Visionaries brought Nelson theatre back from the brink

Patrick Saintsbury was one in a long line of Capitol Theatre champions, but it was his vision that ultimately succeeded.

The Capitol undergoing restoration in 1985.

First of three parts

Patrick Saintsbury was just one in a long line of people who championed the Capitol Theatre’s restoration, but it was his vision that ultimately succeeded.

A drama teacher who became smitten with the Art Deco landmark in the early 1980s, he got the project going when others said the building should be sold or demolished. Earlier efforts failed for lack of funding — fixing a leaky theatre from the silent film era wasn’t easy or cheap — but Saintsbury persevered, turning skeptics into believers with his boundless enthusiasm.

Then just as his dream was becoming reality, he was forced to leave it behind. His contribution to saving the theatre was critical yet it’s not as well remembered as it should be.

As the Capitol prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its restoration, the Star traces its long road back from oblivion.

A capitol idea

The Capitol’s early history has been oft told: Nelson contractor A.H. Green built the theatre on the former site of the Central Garage, reportedly for $75,000 (the equivalent of about $1.5 million today).

At its grand opening on September 5, 1927, Mayor J.A. McDonald praised it as “a credit to our city. It represents the last word in the builder’s art and the decorator’s skill.”

For a few years, it was the city’s premier movie house, but when it closed for the first time in 1940, an advertisement thanked patrons “with the hope the same generous support will be extended to the Civic Theatre which will be playing all top flight attractions.”

The much-larger Civic was built in 1935 to host live acts but ended up primarily showing movies, while the Capitol was designed for movies but became better known as a live venue. Famous Players leased both.

The Capitol reopened in 1945, only to close and reopen several more times over the next few years. Afterward it was used exclusively, though only sporadically, for live shows including Nelson Little Theatre and Rossland Light Opera productions, plus the Kootenay Music Festival.

In 1961, the Capitol’s stage finally went dark. For a while it was an auction house while the lobby fronting on Ward Street was converted into a real estate office.

‘Faded painted roses’

Thirteen years later, city councillor Bill Freno first suggested resurrecting the Capitol. Joining the call was Werner Koch, a self-described “theatre addict” whose father owned the barbershop across the street once used as a makeshift dressing room.

By then, the seats were gone, the roof leaked, and Fields department store used the building for storage. But as reporter Peggy Pawelko wrote in the Daily News, “faded painted roses still grace the walls, tooled wooden grilles speak of finesse and a lone candelabra sparkles where balcony viewers once sat.”

Koch organized a renovation committee, but had no money and despite calls for a feasibility study, nothing much happened. Koch did, however, win over Perry Long, a David Thompson University theatre instructor later elected to city council.

In 1979, Long convinced council to buy the building from the Green family, its longtime owners, for $56,500 — in part to support the university’s theatre program.

A new restoration society was formed with Margaret Hornby as president. Yet no sooner did the sale close than a new council, minus Long, felt buyer’s remorse.

The university was by now planning a similar-size theatre though it was never built, and a new arrangement with the Civic’s operator promised to make that stage less expensive to rent.

So in the midst of Nelson’s heritage revitalization, the city put the Capitol up for sale. Long scolded council for what he considered a foolish move and later left town, but not without passing the torch.

Saintsbury steps in

In 1981, Pat Saintsbury was in his early 30s and teaching high school English and drama in Salmo. Living at 814 Victoria Street in Nelson, he walked by the faceless Capitol Theatre nearly every day without realizing it until Long showed him the building.

“We took big flashlights,” he says. “I remember cobwebs so thick you could have used a machete. It was something out of Indiana Jones.”

But Saintsbury was enchanted with the wall murals, Greco column work, and faux balcony boxes, “all done to create this image of a temple of theatre, which intrigued me to no end.”

He vowed to save the place, although he didn’t get the response he hoped for from Mayor Louis Maglio, who told him the building should be torn down for a parking lot.

