The Nancy And David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary
Susan Crockett, Ruth Eckerd Hall President & CEO and the Ruth Eckerd Hall Board of Directors announced that The Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The theatre has been a vital part of downtown Clearwater since its opening on March 21, 1921 with the screening of the motion picture Dinty. The 1920 American silent told the story of a brave newsboy whose fight to care for his ailing mother led to a conflict with drug smugglers.
At the March 18, 2021 Clearwater City Council Meeting, the theatre was recognized by Mayor Frank Hibbard and the City Council with a proclamation that 2021 is the Centennial Year of Celebration for the theatre.
“The Capitol Theatre is a great story and an example of trying to look in to the future. Recessions, pandemics, they don’t last forever and we have to look to the future making certain that our community is strong and our culture is diverse,” said Mayor Hibbard. “And to save this 1921 theatre and to partner with Ruth Eckerd Hall to do it, was just the perfect opportunity and the perfect marriage.”
“It is an honor to be the operator and caretaker of this beautiful venue,” said Crockett. “When we think of all the world events during the past century and the memories made within its walls, the historical significance of this milestone for our community calls for a celebration.”
The Capitol Theatre, as it was called then, was built by Senator John S. Taylor and was described by the Clearwater News as one of the most beautifully finished playhouses in the South. On opening night, they published the following: “The policy of the new Capitol Theatre is to present to the public nothing but the cleanest and best entertainments, whether it be pictures or road attractions.”
Over the next 70+ years, the theatre presented several live entertainment performances, ranging from vaudeville stars Sally Rand, Fred Stone and Lum & Abner, to the Miss Florida Pageant, the Clearwater Symphony Orchestra and movies.
In 1995, local businessman Socrates Charos purchased the building and operated the Royalty Theater Company, presenting silent films and cultural events. Facing foreclosure in 2009, The City of Clearwater purchased the building and entered into a partnership with Ruth Eckerd Hall to manage and operate the facility, reopening in 2009.
In 2013, the Capitol Theatre underwent a major renovation expanding into the Clearwater News building and another adjacent building. The result of the renovation was expanded seating and lobby spaces, six private loge boxes, an outdoor balcony overlooking the Clearwater Causeway, a VIP lounge and a rooftop terrace.
During the renovation, the Panel of Honor was revealed, hidden for almost 90 years. Local historians, found a record of the memorial honoring Clearwater citizens who had served in World War I. Notable Clearwater names such as Coachman and McMullen appear on the nearly 20-foot wall. A star beside a name indicates the soldier died in service to his country. Soldiers of color were noted in green paint, typical of segregation at the time. The portion of the wall that was removed can be found preserved at the Clearwater Library Main Branch.
In 2019, the Capitol Theatre was renamed The Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre after the philanthropic couple donated to the Expanding the Experience Capitol Campaign. Their generosity enabled the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall to expand its arts education programs throughout the community.
Since 2009, Ruth Eckerd Hall has presented over 1,000 performances and events at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre. The theatre is consistently ranked the #1 venue in Florida and a top 5 venue in the world, with 800 seats or less, by industry trade magazine Pollstar.