WHEELING - A great deal of time, money and effort has been spent over the last several years to make downtown Wheeling's historic Capitol Theatre a destination once again, but most of that work has been done behind the scenes, the results hidden from view of the thousands who come to enjoy shows there each year.
Frank O'Brien hopes 2013 will change that, as the Capitol Theatre heads in a new direction that patrons will be able to see - and feel.
"We are getting ready to announce a major fundraising campaign for the theater in an effort to replace all 2,560 seats. ... We think it will be the most significant thing we have done for the theater," said O'Brien, executive director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which owns the theater.
Theater-goers gather in preparation to attend a show at downtown Wheeling’s Capitol Theatre.
Slightly more than $1 million is needed to fulfill the CVB's wish list, which includes paint work and new carpeting in addition to wider, more comfortable seating. According to O'Brien, the venue's seats date back to 1948, and haven't been recovered since the 1960s or 1970s.
"We understand that they're uncomfortable, and that's why we're working hard to get them replaced," he said.
Re-opened in the fall of 2009 after a more than two-year hiatus, the Capitol Theatre has experienced near-constant renovations and upgrades since the CVB purchased the venue from LiveNation in February of that year. But much of that work - projects such as a new fire escape, smoke detectors, a full kitchen and historically-correct windows - is not noticeable by the viewing public.
O'Brien said the theater is faring well financially. The CVB - funded entirely through bed tax revenue collected from patrons at Ohio County hotels - continues to pay about $22,500 monthly to pay back the $1.5 million loan it took out to purchase the building and correct the code violations that had kept the venue shuttered from May 2007 to September 2009.
The CVB is on track to retire that debt by 2019 or earlier.
Attendance numbers for 2012 are still being tabulated, but O'Brien said at last count the theater was on track to reach 54,000 patrons for the year, and he said an estimated 154,000 people have attended shows there since it re-opened. The venue has twice hosted the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld, performances by the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller, and productions of shows such as "West Side Story," "A Chorus Line" and "Lord of the Dance."
O'Brien said the theater remains focused on offering a diverse array of entertainment that will draw a variety of people downtown. While the theater's return hasn't exactly sparked a renaissance by enticing would-be entrepreneurs to make a go of it downtown, he believes the Capitol is having a positive economic impact through parking revenue and increased patronage at restaurants throughout the city before and after shows.
"It is absolutely still our goal to create a critical mass by drawing people to the theater," said O'Brien. "It's certainly not the answer, but it's something we can be proud of and build around. ... A lot of things have to fall into place. The private sector has to step up, and we have to deliver on our goal of having people come to the shows."