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Clearwater officials banking on renovated Capitol Theatre

CLEARWATER — After months of being closed for extensive renovations, the Capitol Theatre is nearly ready to welcome back performers and audiences. .

When the 92-year-old Mediterranean-style venue shut down this year, it had 450 seats and a pretty simple layout. When the movie-theater-turned-concert-venue reopens next month, it will have 737 seats, six new loge boxes, an outdoor wraparound balcony, extended room for mingling and a rooftop terrace and bar.

From the green marble flooring to the sculpted pineapples that line the terrace, the amount of detail that went into the renovation was extensive and not cheap; but city leaders are counting on the Capitol to pay huge dividends.

The $7.6-million project ran about a half-million dollars over budget, a gap the city helped cover because city officials believe the expanded venue will bring hundreds more people to Clearwater’s sleepy downtown.

“This whole area is looking to be redeveloped,” said Jeff Hartzog, the venue’s general manager, who is also president of the Cleveland Street Business Alliance.

From the rooftop terrace, which will be named after famed Clearwater seafood restaurant Frenchy’s, the empty storefronts of downtown Clearwater are plainly visible along Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street. Theater officials say the project, coupled with the proposed relocation and expansion of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, will anchor an economic boom along both streets as more restaurants and shops open along both.

“I’ve seen it happen, and it works,” said Zev Buffman, president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, who oversaw similar renovation projects in New York, Chicago, Orlando and New Orleans. Ruth Eckerd Hall has leased the theater from the city of Clearwater since 2011.

The theater’s proximity to the beaches — and the views that accompany it — may help.

Standing on top of the old Clearwater Sun building, the Clearwater Memorial Causeway and the Gulf of Mexico are also visible.

The Clearwater Sun building was one of two structures the Capitol Theatre project swallowed to expand.

The other was on the east side of the building, which housed a cafe. The city bought up both properties for the project. The expansion knocked out the walls that adjoined with the theater and extended the back of the theater.

The venue’s original auditorium and aesthetics, namely its art deco sensibilities, will remain.

“Once you come into the theater it’ll look pretty much the same way as it did back in 1921,” Hartzog said. “We just wanted to make sure and have a nod to that.”

Some of the Sun building’s dark brown bricks are still visible on the west side of the building’s interior. Some of have names of World War I soldiers printed on them that were written with white paint on the first observance of Armistice Day in 1919, before the original theater was built. The bricks that could not be left in place will be on display at the Clearwater Public Library.

The care required to remove those bricks was one of the project’s unknown cost overruns. In July, on the heels of receiving a $1 million gift from Geri Trautlein, who frequented the venue with her late husband, Ruth Eckerd Hall had to ask the Clearwater City Council for $500,000 to account for unexpected costs.

Venue staff said the higher price tag is worth it.

“We could’ve cut some of the many things that you see that make this building special,” said Eric Blankenship, a spokesman for Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Singer Michael McDonald is slated to play Dec. 18, the venue’s opening night.

In addition to the Michael McDonald performance, acts slated to play the newly renovated venue include B.B. King and Jay Leno.

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