The rise and fall of the Capitol Theater

Nearly a century after it was built, the Capitol Theater is a ghost sitting silently amid a world it’s no longer part of but hasn’t quite left.

Closed for almost as long as it was open, the old movie palace dwells in a limbo of contradictions. It makes headlines regularly, but nothing ever happens there. It offers New London only a faded façade but would leave a gaping void if it disappeared. It withstood years of neglect by a city whose aspirations it nonetheless embodies.

“What’s going on with the Capitol Theater?” reader Kathy Watford of Uncasville asked The Day’s CuriousCT project. The question is endlessly fascinating, even if the answer is always the same: not much.

There is sometimes cause for optimism: The last person to sell the theater made a $48,000 profit; the last one to buy it has spoken of an indoor market.

But there are usually reasons to be doubtful: There have been no developments in three years; the roof of the building next door recently collapsed.

New London’s other theaters had normal life spans then became something else or faced the wrecking ball. The Capitol met a different fate: It hovers in an open-ended afterlife, stuck between sepia-toned dreams of yesterday and the imagined promise of tomorrow.

Here is its story.

Act I

The opening-night crowd, a sold-out house of 2,500, had much to admire as people filed in on Nov. 21, 1921, most just a few minutes before showtime. They walked through the glass-domed lobby of Venetian marble and into the enormous auditorium, done up in shades of ivory and gray, with carpets and draperies in two tones of blue.

A mural of cherubs adorned the arch over the stage, and the orchestra pit fit 15 musicians. A dozen boxes lined the tapestried walls, and eight loges fronted the wraparound balcony. The acoustics were superior.

“We look upon the Capitol in the light of public property, a community asset,” said James G. Hammond of the New London Chamber of Commerce, the first person to speak from the stage. His sentiment oddly echoed the future, as did his Star Trek-like benediction: “May it live long and prosper.”

Walter T. Murphy, the impresario who launched the Capitol, owned two other venues in town: the Lyceum, a legitimate theater, and the Crown, a movie house. The Capitol was to be his vaudeville mecca, with three shows daily, at 2, 6:45 and 9, and continuous performances on Saturdays and holidays. The bill changed every Monday and Thursday.

The theater’s advertising reflects entertainment that ranged from song stylists (“the little girl with the big voice”) and comedians (“gloom assassinators”) to nonhuman performers (“the most wonderful trained animal in captivity”), stunt daredevils (“the man who defies the electric chair”), those with obscure talents (“champion one-legged cyclists”) and the unclassifiable (“they’re peculiar”).

Local lore holds that show business legends George Burns and Gracie Allen met at the Capitol. It isn’t true, but the truth is interesting enough. Murphy, the theater’s longtime manager, married the woman who introduced them.

As times changed, the Capitol featured fewer live acts and more movies. In 1928 it showed New London a wonder to come when “The Jazz Singer,” the first talking picture, debuted. The audience applauded every song as if Al Jolson were there in the flesh.

By the 1930s, the Capitol was showing only movies. But on Sept. 28, 1938, after the theater had been closed for a week by some bad weather, the newsreel was probably the biggest draw. “Extra!” shouted the ad in The Day. “Paramount News presents first scenes of hurricane disaster in New England!”

One night during World War II, a capacity crowd cheered swing band leader Glenn Miller, there on a patriotic mission. Leading a 48-piece military training band, he helped raise $108,450 for the Fourth War Loan Drive. Bond purchases were the price of admission.

Rene Gagnon, one of the Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, was there in 1950 to promote the John Wayne film “Sands of Iwo Jima,” in which he appeared. A parade was part of the event.

The Capitol, which had an asbestos stage curtain, never suffered a fire. But during a showing of “The Ten Commandments” in 1959, panic nearly broke out when an 18-year-old in the balcony scuffled with an usher trying to evict him for smoking. Those nearby shouted “Fight! Fight!” but others heard “Fire! Fire!” and bolted for the exits.

As New London declined in the 1960s, the Capitol soldiered on, but despite blockbusters like “The Sound of Music” and “The Graduate,” the audience was drying up. So management got creative: Beatles concerts on closed-circuit TV, Spanish-language films and, bizarrely, a fashion show tied to the medieval drama “The Lion in Winter.”

