Memories of the Capitol Theater
Taylorville was my home, my playground. I knew it like my own backyard. There wasn't a street I had never ventured, in fact, I used to draw maps of the town from memory while doodling on school papers during those less than exciting classes at Hewitt School. Some of the more interesting places which bring about a more than just a slight memory are the Court House with the town clock, which strikes a "gong" for each hour of the day, every hour with the dependability of time itself. The Court House was located just off center of the universe, a square block area with a huge limestone building rising out of the huge green well-manicured courtyard which was filled with huge trees. If a soundtrack of my childhood were to be recorded the first two tracks would certainly contain the sounds of the Court House Clock and....the sound of one of the many, many Wabash freight trains which pierced the town during all hours of the day and night. Other interesting places for a kid included the drug stores around the square. My fascination with drug stores probably stems from frequenting the soda fountains of what I believe was a Walgreens on the south side of the Square, now occupied by part of First Trust Bank. I remember it as being large and dark, with what seemed to be an incredibly high ceiling from which large ceiling fans hung. Other drugstores like Pearce's, Rene's, Mortons were all places that served the exotic drink which was impossible to get anywhere else, a "cherry Coke". There were other unique places, places which I now remember just like it was yesterday. These places were full of sights, sounds, and smells.
Walker's Five and Dime on the north side of the Square. The small tightly jointed hardwood floor which squeaked as you walked, the glass partitions on the displays which separated the small plastic toy cars from the big plastic toy cars but most of all the tall racks near the check out counters from which hung long clear cellophane wrappers which contained individually wrapped "jawbreakers" connected from end to end. From the top of the display to the floor...and surrounded by candy of all kinds. I never knew the clerks by name, but they knew me and always talked to me like they were my grandmothers. But who they were wasn't important. The toy cars and the candy, that was important.
Sherman's Department store was important. It's not exactly a place which you would think would be important to a kid, but my mother worked there. I didn't really know what she did, I suppose she arranged the shelves, much like she did my closet at home. She also ran the cash register I guess. I remember when they remodeled the store and how disappointed I was when the project was over and the only change was to the front ten feet of the store, but if you stood outside, it looked great. I also remember the radio at Sherman's. It was a table model which was perched on a shelf above the cash register which was located near the center of the front half of the store. It blared with hometown radio station WTIM. I remember all of the features of the station, Three Star-News, Four-Star News( which to this day I haven't a clue as to the significance of the counting stars was and what it had to do with radio news), The Swap Shop( a sort of classified ads on the radio program) and The Fourteen Ten Club( the local station's attempt at rock of roll radio).
But the one memory which drives all of the senses is that from the front of the Capitol Theater....right under the marquee. It was a huge structure that jutted out from, besides the Court House, which seemed to be the second-largest building in the universe. I had never seen, or have yet to see, a larger marquee on the front of any theater. It must have had a million clear light bulbs running along the edges and under the great canopy. I can still smell the popcorn, feel the rush of cool air-conditioned air when the chrome-plated glass front door of the Capitol opened and I can still hear the sound of the Court House clock as it struck "seven" before the early show.
It was a place so mysterious yet so inviting, so large yet intimate, so dark yet enlightening ....it was my old friend, the Capitol Theater. It was the most colorful building on the square, with its huge blue, red and light gray porcelain tiles which went from the sidewalk of Main Street to the sky above, and the string of moving lights which ran from the base of the marquee to the top of the building. But the most notable part of the exterior of the building was the marquee. Under the marquee was hung the item which was an indication of the season, just as dependable as the opening of the Dairy Queen, the large banner which hung below the giant marquee which stated "Air Conditioned"! Under the marquee, the blue colored sidewalk with it's neatly placed expansion joints which divided it into large five-foot squares, and on the street, out front, where the remnants of hundreds of formally chewed sticks of Double Mint, Juicy Fruit and Spear Mint Gum. It would be hard to imagine them not being part of the original construction plans for Main Street. There they were just beyond the red-painted curb, probably cast aside with the anticipation of the buttered popcorn and Frosty Malts to come.
