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Work in Progress: The Capitol Theatre’s New Life PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Administrator   
Wednesday, 05 March 2008 02:07

Reader issue #674 There are eight dressing areas in the Capitol Theatre in downtown Davenport, on eight different levels, accessible from the stage by an elevator. One of them has a toilet at the end of a long room too narrow for anything except walking to said toilet. It's evident that they were an afterthought, put wherever there was room when the facility, opened in 1920 as a movie house, began hosting vaudeville.

And like many of the out-of-the-public-eye spaces in the theatre - and like the patron restrooms - it's evident that they were built in a much different time and never updated to modern standards. And like the whole of the theatre, they're in disrepair.

You could charitably call them functional.

Patricia Keir, the chancellor of the Eastern Iowa Community College District, isn't charitable. "The dressing room for whoever comes in is bad," she said last week.

The theatre remains an opulent example of the classic movie house, with its historic character intact. The acoustics are by all accounts wonderful. Yet for the community-college district, which in 1994 was given the Capitol and the Kahl Building by the Kahl family, the venue has long represented potential that it couldn't tap into.

"We were in kind of a Catch-22," Keir said. "You cannot really draw good acts to the Capitol Theatre unless there's some basic renovation done. But we didn't have the funds to renovate in order to bring those groups in that might make some money.

"We didn't have the funding in the district to renovate it," she added. "Even maintaining it was a struggle financially. And also it's not part of our mission to run and promote entertainment in the theatre.

"We couldn't even find the staff for a box office to be open."

In 2006, a task force recommended finding "trained professionals to assume management of the theatre and its operations." The task force also suggested "seek[ing] local-, state-, and national-level grants for restoration, preservation, and operation of the theatre."

One problem with the task force's recommendations was that none of the anticipated users of the 1,500-seat theatre - Ballet Quad Cities, Opera Quad Cities, and other local performance groups - had the means to undertake the management or restoration.

"Finding the funding from the local nonprofit sector, including us, to actually do this turned out to be impossible," Keir said. "Nobody had the funds to make this happen."

But there's new life in the Capitol. In January, Eastern Iowa Community College District leased the Capitol to NVents, a company whose managing partner, Lon Bozarth, was president and CEO of the River Music Experience from February 2005 to November 2006.

The Capitol hosted the indie-rock band Maritime on February 24 and the jam band Umphrey's McGee on February 28, and alt-rock darlings Spoon are scheduled to perform on April 3. (Full disclosure: The theatre has an exclusive newspaper-sponsorship deal with the River Cities' Reader.)

It's an auspicious start for the Capitol's new leaders, who hope to host 40 touring shows, 10 locally produced ballet and opera events, and 40 corporate/group meetings in their first year.

Capitol Theatre "The music side of it is not even the largest percentage of where we expect the business to come from," Bozarth said. "We're managing this venue as a rental facility. That's the way you have to do things like this. It's fun to do rock and roll, but that's not really the big profit center."

Don't expect a full slate of concerts before the fall. "We're not really aggressively trying to put acts in right now," Bozarth said. "We're trying to get this thing renovated, so I'm trying to cut myself a little space."

While NVents will manage the theatre, a separate company - Capitol Theatre Operating Company, run by Bozarth, his NVents partner Ken Krueger, and a third investor - is in charge of the $3-million renovation project.

"The venue worked perfectly for the Umphrey's McGee show the other day, in my opinion," Krueger said. "However, we're still taking something that no renovation work has been done on in a long time. We want to make sure that the restroom situation is as modern as it can be, and that the dressing-room situation is improved a bit. The last thing we want to do is book this huge, sell-out show and have the venue not work, and people go, ‘Well, I don't ever want to go there again.'"

If this new arrangement for the Capitol succeeds, the Quad Cities will have a restored theatre that can host touring acts that in the past have passed up this community - too small for the Adler but too large for clubs such as RIBCO or the Redstone Room.

On the other hand, "the biggest risk is nobody's going to show up," Bozarth said.

But even if that happens, Keir said, the Eastern Iowa Community College District would almost certainly come out ahead. "If this all didn't work, the theatre would revert to us," she said, "and it would revert back to us probably in better condition and certainly more renovated ... . We don't see it is a risk at all."

 

The Opportunity to Succeed

There are two key benefits to the college.

First, it's no longer losing money on the Capitol. Although the lease is rent-free for the first five of its 30 years, the college will no longer be paying for utilities and maintenance of the theatre.

"We don't want this to be a financial burden on the district," Keir said. "We figure we're going to save $30,000 to $40,000 the first year, and then more as time goes on."

The second benefit is the restoration.

Bozarth said that a three-phase renovation could begin later this month. The first phase, which he said should be done by early May, would include patron areas, concessions, bathrooms, office space, dressing rooms, the box office, new theatrical lighting, and the stabilization of problem areas.

Although the lease specifies that renovation must be done by June 30, 2012, Bozarth said he hopes to have all of it done by the end of summer.

Because nearly half of the construction will be funded through historic tax credits, it will need to conform with state and federal standards for historic renovation. Iowa historic tax credits will be sold to fund 25 percent of the project, while federal credits will be sold to fund another 20 percent.

Lon Bozarth Those preservation requirements mean that Bozarth isn't yet certain about the full scope of renovation. "There are a lot of things that we have a lot of money allocated for that we have not been approved yet to do," he said.

He also noted that a full restoration of the Capitol would cost much more than the $3-million budget. "We certainly won't go over that" ceiling, he said.

