Curtains up on new, improved Capitol

WHEELING – After a hiatus of more than three months, the Capitol Theatre will be back and better than ever Friday in downtown Wheeling.

After being closed all summer for $1.2 million in interior renovations – including 2,200 all-new seats, new carpeting and a high-definition projection system – the 85-year-old theater will reopen Friday with a 7:30 p.m. Wheeling Symphony Orchestra concert featuring music of the Czech Republic and nationally renowned pianist Benjamin Hochman.

Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which owns the Capitol, is confident patrons will like what they see, hear and feel.

“We can’t wait to show the public the theater,” O’Brien said. “We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to do.”

Despite working feverishly in the final days, about 900 seats in the balcony will be unavailable Friday because step lighting that had been on back order didn’t arrive in time, O’Brien said.

“It’s a safety issue at the top because we don’t want anyone to trip,” O’Brien said. “We have 1,300 seats in the main auditorium and every one of them’s a great seat. We know some season ticket holders like the mezzanine, but for one show they can come down here.”

Bruce Wheeler, WSO executive director, acknowledged the last couple weeks have been “nerve-wracking” as the theater raced against the clock to get the historic venue ready for Friday night. Despite the balcony remaining off-limits, he said there should be plenty of seating available, and he’s excited to have the symphony usher in a new era for the theater.

“If there was ever anything that anyone complained about (at) the Capitol, it was the seating,” Wheeler said. “When the experience they have is a great experience, it brings them back again.”

Also looking forward to Friday night is Bridge Tavern and Grill owner George Dormas. From his vantage point at the corner of 10th and Main streets, Dormas has seen a lot change – not all of it good – in downtown Wheeling since he began working at what was then his father’s restaurant in 1961.

He remembers the days when the tour buses lined up along Main Street bringing country music fans to the Capitol for the Wheeling Jamboree. Back then, it didn’t matter whether business had been slow during the week, he said, because they knew they’d always make it up on the weekends.

While those days may be gone, Dormas said people already are calling for reservations for Willie Nelson’s performance Oct. 16 and the Oct. 26 Rock and Roll Doo-Wop. He’s excited for what he expects will be an “onslaught of business” Friday.

“That’s the crown jewel of downtown Wheeling. … ,” Dormas said of the theater. “I’m looking forward to it, and the people that work here are looking forward to it.”

The Capitol’s impact on Dormas’ business became painfully apparent during the nearly two and one-half years between the Capitol’s May 2007 closure due to numerous fire code violations and its September 2009 reopening following the CVB’s purchase of the venue from LiveNation. With former retail anchors such as Stone and Thomas and G.C. Murphy’s long gone from downtown, the theater’s absence dealt a major blow to the restaurant’s bottom line.

“I took it on the chin,” Dormas said. “I dug myself a hole. You can see what’s happened to downtown Wheeling. … So goes downtown, so goes my business.”