of the building; and $151,000 for an elevator linking the theater to its second-floor ballroom.

In the main auditorium, the fire sprinklers blend nearly unnoticed with the ornate chandeliers and ceiling.

While the original basement-level restrooms remain intact after some repairs, modern handicap-accessible restrooms have been added on the first floor, in the former Jamboree Gift Shop.

The sound control panel has been relocated to the center section of the theater and a wheelchair section is now available in the space vacated by the panel.

Also added is an expanded concession area.

Renovation work continues in the ballroom as it is being prepared for community functions, receptions, private parties and an eventual restaurant. McKenzie's address was held in the ballroom, with more than 100 people in attendance.

Another project on the radar is to remove the bronze stars from the sidewalk in front of the theater and put them on display inside the building.

Opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1928, the theater presented a unique problem to engineers during its construction. They had to build the structure around a huge sandstone pier that anchored the stabilizing cables from the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. The cables, still in use, can be seen entering the rear wall of the theater.

Over the years, the stage of The Capitol Music Hall - as it has been known for years - has seen nearly every nationally acclaimed country music star who ever picked a guitar and other top names from all entertainment genres.

The theater is synonymous with the names of Wheeling's own Doc and Chickie Williams, pioneers in the country music industry. William died in January at 96. He wife of 68 years died in 2007.

Last year's Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, Brad Paisley of Glen Dale, can trace his professional roots to the Capitol's stage, and 1960s pop star Bobby Vinton made his first public appearance there.

Magruder said the Capitol will exist in harmony with another entertainment venue - the larger-capacity WesBanco Arena.

"We have the best of both worlds," he said. "The arena is too large for some acts requiring less seating and the theater is too small for those needing more seats."

The vision is broad and the dream is deep about what may evolve through the theatre.

"It will never be finished," Magruder said.

Some acts over the past year included comedian Jerry Seinfeld and broadway productions such as "Grease."

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