Capitol Theatre reopens after a six-month renovation, with $11 million in upgrades inside and out

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson speaks at the reopening of the Capitol Theatre, after being closed six months for renovation, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

Michael Scolamiero, from his office in downtown Salt Lake City’s Capitol Theatre, wasn’t sure the theater’s latest renovation would be finished on schedule.

“I can’t believe we’re back in here after all these months. The last couple of weeks, we thought, ‘It’s never going to be ready.’ But they did it,” Scolamiero, executive director of Ballet West, said Friday as the 106-year-old theater at 50 W. 200 South was opened for the first time after a six-month, nearly $11 million renovation.

Salt Lake County officials and employees — along with representatives of Ballet West and Utah Opera, the arts groups that perform regularly on the Capitol’s stage — got to see some of the more obvious improvements. Others, like a new audio system, will be unnoticed by paying customers.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said, "it’s special to me to be a part of preserving and enhancing [this theater], and assuring that all generations, now and in the future, have access to the arts in this community.” Wilson recalled that “one of my first memories of going downtown was with my grandmother, to see ‘The Nutcracker’ right here.”

Christopher McBeth, Utah Opera’s artistic director, said that visiting performers often remark on what a beautiful theater the Capitol is. “We always respond, ‘It’s not just a theater, it’s our home,’” McBeth said. “Homes are special. They foster love. And the Capitol Theatre has been fostering love for the arts for 106 years. And, from time to time, you have to return that love in the form of a renovation.”

The bulk of the renovation, about $8.3 million, was paid for from Salt Lake County’s Tourism, Recreation, Cultural and Convention support program (TRCC). Most of that money had been set aside over the past few years, with the Capitol renovation in mind, said Holly Yocom, director of community services for the county.

Even so, the project’s budget was raised about $2.27 million last year because of increased building and labor costs. Much of that money came from other projects that came in under budget. Another allocation, of $275,950, came from putting off projects at the county’s Equestrian Park in South Jordan for a year.

Just over $1.1 million of the Capitol’s renovation budget came from the county’s preservation fee, charged on tickets sold to events at the Capitol, Abravanel Hall, the Rose Wagner and the Eccles Theater. That fee money can go only to preservation projects — in this case, to upgrade the theater’s audio system.

About $1.55 million went to restoring the theater’s terra cotta facade, which was last fixed up when the theater was renovated in 1978.

“This beautiful gem of a theater deserves to be seen in its best light,” said Sarah Pearce, division director for Salt Lake County Arts and Culture, which oversees operation of the county’s performance venues.

The remaining budget, nearly $7.2 million, paid for changes both grand and unseen.

An aisle, parallel to the stage, now splits the main floor’s seating area in two, providing better access for wheelchair-using patrons. Steps in the aisles are now flush with the floors of each row, so patrons won’t trip getting to their seats.

With the changes in the auditorium, the Capitol — the full name is the Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre — now seats 1,760 patrons, 178 seats fewer than before.

Scolamiero isn’t worried about losing those seats.

“We’ve rescaled the house in a way that we feel that we’re confident we’ve made up that lost revenue,” he said, adding that the theater still has “almost identically the number of prime seats at the top level.”

Other upgrades won’t be seen by patrons, Pearce said. Those include the roof, a new boiler, new pipes and plumbing, a freight elevator, and reconfigured dressing rooms and basement work areas.

The just completed renovation is the second phase of the Capitol’s renovation. The first phase took place in 2013, when the lobby was expanded to stretch into Ballet West’s new building next door, the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre. No decisions have been made about a third phase, Pearce said, though county officials would love someday to redo the balcony’s infamously cramped seating.

Opened in 1913 as the Orpheum, a vaudeville hall, the venue was renamed the Capitol in 1927, when movie impresario Louis Marcus converted it to films. It was one of downtown Salt Lake City’s movie palaces for decades, until it fell into disrepair in the 1970s. In 1978, a renovation brought it to life as headquarters for Ballet West, Utah Opera and touring Broadway shows — notably “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1996, and Salt Lake City’s first viewing of “The Book of Mormon” in 2015.

The first performance in the renovated Capitol Theatre happens Saturday night, with the premiere of Utah Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.”