Soon, X-rated fare was appearing on the marquee. In 1972, New London police heard complaints about the current feature, a little movie called “Deep Throat.” All The Day could bring itself to say was that it “portrays unusual sexual activity.” When the police tried to gauge community reaction, the manager obligingly withdrew the film and replaced it with something more mainstream, called “Is There Sex After Death?”

Occasional live performances were scheduled around the porn flicks. These included rock bands, soul singer Claudia Lennear and a locally produced musical satirizing President Richard Nixon.

There’s no telling how long the Capitol might have lasted, but what finished it off was advancing decay of the once-majestic building.

A sprinkler malfunction left 8 feet of water in the basement. Something was dripping from the marquee and freezing on the sidewalk. The projectionists were in revolt over “dehumanizing” conditions that included “the lack of basic toilet facilities.” Thirty building code violations led to the manager’s arrest.

Under pressure from the city, the Capitol closed on April 22, 1974. No one knew if it would ever reopen.

Act II

Navigating the darkness with flashlights, two dozen people filed through the damp auditorium and found mildew growing on the seats. They were there to assess a proposal by the city to create a performing arts center.

It had taken no time at all for the Capitol to go from a place where you wouldn’t be caught dead to one that everyone wanted to save. Talk of restoration started just months after the last ticket was sold. Those touring the building in December 1975 included representatives of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the Coast Guard Academy, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, Connecticut College and community theater groups.

But a study concluded that renovating the building was too expensive to work. There were other obstacles, as well.

“Physically, it’s just too big,” said one potential developer. “There just isn’t the population in the area to fill that theater every night.”

The New London Redevelopment Agency, which bought the Capitol in 1978, wanted to demolish the stage area to create fire escape routes for nearby buildings. Even that proved impractical.

What followed was years of big dreams, consultants’ reports, forbidding financial projections and piecemeal repairs with hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds that might as well have gone down the drain.

Proposals included a disco, a mini-mall, a twin-screen theater, a flea market and a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting hall. Every plan fell through.

Preservationist Claire Dale, who had successfully fought the city's attempt to demolish its train station in the name of urban renewal, also eyed the Capitol. She organized a nonprofit and, aided by Walter Murphy’s elderly widow, waged a long crusade to make the performing arts center happen. But another defunct New London theater, the Garde, rose to fill that role instead.

The Redevelopment Agency gave up in 1987 and turned the building over to the city, which got nowhere with several developers. One, a specialist in theater restoration, was scared off after seeing the pigeon-infested ruin the place had become.

"There has been no attempt to preserve it in terms of the interior," he said, calling the neglect "a tragedy." 

In 1995, there was a groundswell of support for making the theater a visitors’ center for a proposed maritime heritage park linking historic sites in New London and Groton. State officials were skeptical, though the city even offered to demolish the entire building except the façade.

When that idea failed, the city went back to basics, replacing the roof, which had leaked for years. It also cleaned up the interior, removing the seats and taking a shovel to piles of fallen plaster and pigeon poop.

After 28 years without a taker, city officials got an offer in 2006 to buy the Capitol for $1 in exchange for modest tax breaks. It sounded too good to be true, and it was. Digging by The Day revealed that the front man for Maxim Development Group had defrauded investors of millions of dollars and been convicted of attempted armed robbery. Maxim also had a history of unfinished real estate projects.

The city sealed the deal anyway, and within a year Maxim was in default of its agreement to renovate. All it did was board up the windows, leaving the neo-Classical façade looking like a face without eyes.

Maxim also defaulted on the taxes, so the city took the building back and auctioned it. Inexplicably, two New York men bought it, sight unseen and with no plans, for $20,000. Six years later, in 2016, they sold it for $68,000 to Westport-based developer Eric Hamburg, who owns four nearby buildings.

Kathy Watford, the reader whose question prompted this story, vaguely remembers the Capitol being open when she was young and hopes it can still be restored as a theater.

“It’s sad to see such a lovely and historic site go to waste,” she said.

Hamburg has not yet finalized his plans. At one point, he contemplated a mix of apartments, restaurants and an indoor market. But in a recent interview, he said an architect and design team would take up the theater only after work on his other buildings is done.

So, here we are. Hope springs eternal, and the Capitol may yet have its third act. But, as always, the performance is postponed indefinitely.

Day Staff Writer Greg Smith contributed to this story.

j.ruddy@theday.com

Editor's Note: This story came from a reader question to CuriousCT, a new feature where The Day answers your questions about southeastern Connecticut. You can ask your question below, and you can also vote on the next question The Day answers.

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