It was the height of the roaring twenties – the decade of the Great Gatsby, Flappers, and bathtub gin – and life seemed more full of hope, fun and possibility than ever. In just one year, the stock market would crash spiraling the country into a great financial depression the likes of which had never been seen, but in the crisp autumn days of 1928, the perpetual party was still going strong. This was the stage on which the Capitol Theatre, one of the grandest movie houses of its day, was built.
The airplane, the automobile, and the radio made life seem more promising and limitless than ever; jazz was all the rage; and the population of the Susquehanna Valley was just the right audience for the novelty of motion pictures with synchronized sound. In fact, Williamsport enjoyed its first “talkie” on the Capitol Theatre’s opening night, October 22, 1928, with the premier of Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool. This would have been a bigger, better, more exciting experience than most Pennsylvania movie-goers could ever hope for: the Capitol’s projection booth was the finest in the state and the theater boasted a fantastical organ designed to provide percussion and orchestral sounds, and special effects such as whistles, songbirds, doorbells, and thunder crashes. Exciting as the movies were, patrons were also treated to stage shows along with movies. These “twin bills” featured legendary entertainers such as Gene Krupa, Xavier Cugat, Blackstone the Magician, and even the Three Stooges. Show after show, film reel after film reel – it seemed the fun could go on forever.
Disaster struck: the great depression popped the giddy bubble of the roaring twenties, almost bankrupting the movie industry. To top it off, in 1936, the depths of the great depression, Williamsport was hit by a devastating flood. Much of downtown suffered severe damage and the Capitol was no exception. The theater’s incredible organ had to be removed and the heart of the theater seemed to go with it. After WWII, the dizzy excesses of the past decade became passé, people began moving to the suburbs, and before long, TV became the new form of entertainment. The Capitol tried to endure in the entertainment industry through various owners, but time was taking its toll and what was once one of the finest theaters in the country became just another blowsy downtown facility in decay.
Six decades after the Capitol’s opening, just as all life seemed to be going out of Williamsport’s once vibrant downtown, new hope was brought to the grand old theater. In a flurry of excitement, the Pennsylvania College of Technology, Williamsport Lycoming Foundation (now named the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania) and the City of Williamsport announced that the Pennsylvania College of Technology would be acquiring the Capitol and that, together, they would convert it into a modern performing arts center. The real soul of the plan lay in the intention to refurbish and preserve the character of the theater and its heady synthesis of ornate Spanish, English, and Oriental décor.
The undertaking was ambitious – millions of dollars would be required to restore and preserve the theater. Everything needed to be touched or retouched, from the theater’s seats to the ornate plaster details. Master artists and artisans were brought in, and the painstaking work began. No detail was overlooked in this labor of love – even the new carpets were created to match remnants of the original! New seating was added, the stage was enlarged, sound and lighting effects were upgraded for modern technologies, and a new façade was added. Two years later, on a starlit evening in May 1993, the doors of the Capitol were once again open to the appreciative citizens of the Susquehanna Valley. That first glorious season the New York Pops kicked off the festivities, and were followed by an impressive lineup of big name acts including concerts by Emmanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Lee Greenwood, and Aretha Franklin. Eager theatergoers filled the seats and the walls reverberated with applause. The grand dame of Williamsport was once again strutting her stuff, but now as the Community Arts Center.
Our theater’s spirit is as effervescent as ever. Nearly one and a half million guests have enjoyed events at the Community Arts Center since that spectacular re-opening in 1993, and millions more are on the way.
Our theater’s spirit is as effervescent as ever. Nearly one and half million guests have enjoyed events at the Community Arts Center since that spectacular re-opening in 1993, and millions more are on the way. In fact, your presence at one of our shows makes you a part of our beloved theater’s history, and we’d like to honor that. making sure that there is something for every taste and every age has become a Community Arts Center hallmark. Over the years, our stage has been graced by a diverse host of entertainments including Art Garfunkel, Singing in the Rain, Jackson Brown, Jay Leno, A Chorus Line, Glenn Miller Orchestra, Beauty and the Beast, Riverdance, Jungle Jack Hanna, Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr… over 1,000 productions in a twenty year span.
The acts you love just keep coming – some are even beginning their tours here in Williamsport, using the stage ad the outstanding acoustics to do their “tech-in;” getting their show ready to tour, and doing everything from lighting and set design, to sound tests and rehearsals.
But entertaining audiences and playing host to great performers isn’t all we want to do. Williamsport has an impressive and diverse arts scene, and we’d like to reach into our very own neighborhoods for material as we continue to “put the community in the Community Arts Center.” Over the years our theater has turned into a home not only to touring productions, but also to many community-based organizations such as Uptown Music Collective, Williamsport Symphony Orchestra d Youth Orchestra, Collegetown Gallery, local dance recitals – well the variety leaves us breathless.
In addition to supporting local performers, the CAC has developed a strong culture of collaboration, partnering with over 250 local non-profits and other organizations by providing fundraising help, meeting space, technical support, and promotional considerations.
We want to give you a chance to be involved too! As we open our doors to more and more local performers, we hope that one day, you too can say, ” That was my kid… my neighbor… my parents… on stage, and they earned a standing ovation!”