In the center of the building neatly protected by the marquee was the box office, flush with the front of the theater. It was a glass cage with a small hole about mouth level(for adults) and a mouse hole type of opening above the chrome counter surface in which tickets would mysteriously appear from small slots. Inside the cage were the "ticket girls" and the telephone which I used many times to call for a ride home after the movie. Hanging within was a small back panel framed in stainless steel and housed information about the current show like title, showtimes and prices. The earliest ticket prices I remember were thirty-five cents for children under twelve and fifty cents for adults. The box office was surrounded on each side with double doors made of stainless steel and glass with vertical pull handles which upon opening made the doors feel as if they weighed a ton even though they opened as smoothly as any door I've ever opened in my life. On either side of the door were displays of movie posters that were headed by "Now Showing" or "Coming Soon". The theater front was so large it also contained other storefronts. To the left, a barbershop, to the right was the snack bar until the Capitol went through a remodeling. At which time the snack bar was moved from the right storefront off of the lobby to the interior. That left the storefront area vacant for another tenant, an insurance agent or a travel agent, I don't remember, but that's not important. What was important was the Theater itself.
The lobby was small, the pattern of its small white tiles on the walls were broken by an occasional red, blue, yellow or black tile and covered only by the movie posters contained within stainless steel frames and headed with "Coming Soon" , "Now Showing at the Ritz" or "Now Showing at the Frisina Drive-In Theater". The floor was slanted from the street level to the openings of the interior lobby which contained the snack bar. The opening to the left was the exit. At the other opening was the place where many a ticket was torn and deposited by many a teenaged uniformed employee into the podium which stood just above waist level and funneled the tickets into the small slot at the bottom just a few short inches from the top. I had always envisioned the basement below the lobby with containing every torn ticket from the days of the silents to the current showing. The procedure of tearing tickets was always a mystery to me, I mean, after all, you paid to get in the lobby, why did you need the tickets? That's just one mystery which had no answer, it was just all a part of the theater "ceremony."
The dimly lit interior lobby was really just a large hallway that ran across the rear of the auditorium. It was symmetrical with carpeted stairways at each end which lead to the upper lobby. The front wall was painted black. The thickly carpeted stairways could run up or run down by even the rowdiest kids with only the slightest rumble. The entrances to the auditorium consisted of two openings which had twin padded doors with a small porthole window from which late moviegoers could estimate just how late they were while waiting at the snack bar by looking to see if the cartoon was showing, the coming attractions or the movie.
The snack bar was a glass counter case surrounded by the same multi-colored small tiles which adorned the lobby. The tile was below the glass front which displayed many an overpriced and brightly colored plastic or cardboard container of theater candy. Along the counter was the popcorn maker in which the sound and smell of freshly popped popping corn filled the interior lobby and flowed out onto the sidewalk. From the wall behind the snack bar, also of tile, was hung a menu board of prices for each of the treats offered. Popcorn, plain and buttered, Coke(at least I believe it was Coke, I don't remember any other offerings, although I'm sure there were others), candy bars, licorice and others all expensive for my budget, besides it, wasn't nearly as fun as the soda vending machine. This is one in which you deposited fifteen cents and below was an opening in which a cup would magically tumble from above and then some ice and a mixture of dark liquid and clear liquid would fill it, you would then reach inside the opening and pull out the cup containing your soda. There was also along the snack bar a display that contained frozen treats like my favorite, The Frosty Malt! For a whole 20 cents, I could enjoy chocolate malted ice cream in a cup and eat it with a flat wooden spoon. Many times, though, after the initial ticket price, popcorn, Frosty Malt or soda my only activity with the snack bar was with the drinking fountain located near the left stairway.