"What really put the building in play was the tax credits," said Richard Horst, director of development for the Eastern Iowa Community College District. "Clearly there was not going to be a major capital campaign [from the not-for-profit sector] ... to redo the theatre. And the business case [for taking over the theatre] was very, very difficult unless something came along."

Bozarth said that he's also seeking other tax credits that would reduce the amount of additional investment his company would need to raise - to approximately a quarter of the renovation cost.

The no-rent provision, Keir said, is essential to revitalize the theatre. "They're going to need their capital to invest ... ," she said. "If they had to pay us a large amount of rent, they probably couldn't make it as a business initially."

"The college has on purpose given us the opportunity to succeed," Bozarth said.

After five years, the Capitol's tenants will pay rent equal to $1.50 in today's dollars for each adult ticket beyond 25,000 sold during the year. So if 40,000 adult tickets were sold in a year, Bozarth's company would need to pay the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $22,500.

"If everything works out well ... we would eventually see some money coming back into the district from ticket sales," Keir said.

 

Not Without Risk

Keir claimed that there's little potential downside for the Eastern Iowa Community College District - and Bozarth echoed that, saying, "They have none" - and that's certainly true from a financial perspective.

But beyond money, putting the Capitol back in operation could potentially have a negative community impact.

"Our assessment would be that one of the risks would be that the community would lose the use of the theatre entirely," Horst said. "We're very pleased that NVents and others working with them have a good appreciation for what the theatre means to local not-for-profits."

"We are by design and mission [required by the lease] to serve that part of the community," Bozarth claimed, referring to not-for-profit organizations.

That's not technically true. While the lease does allow the Eastern Iowa Community College District to use the Capitol at no cost six times each year, it doesn't require access for other community groups.

Still, Keir said that applying the $1.50-per-ticket rent to only adult admissions encourages family-oriented programming.

Although "there's nothing in the lease that per se quantifies" community-group use of the facility, Horst said, "the lease is an outgrowth of a community-wide task force and their recommendations, and clearly that's the committee's recommendation for highest and best use."

Capitol Theatre "We're trying to stay true to the task-force recommendations," Bozarth said. "We need to keep our costs down to where community groups have a full-featured place where they can come and do their thing."

Horst said that another concern was that the Capitol would try to compete directly with the 2,350-seat theatre down Third Street. "I think there was risk that new owners of the Capitol would see themselves as being competitors with the Adler," he said. "And I think clearly, they're pursuing two different markets."

Everybody interviewed for this article agreed with that assessment.

"This was a very open process, and our board discussed it in public meetings," Keir said. "And we never heard any objections. ... It's a niche that's not being met."

Bozarth stressed that the Adler only did three "rock" shows last year - Wilco, Alice Cooper, and John Prine.

The types of acts that the Capitol will be bringing in, he said, "are shows that they [the Adler] weren't doing anyway. ... The Adler has already kind of scratched out their niche in the marketplace. They're a much more expensive theatre to open and operate, and they've got a thousand more seats. And they have essentially committed themselves to the fine arts and the theatrical entertainment by and large."

"The capacity difference is enough to view the two theatres as serving different niches in the entertainment market," said Lance Willet, president of the Adler Theatre.

"There's a natural dividing line when you look at things that way," Bozarth said. "If Wilco sold out the Adler, they're not going to come over here to play. Unless we're so cheap [in terms of the rental cost] that they make more money here."

Willet added that "the production capabilities of the two theatres are quite different," and the Adler will continue to focus on large touring productions with heavy technical requirements. It will also accommodate the more challenging productions of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Quad Cities, and Opera Quad Cities "and give them the capability to perform and do productions on a scale that they can't do anywhere else in the community."

The Capitol, Willet said, represents "an opportunity for the community to develop another important amenity. I think anything that contributes to downtown development and the amenity infrastructure for the community is a good thing."

 

Spectacular

The resurrection of the Capitol started small.

The Maritime show only drew 120 people - it was originally planned as a private event, Bozarth said - but served its primary purpose as a dry run. "We got done what we needed to do and that was to try everything out we need to try out - the sound system, the lights, load in, load out. Kind of got our feet wet," Bozarth said.

Umphrey's McGee attracted an audience of roughly 900. That's the type of show that didn't have a home in the Quad Cities until now - and the size that Krueger hopes to target.

Krueger was at an industry convention in Los Angeles roughly a month ago, talking up the Capitol and the Quad Cities. A flyer for the venue mentions not only the Capitol but the i wireless Center, the Adler, and the Redstone Room.

Capitol Theatre When he showed pictures of the Capitol to people, they "thought it was beautiful and thought there was great potential," he said. "On the downside, to be bluntly honest, there was some concern expressed, by some of the larger producers anyway, ... that people would turn out for shows on a regular basis."

That's one reason the sheet mentions other successful venues. "You've got a major venue in your market that seems to do fairly well," he said of the i wireless Center. "There are a limited number of dates on each tour. And there are a limited number of dates in each region of the country. Our goal is to promote not just the venue but the Quad Cities market."

The appeal of the Capitol goes beyond filling a niche for shows drawing 500 to 1,500 people, Bozarth stressed.

"The sound in this place is the most remarkable I've ever heard," he said. "Our PA system's in mono, but it swallows you in this sense of surround that's unbelievable. ... You get it straight in the core of your brain.

"I have fallen so deeply in love with this facility and every inch of it. When you start putting it in historical perspective with other venues around the country, it stands up to anything. It's one of the few places in the whole country that has not undergone some major modifications ... in terms of how it sounds or what the seating's like. It's spectacular."

 

For more information on the Capitol Theatre, visit (http://thecapdavenport.com).

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