What will become of New London's Capitol Theater?
I have often heard the stories that the late George Burns once appeared at the Capitol Theater in New London, back in its vaudeville heyday. So did jazz great Al Jolson.
I didn't know, though, until reading some stories in The Day's archives recently, that Burns and his partner and wife, Gracie Allen, both had an unusual connection to the Capitol.
Apparently, Gracie Allen was once the roommate of Rena Murphy, the actress wife of Walter T. Murphy, who built the Capitol in 1921. Mrs. Murphy taught elocution at the Mohican Hotel on State Street, where she also lived.
"Mrs. Murphy told her pupils that she had introduced her roommate, Gracie Allen, to George Burns. ... Each was looking for a new partner, and the rest is history," wrote The Day's fine history columnist, Carol W. Kimball, who died last year.
Of course, those were the good old days for the Capitol, which last month sank, maybe, to a new low. But maybe not.
Filed in town land records in December was the deed conveying ownership of the landmark building to a New York City contractor, who bought the dilapidated Bank Street theater, sight unseen, for $20,000 last spring, at a tax auction.
I reached Jonathan Chau, the new owner, on his cell phone this week, to ask him what he's planning to do with the building, now that he actually owns it.
He declined to answer, and then politely hung up.
I don't really blame him.
Chau doesn't owe me or the public any kind of disclosure about what his plans are for the Capitol. He bought it, fair and square, at a public auction, with no strings attached and no public assistance.
The people who owe the public an explanation about what went on here are the members of the City Council who in 2009 gave away this landmark to a convicted con artist who lied repeatedly to city officials.
Patrick Gawrysiak of New Jersey and his Maxim Development Group was given the Capitol for $1 in 2006, with the promise that he would renovate and develop it into a live music venue. The city had bought it for $55,000 in 1978, in part to keep X-rated movies from being shown there.
Gawrysiak, whose criminal record includes attempted armed robbery and fraud charges related to a complicated flimflam scheme, never finished any of the renovations he promised when the city gave him the building in 2006.
Then, incredibly, in 2009, city councilors signed a new agreement with Gawrysiak, releasing him from the obligation to renovate the building but binding him to a deal to start paying some reduced taxes right away.
Of course he never paid a dime in taxes, and the Capitol went up for sale at the spring tax auction.
Maybe the councilors who took part in the Capitol fiasco, including two who have expressed an interest in running for mayor, should explain why they gave away this historic landmark, a centerpiece of the downtown and lost all control over its future development.
Yes, it's true that someone might finally start paying taxes on it. I am sure they would point that out.
But, really, didn't the city lose control over the future of the building, literally giving it away, for no good reason?
If George Burns were alive he might tell the story himself, then finish up with a flick of ash from his cigar before getting a good laugh.
"They sold it for $1," is all he'd have to say.
It is good news that the Capitol is back on the tax rolls.
And who knows, maybe the future of the Capitol will be brighter, after all, without any city involvement.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
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