Documenting the End of a Theater – Capitol Theatre, Racine, WI

This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s Patreon in Feb 2021. You can become a patron at:

The auditorium was used for storage after the theater closed.

In late December 2020, a representative of the Wisconsin Historical Society contacted me. They asked me if I was familiar with what was happening at the Capitol Theatre (Park) in Racine, Wisconsin. I had heard of it, but I didn’t know anything about its current state. 

The Capitol opened on May 30, 1928. It was a typical Vaudeville theater that eventually became a cinema. Les Paul, the famous musician, performed on the stage at the Capitol when he was 14. The theater was twinned in 1976 by splitting the auditorium in two. This change did not touch the front of the auditorium and the stage was closed. 

In the photo above, you can see the auditorium dome through the drop ceiling.

It was renamed Park 1 & 2 in August 1981 and closed on September 1, 1987. The theater was bought by John Apple, who used it as a storage and repair facility for antiques (e.g. cash registers and barber chairs). Over time, the building began to fall into disrepair, and Apple fell a decade behind on his property taxes. 

Many things were left behind before the theater was demolished.

The Racine Building Department issued 12 violations of the City Code in August 2017. Apple did not address this, so a demolition order was issued for the building in June 2018. Apple tried to stop the demolition by going through the court, but his petition was rejected. Then he sought a landmark designation, and on December 1, 2020, the city of Racine bestowed Landmark Status on the Capitol. 

However, the demolition order stood. The City Council of Racine voted to change the Historic Landmark Designation process so that they cannot be nominated while under a raze order. 

One of the antique cash registers that remained prior to demolition.

Despite the efforts of the Friends of the Capitol Theatre, Racine, WI, who raised enough money to purchase and stabilize the building, demolition began on the morning of February 23, 2021. The walls were destabilized and pushed down into the auditorium. The rubble was removed and dirt was hauled in to fill the space.

The projection room was used as a makeshift apartment.

I was asked if I would be interested in documenting the interior of the theater before it was demolished. I was but I needed to figure out the best way to get to Wisconsin and be safe due to the ongoing pandemic. I decided that driving out there was the safest way even if it meant spending 17 hours in the car. Fortunately, I convinced a friend of mine who has been exploring abandoned buildings with for almost 20 years to make the trip with me.

I was hoping that the effort to save the building would succeed but I’m glad that I could document it before it was lost. I know that not every that theater I photograph can or will be saved, but this one came close.

6 thoughts on “Documenting the End of a Theater – Capitol Theatre, Racine, WI

  1. Wonderful pictures, and thank you for making the effort to document this once beautiful building before the vandals got to it. Nothing like these theaters will ever be built again, and their loss is tragic and irreparable. Thanks again for preserving this heritage on film.

  2. I taught English at Racine’s Jerstad-Agerholm Middle School from 1971 until 1973 when I moved back home to New Jersey. I went to the Capitol Theater often while I was living in Racine. It was a bit outside of the downtown area and I had to park on the street still I loved watching films in such a classic theater and especially remember seeing “Five Easy Pieces” there. Since I am a hopeless vintage theater enthusiast I am very sad to learn of its demolition and I’m sorry that efforts to save the Capitol Theater were not successful.
    Edwin Rex Romond

  3. Dear Matt, Thanks for posting this and all of you efforts. Chris and Bob

    From: After the Final Curtain Reply-To: After the Final Curtain Date: Wednesday, April 14, 2021 at 2:20 PM To: Bob/Chris- Chaney/Carlo Subject: [New post] Documenting the End of a Theater – Capitol Theatre, Racine, WI

    > > Matt posted: ” This post was originally posted on After the Final Curtain’s > Patreon in Feb 2021. You can become a patron at: > In late December 2020, a > representative of the Wisconsin Historical Society con” >

  4. Great effort and many thanks. My concern is that the old independent movie houses will not recover even Post Covid. They are in debt after converting to digital and are now broken up into screening rooms.
    the proscenium, stage and balconies are long gone, not even worth your time to photograph,

    • I think they stand a better chance than some of the larger movie chains if they take advantage of the recovery programs offered by the Government. However, I’m sure we’ll see more of them close for good before this is all over.

      A lot of the theaters that were converted were done as cheaply as possible, and many of the original interior details survive behind false walls. I’ll always find time to photograph ones like that.

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