WHEELING - You wouldn't know it to look at the Capitol Theatre today, but in 49 days the curtain will rise on a much more comfortable, accessible and modern venue following a $1.2 million interior overhaul.
The historic downtown Wheeling theater has been gutted from top to bottom in preparation for the upgrades, which will include all new seating and carpeting, a new stage curtain and upgraded sound and high-definition projection systems. The old seats have been removed, and the cavernous seating area stripped to the bare, concrete floor.
The clock is ticking and the bulk of the work remains to be done. The new carpet won't even be delivered until Sept. 18 - nine days before the Capitol's first scheduled show, a Sept. 27 Wheeling Symphony Orchestra "Masterworks" concert - but officials are confident the 85-year-old theater will be ready.
CAPITOL OVERHAUL — Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Frank O’Brien surveys the gutted interior of downtown Wheeling’s Capitol Theatre, which is in the midst of a $1.2 million overhaul. -- Ian Hicks
"It's going to be the tightest schedule we've tried to do," said Frank O'Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which owns the Capitol.
The CVB had hoped to make a big splash by re-opening the theater with a Sept. 24 performance by country music legend Willie Nelson, but O'Brien said that date was pushed back to Oct. 16 at the artist's request. That concert has been a hot-ticket item, he said.
"If you want to see Willie Nelson in Wheeling, you'd better buy your tickets today, because they're going fast," O'Brien said.
Other upcoming shows at the renovated Capitol include "Circque de la Symphonie" on Oct. 11, featuring aerial artists, acrobats and jugglers choreographed to the sounds of the Wheeling Symphony, and a production of "Hello, Dolly!" on Oct. 23. A June 14 performance by comedian Ron White, popularly known as "Tater Salad," was the the last show before the theater went dark.
"It's summer time. Most people want to do outdoor events ... ," O'Brien said. "It was perfect timing for us" to do the renovations.
The old seats, installed in 1948, were narrow, uncomfortable and covered with garish, orange upholstery. The new seats will be roomier, and there will be improved handicap accessibility both at the rear of the lower seating area and in a section closer to the stage.
Those changes will decrease the theater's capacity from 2,560 to about 2,200 - a number O'Brien believes is small enough to allow for comfort, yet large enough to attract top-shelf talent.
"That number is very important for the viability of the theater. ... (Performers) like that number," O'Brien said.
The CVB is seeking private investors for the project, the largest undertaking at the Capitol since the CVB purchased it from former owner LiveNation on April 3, 2009, restoring it and re-opening it on Sept. 23 of that year. The theater had been shuttered for more than two years due to numerous fire code violations.
To allow it to finish all the work at once, the CVB secured a loan of $1.2 million from Progressive Bank to finance this latest renovation. But the goal, O'Brien said, is to repay the loan entirely through private donations, with about $690,000 already secured - including $450,000 from the Chris Hess Foundation, $200,000 from a "former Wheeling businessman," and $40,000 from various other sources.
The organization also is preparing to launch a "buy-a-seat" campaign, which will allow a donor to have his or her name engraved on a chair, and will seek additional, larger gifts, he noted.
"We have every confidence that we will do it privately, but the CVB has the resources" to repay the loan, O'Brien said, acknowledging the CVB would be responsible for making up the difference with revenue it receives from Wheeling and Ohio County hotel/motel tax revenue if it is unable to raise the funds privately.
Project expenses break down as follows: seats, $647,002; improvements to the facility's handicapped accessibility, $148,499; drapes and wall panels, $95,700; video projection and sound upgrades, $91,000; carpeting, $63,220; electrical work, $53,500; demolition, $25,000; new stage curtain, $20,752; and refinishing the stage, $6,500. Carpet installation remains out for bid, O'Brien noted.
During the 2012 calendar year, the organization received $1.01 million in hotel/motel tax funding. Based on collections from January through July, O'Brien is predicting a 9.5-percent increase to $1.12 million for 2013.
He said hotel/motel tax collections - which make up 100 percent of the bureau's annual budget - have increased every year since 1985. The local oil and gas boom has driven a more dramatic increase the past couple of years, however.
From an operational standpoint, O'Brien said the Capitol is, for all intents and purposes, neither making money nor losing it.
"It's pretty close to break-even, which was the goal - to have quality entertainment and not be a big money loser," O'Brien said.