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Ten things you didn’t know about the Capitol Theatre

As Nelson’s Capitol gears up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its restoration on May 16, here’s a list of some lesser-known details.
The Capitol originally sat a lot more than its present capacity of 426

Second of three parts

As the Capitol gears up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its restoration on May 16, here’s a list of some lesser-known details you (probably) didn’t know.

1) The film screened at the Capitol’s grand opening on September 5, 1927 was Knockout Reilly, starring Richard Dix. However, the theatre appears to have already been in business a few days earlier with Lon Chaney starring in Mr. Wu (ad pictured below right). Admission was 40 cents for adults and 20 cents for children. (Matinees were 25 cents for adults, 10 cents children.) These silent films also saw the debut of the house band, Frank E. Wheeler’s Capitolians.

2) In 1929, the Capitol closed for a few weeks to install “talking equipment.” The first sound movie ever heard in Nelson was The Desert Story with Raymon Novarro.

3) The Capitol had no dressing rooms to accommodate live performers. Denny Coen with Nelson Little Theatre recalled: “We used to put on our makeup across the street at Renwick Studio, or across the alley at the Capitol Barber Shop. Then we’d run across the street (or alley) in the pouring rain and arrive onstage soaking wet.”

4) The Capitol’s entrance, lobby, and hexagonal ticket booth originally fronted on Ward Street. Today it’s Ourglass beads and a hair salon appropriately named Bijou. And while the theatre didn’t go anywhere, its street address changed several times: from 419 Victoria in 1927 to 520 Ward from 1928-32; 518½ Ward 1934-37; and 574 Ward from 1938 until it was last listed in the civic directory in 1961. Since it reopened in 1988 it’s been at 421 Victoria.

5) The theatre has had at least four marquees. The old one on Ward Street disappeared when the lobby was converted into the real estate office of T. Rosling and Sons in 1963. The second lasted from the theatre’s reopening until 2005. The third fell apart after only six years and was replaced with the current one, which uses energy-efficient LED lights and is lit from within rather than below.

6) The theatre’s exterior wall facing Victoria Street isn’t original. A structural engineer said it wouldn’t withstand the weight of a new canopy, so in 1985 it was knocked down and rebuilt, minus three small windows that peered out from the projectionist’s booth.

7) The Capitol’s current lobby, dressing rooms, set shop, offices, and costume department are in a former BC Tel storage building (whose history and vintage are unknown). The city acquired the building from the phone company in 1985 in exchange for land on Lakeside Drive.

8) The theatre’s original capacity isn’t known, but it was considerably more than today’s 426 (of which 406 are plush red seats salvaged from other theatres and the rest moveable chairs). An archival photo shows at least 550 fixed seats, with 12 or 13 to a row in the middle section (versus 11 or 12 today) and six per row in each of the far sections (compared to five today). The seats also continued back to either side of the projectionist’s booth, where the lighting and sound booth is today. By the time it was mothballed in the ‘60s, the theatre was reportedly down to 450 seats but where they went is a mystery.

9) The theatre went through five managers in its early days, beginning with J. Paul Pitner (1927-30), formerly of the Starland Theatre at 612 Baker, which the Capitol replaced. When Pitner transferred to the new Capitol Theatre in Rossland, Hugh W. (Scotty) Wallace was named to succeed him. Unfortunately, in 1932 Wallace (pictured at right) suffered a stroke at the theatre and died, age 46. Next came Charles E. Doctor (1933-35), C.G. Smith (1936), and Stewart P. McMordie (1937-40).

The Capitol then closed as a movie house for a few years and had no dedicated manager, but was presumably looked after by the Civic’s manager to the extent it was used for live performances. Since restoration, it’s had four managers: Lloyd Barry oversaw it briefly before it reopened, followed by Margaret Stacey (1988-2005), Neil Harrower (2005-12) and Stephanie Fischer (2012-present).

10) The theatre’s gilt-framed illuminated murals are signed by a Mr. Girvan (no relation to local singer and choirmaster Allison). “They don’t look at all like a Kootenay landscape,” says former manager Marg Stacey. “It’s proto-deco. A kind of theatre where you feel like you’re in a village environment. This one is a version where you see out the windows.” (The Panida theatre, in Nelson’s sister city of Sandpoint, was built the same year as the Capitol and has similar murals.) There were originally only five murals; during the 1980s restoration, Gordon Mackie recreated the sixth, where the Ward Street entrance used to be. An original chandelier also hangs near the back, which was tracked down in Kamloops and restored by the City of Nelson’s electrical department.