WHEELING - The Capitol Theatre stage will go dark this summer to allow officials to install more than $1 million worth of new seats and carpeting, a step Frank O'Brien believes will make the venue more attractive.
"This is a substantial investment that people will see and feel," said O'Brien, who serves as executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which owns the Capitol. "Other things that we had to do, like the fire escape and the sprinkler system, people never see. This is an improvement people will notice."
O'Brien said most of the seats now in the theater have been in place since 1948, though some have been reupholstered through the years. He said the new chairs will be a little larger than the current ones, which will slightly reduce the number of seats from 2,460 to 2,250.
The tentative construction schedule, provided by O'Brien, calls for the seats to be removed and the floor to be repaired from June 17 to July 19; for the new chairs to be installed from July 22 to Aug. 30; and for new carpet to be installed throughout both floors of the theater from Sept. 2-13.
A June 14 appearance by comedian Ron White is the last item on the theater's online schedule of events.
"It is a one-time deal," O'Brien said of the theater going dark during the construction period. "Summer is probably the best time to do it because people like to spend time outdoors."
As for the old chairs, O'Brien said he hopes officials from the Strand Theatre in Moundsville will contact him about making a deal for some of them.
"We could sell some of them, or we could donate some of them," he said.
O'Brien said the Chris Hess Foundation has agreed to contribute $450,000 to the new seats. Officials are actively seeking funds to cover the remaining cost, though O'Brien said another "locally based entrepreneur" has agreed to contribute $200,000 - as long as the CVB can match the amount. He said there will also be a "buy-a-seat" campaign, which will allow a contributor to have his or her name engraved on the chair.
"We are very confident we can get this investment," O'Brien said.
The CVB, a private nonprofit organization funded entirely from hotel/motel tax revenue collected in Ohio County, spends $22,555.41 monthly to pay off the $1.4 million debt the organization still owes for buying and repairing the Capitol. The bureau should be able to pay off the theater by 2019 or earlier, according to the current schedule.
Since September 2009, the theater has hosted the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld, the sounds of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, separate speeches by former Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, three State of the City addresses by Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie, as well as a variety of Broadway and musical shows.
The bureau purchased the theater - formerly known as the Capitol Music Hall - from LiveNation in mid-2009. That same year, the bureau entered a contract with the Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority to manage and book events for the Capitol for $1 per year. This is the same entity responsible for managing WesBanco Arena.
In the midst of the city of Wheeling's extensive urban renewal project - that includes demolishing and rebuilding portions of downtown and East Wheeling - O'Brien believes the 1928 Capitol can be seen as a bridge between the city's past and its future.
"The Capitol Theatre represents the city's past, but we can also be a key element moving forward," he added.