At the top of the stairs was a place of mystery. So mysterious that it was nearly always off-limits. It was the BALCONY! It was a tradition to check before every movie to see if it was open, but unfortunately, the hallways which led to the forbidden territory were usually graced with a chain with the sign hanging in the center, "Balcony Closed". The upper lobby was also the home to the cigarette machine and a sofa. For those who just couldn't sit through an entire movie, they could go to the upper lobby and smoke. I don't think I ever saw anybody take advantage of that comfort, at least anyone over 21. Most of the smoking took place in the restrooms which were a couple of steps above the upper lobby and graced the area over the lobby. The restroom, the men's anyway, was a large open area with several sinks along one wall and three small rooms which contained the toilets. Each small room had a wooden door which more resembled a door you would find in a bedroom or closet.
My trips to the restroom were limited, because of the fear of being "beat up" by some of the smoking teenagers "bullies", who seemed more interested in hassling smaller kids and smoking than seeing a movie. I knew that if I had to use the restroom I would scout it out, perhaps taking several trips to the upper lobby to listen outside the door to make sure that I heard no voices or anyone in there. Then it was a rush to exit as soon as possible to reduce the risk of running into one of the "bullies" Before he needed another nicotine rush.
The auditorium was huge. It was graced with two aisles leading down from each door on either side of the snack bar. The isles were covered with the same sound deadening flowering carpet which covered the stairways. Down the isles, were small lights illuminating from small slits on the aisle side of about every third seat. The seats were relatively small folding theater seats, well-cushioned, the back of which had been painted many times over the years. I remember after one remodeling the Capitol undertook, the change in the color of the back of the seats from a black, or some other dark color, to a lighter brown. The floor was a typical theater slanted hardwood floor, in which years of soda syrup and candy had accumulated to make maneuvering down a row of seats a unique challenge. Although I never found it, I was sure that somewhere at the front of the theater was a large pit in which all of the M&M's and other round candy have rolled to and mixed with all of the spilled soda which ran into it during the last few decades.
The walls of the auditorium were probably typical of theaters, with large rectangular framed inserts of brownish wall coverings, with large round art deco lights which hung flat against the wall in the center of the inserts. There were also two large speakers which were hung on each side, one about a third of the way to the back and another near the balcony.
The stage at the front of the theater was large enough to hold most of the action of the movie if it was a play. In front of the stage was an orchestra pit and a courtroom type of rail which divided the pit from the isle running along with the front row of seats. The curtains of a rich red velour seemed so incredibly large. From the floor of the stage and reaching into the heavens, or so it seemed, those curtains would open to reveal the large white slightly curved reflective movie screen. The screen also included one flaw. That flaw could be quite a distraction if you let it. I heard that that flaw was caused by someone throwing a soda bottle at it during some incredibly bad movie no doubt.
At each side of the stage above the obligatory exits which allowed one to leave in case there was a fire in the popcorn machine, were two areas of complete fascination to me. These areas were separated from the two side walls of the auditorium by the fact that they were not part of the sidewalls, and came out of the sides at a slight angle, probably to deflect the sound from the stage area out to the audience. On these wall surfaces along with woodwork to make it look like box seats, were two wall murals, the subject of which probably wouldn't be allowed today. It appeared that there were two unclothed maidens, one on each mural, and each covered by just a thin veil, looking into the stars. Were they waiting for the next show?
I probably wouldn't mention the ceiling of the auditorium, but I do hold some significance in the explanation of the "facts of life" to my little brother. Because it was at a Saturday matinee, in which I explained to my brother, who was ten years my junior, that the large hole in the ceiling(actually a huge dark stain, from some leak of years before) was the place where babies come from. "That's why a lot of couples go the movies," I told him, "they all come here to have a baby. While they're watching a movie, a baby will come floating down from the hole in the ceiling and land in their lap." I never thought too much about it, but he did reveal in adulthood that the prospect of procreating in that way, haunted him throughout his childhood.
