George Burns and Gracie Allen are one of the most well-known comedy duos of the 20th century, and legend has it that they met at the Capitol Theatre in New London, CT. This isn’t true, but they were introduced by Allen’s roommate at the time, Rena Arnold, who went on to marry Walter T. Murphy, the owner of the Capitol Theatre.
The Capitol Theatre opened on November 21, 1921. Tickets for the opening day celebration went on sale three days earlier, and sold out in just a few hours. According to an article in The New London Day, “In beauty, comfort, equipment, construction, and other ways, it equals, if it does not surpass any theater of its size in the country.” Architect W. H. Lowe designed the interior, which featured a mural of cherubs above the proscenium arch. Like many other theaters of the time, the Capitol had an orchestra pit, and an organ.
Murphy sold the theater to the Connecticut Theatres Operating Company in 1942. Ownership and management of the Capitol between the mid-1940s and early-1970s is unclear, but we do know that the Capitol was closed on April 22, 1974 after a visit by the New London building inspector found multiple violations, including an unsafe marquee, eight feet of water in the basement, and a broken toilet in the projection booth. Its closing was made permanent after the projectionists union complained of unsafe working conditions. It was purchased by the City of New London for $55,000 in 1978 so that they could provide fire exits on the adjoining buildings — a tunnel was built under the theater’s stage that connected the buildings on either side of the theater to serve as their fire exit.
Beyond housing this fire exit, the theater has been unused since 1978. Proposals for revitalizing the building have included a performing arts center, a disco, a mini-mall, a twin-screen theater, a flea market, a visitors center for a maritime heritage park, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting hall. Every plan has fallen through — one developer said “Physically, it’s just too big. There just isn’t the population in the area to fill that theater every night.” The City executed some general maintenance on the theater in 1995, including replacing the roof, removing the seats, and cleaning up the interior of the building, but no additional work has been done on the theater space since then.
Maxim Development Group (MDG) purchased the theater in 2006 for $1 in exchange for modest tax breaks, provided that MDG renovate and develop the theater into a live music venue within an agreed upon time frame. Before the deal was executed, local newspaper The Day revealed that the head of the company had defrauded investors of millions, and had been convicted of attempted armed robbery. The City of New London went through with the deal regardless, and within the year the company had broken its agreement with the City. It was seized by the City for non-payment of taxes, and auctioned to two contractors from New York for $20,000, who later sold the property for $68,000 to a local developer. The theater is currently for sale.
In my opinion the Capitol is worth reusing, but it should become something other than a performing arts center. New London has a movie palace-turned-performing arts center, the Garde Arts Center, located less than a mile from the Capitol. A return to movies in the style of a place like the Nitehawk Cinemas, a New York City movie theater chain that offers food and drinks that can be ordered and consumed while watching a film, might be something that would work.