Capitol Theatre celebrates long-awaited 100th anniversary

Capitol Theatre celebrates long-awaited 100th anniversary

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It was a celebration years in the making: The Capitol Theatre marked its 100th anniversary Saturday with a full slate of activities downtown for Family Day weekend

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After delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic, patrons of the Capitol Theatre shared their fond memories of the landmark downtown venue and took in musical, dance and artistic tributes marking the theatre’s centennial.

“It’s great having people back in the building,” said Sheila Wisdom, executive director of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, which manages the theatre. “Now we can be together and have people in the building, this is what it’s all about: People getting together, meeting friends, enjoying good entertainment.”

Members of the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra perform at the Capitol Theatre’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023.
Members of the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra perform at the Capitol Theatre’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Back in the day, it used to cost just 48 cents to take in a matinee movie at the Capitol Theatre — or, if you were feeling ritzy, 60 cents to attend the evening show, according to memorabilia from the early days of the theatre.

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Deborah Severs, chair of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra board, shared recollections the community had shared in advance of the 100th anniversary, everything from a yo-yo competition held on stage to one fellow who remembered shovelling coal into the boilers at the theatre.

“Today’s event really builds on the history of the theatre in a building that started as a Vaudeville house,” Severs said. “We salute all the people who had the vision to preserve and improve this theatre for the community.”

The Capitol Theatre is shown in 1949. Minden’s Gifts and Coutts Drugs operated in the same building as the Capitol at the time. The Provincial Bank of Canada, now a parking lot, was to the right. An unidentified restaurant, now the site of Phog Lounge, sits in between. Historic.
The Capitol Theatre is shown in 1949. Minden’s Gifts and Coutts Drugs operated in the same building as the Capitol at the time. The Provincial Bank of Canada, now a parking lot, was to the right. An unidentified restaurant, now the site of Phog Lounge, sits in between. Historic. Windsor Star

Coun. Jo-Anne Gignac attended Saturday’s celebrations on behalf of Mayor Drew Dilkens and Windsor city council.

“Its a historic gem in our community and a lynchpin in our cultural district downtown,” Gignac said. “Time and again our community and municipality and upper levels of government have supported the theatre’s restoration and preservation.

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“We recognize that art changes lives:  It changes neighbourhoods and entire communities. (The Capitol Theatre) represents our commitment and dedication to the arts.”

Nearly 500 people line up for the last film showing at this year’s WIFF at the Capitol Theatre, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022.
Nearly 500 people line up for the last film showing at this year’s WIFF at the Capitol Theatre, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. Photo by Dax Melmer /Windsor Star
Vincent Georgie, executive director of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), has some fun at the Capitol Theatre on Thursday, October 31, 2019.
Vincent Georgie, executive director of the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF), has some fun at the Capitol Theatre on Thursday, October 31, 2019. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Without the Capitol Theatre there would be no Windsor International Film Festival, shared Vincent Georgie, artistic director of WIFF, at a ceremony to mark the legacy of the Capitol Theatre.

“The whole festival is built around this building,” Georgie said. “Without its presence, the condition it’s in now, without the foresight and leadership of (city council) to preserve and restore it … for our community, the festival is not possible.

“As (WIFF) grew and grew and grew, we suddenly realized the Capitol was the point of incubation for the whole festival.” 

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Florine Ndimubandi with the Arts Collective Theatre group performs at the Capitol Theatre’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023.
Florine Ndimubandi with the Arts Collective Theatre group performs at the Capitol Theatre’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Saturday’s festivities including walking tours of downtown Windsor as well as the theatre itself, giving patrons a behind-the-scenes look; a Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra concert and a community artists showcase featuring 4th Wall Music, Windsor Dance eXperience and the Arts Collective Theatre.

The evening was also capped with two showings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which premiered in 1938 at the Capitol Theatre, and for which Walt Disney himself wrote a letter to the editor of the Windsor Star thanking him for the Star’s help in the promotion of the movie, Wisdom said.

Given 2023 also marks the Windsor Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary, said Severs, the delay in celebrations worked out so both milestone birthdays could be celebrated together.

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“The Windsor Symphony Orchestra is also celebrating our 75th anniversary, and 10th anniversary of calling this beautiful gem our home,” Severs said. “We are honoured to be the custodian of this cultural gem in the heart of the city.”

Members of the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra perform at the Capitol Theatre’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023.
Members of the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra perform at the Capitol Theatre’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

The historic “movie house” opened on Dec. 30, 1920, with the screening of its first film. It was designed by Thomas Lamb, who also designed the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto. By the 1930s the theatre had become part of the Famous Players chain, which sold the theatre in the late 1980s and the new owner slated the building for demolition.

But Windsorites weren’t prepared to let go of the historic theatre, and a group of invested citizens secured public support, grants and donations for a major restoration. It ran for 12 years before filing for bankruptcy, when the ownership officially reverted to the City of Windsor in 2010.

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Since then, the Windsor Symphony Orchestra has officially made the theatre its permanent home and manages the venue on behalf of the city.

A display showcasing a letter from Walt Disney thanking the Capitol Theatre for screening Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is shown at the institution’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023.
A display showcasing a letter from Walt Disney thanking the Capitol Theatre for screening Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is shown at the institution’s 100th anniversary event on Saturday, February 18, 2023. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star
A letter addressed to the Windsor Star from Walt Disney expresses his appreciation for the screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Capitol Theatre in 1938. Image courtesy of the WSO / Windsor Star
A letter addressed to the Windsor Star from Walt Disney expresses his appreciation for the screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Capitol Theatre in 1938. Image courtesy of the WSO / Windsor Star Windsor Star

To mark its 100th anniversary, a legacy project spearheaded by the city, and including federal grant money, will make some much-needed upgrades to the building, including adding more technology to help groups live-stream performances; a new audio system; and heating and ventilation replacements and new carpeting, among other projects. The theatre also has a new digital legacy display wall in the lobby, and digital display boards to showcase upcoming performances, aided by the WindsorEssex Community Foundation.

“The Government of Canada is proud to partner with the City of Windsor to support the revitalization of the Capitol Theatre, which has drawn our community together, told our local stories, and reinforced our cultural diversity for over 100 years,” said MP Irek Kusmierczyk, (Liberal — Windsor-Tecumseh) in a statement.

The project was made possible with $500,000 from the federal government’s Building Communities Through Arts and Heritage program, with a previously-announced contribution of $1. 8 million from the City of Windsor for a total of $2.3 million.

The legacy project was boosted most of all with the same power that made Saturday’s Capitol Theatre anniversary such a success: citizens committed to honouring a Windsor cultural and historic masterpiece.

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The Capitol Theatre in Windsor is pictured on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008.
The Capitol Theatre in Windsor is pictured on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008. Photo by Tyler Brownbridge /Windsor Star

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