My favorite place to sit was "the peanut gallery". It was an area to the left or right side of the auditorium, about 5 or 6 rows back right next to a large quarter round area just to the back of the exit doors and the walled area which included the "women in the veil" murals.
This area had more leg and foot room than any other area of the seats. You could even prop your feet on the large black cover of the quarter round piece of something that was part of the building. The real reason the building had this object was yet another mystery and one which I will probably never solve.
It was at the Capitol which I began my moviegoing habit. My mother reveals to me that she took me to see Gone With the Wind at one of its re-release dates when I was just a few months old(she couldn't get a sitter, I guess). She would change my diaper, stick a bottle in my mouth when I would get restless and burp me all the while Atlanta was burning. I really can't recall the first movie I saw, but it probably was a Disney movie. I do remember seeing movies with my parents like "Operation Petticoat" and a variety of John Wayne movies, but the times I went either with school friends or just by myself to the Saturday matinees.
They were really special! The Three Stooges film festivals, in which they would show what seemed to be a dozen of the short twenty-minute features, back to back were a real treat. Combine that with a cartoon or two, a full slate of previews and you'd have a Saturday afternoon made in heaven. All that for just thirty-five cents, and maybe another twenty cents for the "Frosty Malt".
The previews in which statements would come bouncing across the screen like "Never Before on the Screen" and "Their Love Forbidden" were all a part of the experience. The Twentieth Century Fox newsreel in which we would see current events unfold in glorious black and white with the voice of the narrator describing the action, also the cartoons, the Warner Brothers cartoon cast, the Harvey Comics Cartoons, the travelogues, in which we could travel to some far off land and see people react on cue to the camera were all a part of the movie-going experience which doesn't exist today.
The Beach movies, and the variation of the traditional beach movies in which various Coca-Cola drinking teenagers would be spending the night(girls in a separate part of the house, of course) and it be haunted or they would be stalked by some mad scientist was the fare in the mid-'60s. Movies like "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine", or "Beach Blanket Bingo" were typical movies for a Friday night. One movie, in particular, the name of it escapes me, was probably one in which the movie "Matinee" was about. In the movie "Matinee", it featured a guy, played by John Goodman, who would do things within the presentation of the movie which would draw moviegoers with audience participation. My best friend, Mike, had a brother who was once recruited to participate in one of these "stunts" in which he would dress up in gorilla suit and run out at an appropriate time and pick up a member of the audience, who was wearing a red sweater, and take her back to the stage and behind the curtain. Of course, we didn't know that was going to happen when the usher came up to where we were sitting to ask him if he would like to make "a couple of bucks".
So here we are, watching the film when a gorilla is searching the house for the teenagers when the film "breaks". The lights go up, and from behind the curtain, the gorilla appears, amid the screams of the mostly teenage and younger audience. The gorilla runs to and along the north aisle and picks up a young girl, wearing a red sweater and exits at the stage area behind the curtain from where he appeared. Then the lights go down and the movie begins again, with a scene of the gorilla carrying the girl with the red sweater. It was one of the most memorable moments of my childhood!
When the Beatles "Hard Days Night" and "Help" were released, it was truly remarkable as it was the only movie I ever saw in which you couldn't hear a thing other than the screams of the audience. It was as though Paul, John, George, and Ringo were actually there. I remember seeing "Help" in the second row-right side in the balcony. It was one of the few times in which the balcony was open. The Beatles were a hit in Taylorville too.
I saw some of my favorite movies all by myself at the Capitol. "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" back in '63 was a really special film for me, as was "Ensign Pulver" with Robert Walker Jr., "The Great Escape" with Steve McQueen, "Bridge at Remagen" with Robert Vaughn, "Thunderball" with Sean Connery, "The Nutty Professor" with Jerry Lewis, and countless others were all blockbusters which were so special I went by myself as to not be distracted perhaps by a friend who maybe didn't appreciate the films finer points. Others include John Wayne films like "North to Alaska", "The War Wagon", "True Grit" and "The Hell Fighters".
