The construction of the Capitol was the conception of the Kallet Brothers (Myron J. and Joseph S.) who were involved in motion picture theater management in Rome as far back as 1920 with their acquisition of the Carroll Theater at 114 E. Dominick St., which they renovated and re-named The Strand Theater. In 1922, the Kallets purchased the Star Theatre on N. James St., and planned to demolish the block in 1926 to erect a new movie theater much larger in capacity. These plans ultimately fell through, but with the assistance of M. E. Comerford of the Comerford Amusement Co. movie theater chain, the Kallets procured the property at 216-224 W. Dominick St. in 1927 and, in February and March of 1928, the site was cleared and construction was begun on the new Capitol Theatre—a 2,000-seat edifice which was to become Rome’s first run movie house. (With the seating re-configured in the orchestra section in the 1950s, and some seat removal in the ‘80s to accommodate handicapped patrons, the house now seats 1,788.)
The very first film to screen at the Capitol Theatre on December 10, 1928.
Designs of the Capitol were drafted by Leon R. Lempert, Jr. of Buffalo, NY., whom the Comerfords used frequently. Lempert, also no stranger to Rome (he and his father had designed the Washington Street Opera House and the Lyric Theatre), designed the building to the then state-of-the-art standards of both luxury and safety. A Thanksgiving 1928 opening was planned, but a Pennsylvania steel strike held up construction, and the actual opening occurred on December 10, 1928, with Joseph Kallet as the Managing Director of the theater. Opening as Rome’s first theater with the ability to play the new sound movies, the initial program included a newsreel, two Vitaphone shorts, and the First National feature, Lilac Time, starring Colleen Moore and Gary Cooper. The Capitol’s impressive seven-rank Möller theatre organ was used that night to provide entrance and exit music, to accompany the newsreel, and to lead the audience sing-a-long. (Though Lilac Time had no dialogue, it was released with a track of music and sound effects.)
What visitors to the Capitol saw during the theater’s first decade has dramatically changed since. Originally designed with a Spanish-Moroccan theme, the interior of the Capitol was painted in tones of terra-cotta, brown, gold, blues and red. The lighting system, including the theater’s trademark octagonal dome, was on a three-color lighting system that could be controlled by projection booth or on stage in combinations of red, yellow and blue light. Bejeweled lighting fixtures flanked the ceiling and walls, while the mezzanine foyer was decorated with mirrored fixtures with lighting effects that gave one the feeling of being on a Spanish patio in Old Spain.
Theater styles changed rapidly over the next decade. In 1939, a mere 11 years later, Capitol received a modernistic face-lift that is preserved to this day. The plasterwork stayed the same, but new paintwork in modernistic geometric designs in hues of yellow, green, orange, red, gold and silver flank the Capitol walls and ceiling. Modernistic lighting fixtures, made by the Moe Bridges Lighting Co. of Milwaukee, WI, replaced the original sconces and chandeliers, and are still lit to this day. A green and gold herringbone patterned wall fabric lined the walls of the auditorium and mezzanine. For the mezzanine foyer, chairs and sofas were created especially for the Capitol by famed furniture-maker Warren McArthur.
Although the Capitol was operated by the Kallets strictly as a movie house, over the years occasional live acts appeared on the bills with movies as well (Pre-packaged “unit” vaudeville appeared at the Capitol briefly in the early ‘30s, but the theater was never in any sense a vaudeville house). The first celebrity act in February of 1929 was Art Kahn’s Orchestra, and that May, an all-star revue featuring the California Ramblers and Paul Whiteman’s famous Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, and Harris Barris) played on the Capitol stage. Paul Whiteman himself appeared at the Capitol with his Chesterfield Orchestra in 1940, and the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra dropped in for a performance in July of 1954. Two years later, a new type of music was introduced to Rome, as Bill Haley & the Comets’ rock & roll show had the kids literally dancing in the aisles. The first show in January was such a hit that the group was invited back for an encore that spring.
With high overhead costs cited as the culprit, the Capitol closed as a first-run movie house on May 28, 1974 (the final attraction was The Exorcist). The theater was leased by the Cinema National movie theater chain until February of 1989.
Over the next eleven years the Capitol was used occasionally for live events, and in the 1980s a movement gained momentum to acquire the Capitol for use as a performing arts center. The dream of a dedicated group of individuals became a reality in 1985 and the newly christened “Capitol Civic Center” opened as a not-for-profit corporation on December 10 of that year—the 57th anniversary of the original grand opening. One of the most anticipated events in Rome for years, the new opening night featured a screening of the very film that originally opened the Capitol—Lilac Time, this time accompanied by the Rick Montalbano trio.
Thereafter, taking full advantage of its full-sized stage and orchestra pit, the Capitol offered a wide variety of touring and locally produced events. In 1989 the Capitol’s own SummerStage debuted with Annie!—a series of live theatrical productions which continues to this day.
In 2003 the Capitol’s original Möller theater organ was put back into working order and the following year a series of silent films with organ accompaniment was initiated. Since that time world-renown silent movie musicians such as Dr. Philip C. Carli, Avery Tunningley, Bernie Anderson, Dennis James, and Robert Israel have accompanied movies from the console. The Capitol’s 1952 projectors continue to serve their purpose well, and since 2007 a pair of mint-condition, water-cooled 1965 Ashcraft carbon arc lamps have taken their place in the booth—helping to make the Capitol a prime destination for classic movie lovers.
Today there are over 100 performances per year at the historic Capitol Theatre—everything from the continuing live theatrical performances of SummerStage to world famous big bands such as Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey, dance programs, and classic silent and talking films, including the August Capitolfest film festival. The theater now attracts patrons not only from Upstate New York, but from all over the world. Downtown Rome’s gem since 1928, the revitalized Capitol Theatre promises to entertain and enlighten the public for many years to come.
The Capitol Arts Complex is a 501 (C) (3) nonprofit arts organization in the City of Rome, New York. Consisting of the historic 1928 Kallet Capitol Theatre and the 2014 addition of Cinema Capitol, the C.A.C actively provides our community with artistic and cultural events of all types. Classic films on 35 mm prints at the Capitol Theatre, independent and foreign films at Cinema Capitol, the Rising Stars acting program for youth, SummerStage, and Capitolfest are examples of the eclectic programming of the Capitol Arts Complex, which all allow for the strengthening of the surrounding community, particularly of Rome’s Downtown Arts District.