The man behind the Capitol Theater

Passing the dingy, boarded-up Capitol Theater on Bank Street in New London recently, I thought of Walter T. Murphy, who built it with great hopes in 1921.

Born in New London in 1887, he was the son of John H. Murphy, one of the first minstrels in show business. According to Marshall's History of New London County, Walter was christened "Wallin" T. Murphy but presumably found the name Walter more marketable.

He was educated at New London Business College and had a fine job with the Savings Bank of New London when he heard the call of show business and resigned to become treasurer of the Lyceum Theater.

Located on Washington Street, the Lyceum booked Broadway shows and the brightest talents, and he soon became manager. In 1912 he organized the Walter T. Murphy Amusement Co., leasing the Lyceum and later the Crown Theater, a movie house on State Street.

But New London lacked a vaudeville house, and in 1921 Murphy built the Capitol, an elegant showplace designed by architect W. H. Lowe with a capacity of 1,730.

The opulent lobby had a Venetian marble floor with a stairway of light clouded marble. The circular ceiling boasted a glittering dome of Bohemian cut glass. A mural of cherubs and cupids decorated the proscenium arch, and there was a full orchestra pit.

Murphy promised the finest in live entertainment. He brought leading stars of the vaudeville world to play at the Capitol, including Al Jolson and George Burns. Presumably that's how he met his wife, Rena Arnold, an actress who was the toast of the town in 1921. They married in later life and resided at the Mohican Hotel.

Rena established the Rena Arnold School of Expression where she gave elocution lessons. Teaching on the 10th floor of the Mohican, she emphasized diction, correct enunciation and standing straight and tall. Her school's presentations drew large audiences. No local pageant was complete without her assistance.

Mrs. Murphy told her pupils that she had introduced her roommate, Gracie Allen, to George Burns at the Capitol. Each was looking for a new partner, and the rest is history. (This story was also reported in the New York Times in an 1987 article by Charlotte Libov.) Rena died in 1986, reportedly at the age of 104.

Walter T. Murphy could not foresee the death of vaudeville, but it would fall before the encroaching technologies of radio and television. The Capitol became a movie theater, lost its luster and closed in 1974 due to fire code violations. Since then it has presented a battered and faded front to the world.

But some recall the glory days when Broadway's brightest stars played there, and Walter T. Murphy's long shiny automobile parked in the reserved spot in front of the marquee at 10:30 each morning, irritating nearby merchants who wanted to save that space for paying customers.


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