100-years at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre: How history and entertainment keep the theatre alive

Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, Clearwater Florida.
Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-29 07:42:34-04

CLEARWATER, Fla.  — You get a certain feeling when you walk into an old historic space that transports you back in time. And, that nostalgia keeps many patrons coming back.

The Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre is a cultural gem in downtown Clearwater. Owned by the City of Clearwater, the theatre is managed and operated by Ruth Eckerd Hall.

The venue first opened its doors on March 21, 1921.

The Miss Florida Pageant was held in the theatre, the premiere of Jaws, and countless bands and stand-up comics entertaining thousands.

"You feel that energy in an old theatre and new buildings. You just don't have the same nostalgia," Theatre Manager Kendra Marolf told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska. "Every theatre, I think, has its own personality, and you feel that when you walk in. It's the years and years of shows. It's the kind of place where when you are thinking about a show to come to. It's one where you look at the Capitol Theatre and see what we are having instead of; I like this band I'll watch them anywhere."

The theatre completed a major renovation in 2013 and contractors found old secrets hidden on the brick walls.

As crews ripped down plaster put up over the original brick, they discovered the names of all of the soldiers from Clearwater who fought in World War I. The Panel of Honor in the front lobby revealed the names of Clearwater citizens who served in World War I. The portion of the wall that was removed can be found preserved in the Clearwater Library Main Branch.

During renovations, the old mural of the Clearwater Sun Newspaper was found on the brick wall at the top of the mezzanine level. In the 1920s, the theatre was constructed in between two buildings. Where the seats and stage are now was a grassy open field. The theatre was built using that original outdoor footprint between the two buildings.

The Bilheimer Capitol Theatre survived the last major hurricane to hit the Tampa Bay area on October 25, 1921, and everything that has happened since, including at one point, the wrecking ball.

Ruth Eckerd Hall compiled a brief history of the theatre online.

Marolf said the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre wouldn't be where it is today without the continued dedication of people who leave the theatre and the generous donors, especially during the pandemic.

"Our donors really stepped it up. We did a virtual gala, and they were just overwhelmingly supportive. We had ticket holders, instead of asking for refunds or credits on their account donated their ticket prices back to us it was just overwhelming the response," Marolf said.

A few weeks ago, the theatre had its first show at capacity. With new COVID-19 cases surging, Marolf said they would update their safety protocols to match CDC guidelines. Marolf said she was overwhelmed with emotion as people returned to the theatre. She hopes it can serve as a safe place to escape our current grim reality.

"It's because people need this the arts does something to your soul it does something for you and to get out and do something that feels normal and share an experience with people," Marolf said. "There's just nothing like sitting in a room of people and having the same shared experience."