The end of the Beatles era was marked by a nearly empty theater to see "Let It Be". The seventies brought more James Bond movies like "Live and Let Die", which I saw a record eight times within a two week period. Only one other movie ever came close to achieving the repeated record and that was "American Graffiti".
My first real "date" included a movie at the Capitol, "They Shoot Horses Don't They" with Gig Young and Jane Fonda. The date was OK, the movie was rotten. Another real "bomb" was one in which Dustin Hoffman probably wouldn't claim, "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?" Well, there had to be some bad with the good.
There weren't many weeks that didn't include at least one movie at the Capitol. It probably wasn't until I was in college when the lure of the multiplex theaters in Springfield or the massive "Senate" theater drew me away from my weekly visits. One of the last movies I saw there was the prophetic "The Last Picture Show". I think the Capitol closed soon after I moved from Taylorville.
It's never closed in my memory. Whenever a movie pops up on television which I recall seeing at the Capitol, I still remember the smell of the popcorn, the look of the amber-colored lights on the wall, the sound and the echo of the squeaky chairs as they fold down for another theater patron, the short stabs of light as it shoots between the padded vinyl-clad doors between the snack bar area and the theater auditorium as someone enters to find a place to sit among its many seats.
It was just a few days ago, in reviewing weeks of Breeze Couriers that my parents save for me, so I can catch up with local events, I saw that the theater building was to undergo a revitalization. I saw a picture in which it appeared that the theater was undergoing more of a razing than a remodeling. I had to see it for myself so I made the trip back to Taylorville. Sure it's only a short two and a half hour trip back, but my schedule and family commitments make trips back rare.
I drove around the square to check out the front of the theater. There it sat as it has over the last few years....naked. Stripped of its colorful exterior, it's marquee, it's decorative lights, even the chrome front doors and ticket booth have been removed and replaced by an unsightly plain wooden door and a small window. The nakedness of the building showing only the plain gray-colored skeleton of the structure remained. I looked up into what was the women's restroom window to see that one of the restroom stall doors was open and facing the window to prevent me from seeing inside.
My curiosity was growing intense, do I dare look around at the back of the building? I had to. After driving around to the rear of the old majestic theater I saw the remains of the last section of the Frisina Hotel. I had worked in the section which was torn down earlier, as the former home of WTIM radio. There were many an evening while working the late shift at the radio station I could hear the sound of the movie as it reverberated through the back brick wall of the Capitol into the alley. But now, here I was, walking under the yellow ribbon strung around the area to keep the sightseers out. I walked to the temporary metal door which was in place as a final obstacle to keep people like me out. It also was to keep me from seeing inside, but a small rip in the door made it possible for me to look with one eye. Just one eye saw the unthinkable. The far wall, facing the street, with bricks, concrete, sand, dirt and tons of rubble between me and the front wall. Below the top of the wall, there were the projection booth windows from which hundreds, thousands of films, on dusty beams of light pierced their way to the screen. Below that was the balcony in which tons of debris rested among a few of the last remaining theater seats. THERE was the seat in which I sat when the screams of the audience kept me from hearing the dialog from the Beatles' movie "Help". Across the front of the balcony, was the huge bare steel beam that supported it. It was old, rusty but still doing its job. I remember my parents commenting that they didn't want me to sit in the balcony or under it because they feared it would cave in. A fact that I pointed out to my father who made the journey with me to investigate the ruins.
Then, an image that will probably remain with me as long as the Capitol itself. Those padded vinyl-clad doors..... still hanging from their hinges, showing signs of the devastation around them, exposed to the sunlight for the first time since they were installed.... but still there..... separating the snack bar from the auditorium.
I'm sure that many people have a lot of memories of the Capitol. After all, it goes back long before my time in Taylorville, it may not be altogether accurate but this is the way I remember it....and the way I want to remember it. The Capitol was my friend, it was like an extension of my home...and a big part of Taylorville, my hometown. Good-bye old friend.