Saintsbury was annoyed but undaunted and in 1982 asked city council to give the still-unsold theatre another chance. (Maglio soon came around and he and wife Laura became great supporters of the Capitol.)

Despite only a lukewarm endorsement, Saintsbury charged ahead and formed yet another non-profit group to tackle the project. David Okros, then a young, recently arrived lawyer, drew up incorporation papers for the Capitol Theatre Restoration Society. He recalls being impressed with Saintsbury but also feeling skeptical.

“This was the early ‘80s when Nelson’s economy seemed to be falling off a cliff,” he says. “It seemed like an unlikely prospect of ever getting the doors open and the theatre going. Things looked pretty grim, but Pat was extremely enthusiastic and seemed to get almost anybody on side after 20 minutes with them.”

That included Okros, who became a founding board member.

Saintsbury wrote grant proposals, researched the theatre’s history, secured the backing of MP Lyle Kristiansen, and generally devoted his life to the project. “I can’t believe the energy I had,” he says. “I ate and slept this building.”

Money started coming in from various grants and work proceeded a bit at a time. Saintsbury also helped broker a land swap between the city and BC Tel that provided the theatre with a lobby, dressing rooms, and set shop in an adjacent building.

In 1984, the Capitol Theatre society was named Nelson’s Citizen of the Year and Saintsbury accepted the award on its behalf. (He suspects the judges were too squeamish to name him personally because he was a young newcomer.)

As the project progressed, Saintsbury began to imagine himself booking performers and managing the theatre. But the following year his then-wife got a good job in Victoria and he felt obligated to follow. It broke his heart. “I really regretted leaving all this behind because I knew I was building something amazing,” he says. “But it was in good hands.”

‘Embodiment of a dream’

After Saintsbury, many others carried the ball. Okros took over as president for a few years and watched Nelson’s established citizenry embrace the restoration. “Once people could see it might actually get off the ground, all of a sudden it was ‘let’s go for it,’” he says.

Still, cash flow problems persisted. It took far longer and far more money than anyone expected, and the city provided emergency funding more than once. In the end, it cost $1.2 million, with a $60,000 overrun that took several years to pay off. Contributions came from municipal, provincial, and federal governments as well as hundreds of individual donors.

On April 17, 1988, the Capitol held its gala reopening as the visionaries triumphed over the naysayers. But Saintsbury wasn’t there. Then teaching in Vanderhoof, he couldn’t get time off work, although a letter was read on his behalf. “The opening of the Capitol remains the embodiment of a dream,” he wrote.

He’s only ever been back to see the theatre once, about 20 years ago. When he noticed a brass plaque affixed to a front row seat with his name, “I sat down and openly wept … I was deeply honoured.”

Even that emotional visit was tempered by the fact nothing was playing and he was only passing through. In fact, he has never seen a performance in the theatre he poured his soul into — something that should finally be rectified this month.

Now selling real estate in Pemberton following a long, successful teaching career, Saintsbury says he’s going to try his hardest to be at the Capitol’s 25th anniversary gala on May 16, to finally witness the fruits of what he set in motion.

“The Capitol,” he says, “was the best thing I ever did in my life.”

Next: Margaret Stacey’s Capitol memories


The Capitol Theatre’s 25th anniversary gala on May 16 will begin with a reception at 6:30 p.m. including refreshments and appetizers, historic photo and costume displays, backstage tours, a photo booth, barber shop singers, silent auction, and a visioning board inviting guests to share ideas about the theatre’s future.

The performance begins at 8 p.m. emceed by local funnyman Lucas Myers and featuring acts with Capitol connections such as Allison Girvan and Michael Graham, plus slam poets and dancers.

Invitations have been sent to the many people who have supported the theatre over the years. A small number of tickets will also be released to the general public on May 10 (the exact number won’t be known until then) and must be picked up at the theatre. The Capitol will announce their availability on its website and Facebook page, but as it’s first-come, first-serve, it’s a good idea to call the theatre (250-352-6363) to confirm whether there are any left.


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