A Colorful Past
From the ashes of Williamsport’s Sterling Hotel came the 1928-vintage Capitol Theatre. About 65 years later, this last remnant of Williamsport’s gilded age of live theatres reopened as the Community Arts Center. In between, this “grand old lady” had been everything from “the palace of gold” to a tax write-off for a hairdressing school. Only the efforts of local residents and businesses, and the insight and vision of three key players, kept this most elaborate of theatres from the wrecking ball.
Constructed, owned and operated by the Comerford Amusement Company, its president M.E. Comerford promised his Capitol Theatre would “give the City of Williamsport a new, beautiful, modern and up-to-date vaudeville theatre.” It was, at its opening in 1928 (at the top of the stock market bubble of the Roaring Twenties), the largest movie theater in the area and the first to be originally equipped for sound movies.
The theatre also was considered the most beautiful in the Comerford chain, lavishly constructed with the finest products from ten different nations, and an enchanting synthesis of ornate Spanish, English, and Oriental decor. The theatre’s crowning splendor was its beautifully detailed octagon-shaped dome. In the tradition of many big city movie palaces, the theatre was a rich collection of unique and dazzling accents including cast bronze chandeliers adorned with colored jewels and crystals from Czechoslovakia and a beautifully detailed proscenium arch with trompe l’oeil ornamentation. The theatre’s projection booth was the finest in the state, featuring the latest in both Vitaphone and Movietone projection equipment and lighting effects machines.
The Capitol also included a specially designed theatre organ which could create various percussion and orchestral sounds, as well as special effects such as whistles, songbirds, doorbells, and thunder crashes.
Williamsport enjoyed its first “talkie” on the Capitol Theatre’s opening night, October 22, 1928, with Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, a Fox Movietone news reel (making its world premiere that night), a special Technicolor two-reel Vitaphone production and a special film depicting the leading citizens of Williamsport and scenes from Lycoming County. Comerford considered a theatre to be “a distinct community institution” and the Capitol had a county-wide reputation as “a theatre where wholesome, new and successful pictures receive early and effective presentation.”
Throughout its early years, the Capitol offered stage shows along with movies. These twin bills featured such legendary entertainers as Gene Krupa, Xavier Cugat, Blackstone the Magician, and the Three Stooges. But the Capitol Theatre experienced a major setback during the flood of 1936 (at the depths of the Great Depression), when much of the first floor and the stage area were submerged. The damage was substantial; the theatre’s wonderful organ was ravaged by the floodwaters and had to be removed.
The passing years took their toll on the grand old house. Not only had the theatre never had a chance to fully recover from its flood damage, but when the economy did turn up again it was after the close of World War II, when flight to the suburbs and fascination with all things new was all the rage. Downtowns and historical buildings went into deep decline, and thousands of vintage structures were submitted to the wrecking ball all through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Just as bad, the new medium of television stripped the movies of their audience, further hastening the decline. It looked like the venue’s future was either as a triple-X cinema or a parking lot ... not exactly what Mr. Comerford originally had in mind.
Then came a brilliant ray of hope: On December 22, 1989, the Williamsport-Lycoming Foundation, Pennsylvania College of Technology and the City of Williamsport announced plans for the College to acquire the Capitol Theatre and convert it into a performing arts center. The Foundation and the College committed $2 million each to support the project; the City of Williamsport committed $1 million. A public fundraising campaign garnered more than $2.1 million in individual and corporate contributions.
A few years later, the final cost of the exhaustive renovation amounted to $13.5 million, with $8.5 million of that total coming from Penn College.
The new Community Arts Center opened on May 8, 1993. Skitch Henderson and The New York Pops led off an impressive array of opening performances, including concerts by Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, Lee Greenwood, and Aretha Franklin.
In an unsolicited letter to the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, Skitch Henderson wrote “The hall is a palace of gold. The good Brahmins of Williamsport really have done themselves proud with this theater ... I am proud we started this bold adventure and long may its sound reverberate!”
It’s been said that Yo-Yo Ma greeted the new tenants of the hall shortly after his soundcheck with the news that the Arts Center had some of the finest acoustics of any venue he had ever played, “among the two or three best.” Quite a declaration, and again, unsolicited.
Over the past decade, the Arts Center has received a prodigious amount of accolades from the performers who have walked our stage, everything from Kenny Loggins declaration in July 1993 that “You people are getting the best show of the entire tour!” to George Thorogood’s impromptu “This is our first visit here, so let’s hope it’s the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship.” And so many have ended their evenings with the simple plea “We had a great night, and we’d love to come back ... if you’ll let us.”
On October 22, 2008, the Old Lady turned 80. The theatre has seen over 700 performances and well over 1,910 movies screenings at the Community Arts Center alone. All told, the echoes of shows that had tread its board in eight decades numbered into the thousands, and movie screenings into the tens of thousands.