The Capitol Theatre: A century in the making | arts-and-entertainment

Two years ago this past week, The Capitol Theater checked off a century as the cultural center of the Yakima Valley. While the formal celebration has been delayed until next month, The Capitol continues to share in notable achievements. The Yakima Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 50th anniversary of performances this season and the Yakima Town Hall Speaker Series gears up to mark its 50th season in the fall.

Reaching these milestones acknowledges the hard work and perseverance of generations of artists, administrators and volunteers. The Capitol has hosted such a vast array of artists and art forms, speakers and celebrities, tributes and testimonials. The signature wall on the lower level survived the catastrophic fire of the 1970s and continues to display an ever-growing collection of the names of these notables, though some of the signatures are as faded as our memories of their brilliance.

It is worth the moment to acknowledge the vision of the few that dreamed of the potential of a facility that could mean so much to so many for so long.

Frederick Mercy Sr. had the vision of creating a facility designed to nurture and showcase such a wide array of talent. The 1910s were the convergence of the height of the vaudeville era and the start of the two-decade heyday of American cinema design. Mercy knew the space he wanted and fought to create the grand theater of his dreams.

He also knew talent. For his architect, he contracted B. Marcus Priteca, known as Benny, who was early in his career and yet already established as the preferred architect for Alexander Pantages, ultimately designing 22 theaters for Pantages and 128 other theaters. The Capitol was designed on the heels of the Pantages in Tacoma (1918) and almost a decade before the Paramount in Seattle (1929).

For the interior décor and signature ceiling mural, AB Heinsbergen, known as Tony, was selected. While at the beginning of his career in 1920, Heinsbergen became known as the foremost designer of North American movie theater interiors, ultimately designing for 20 Pantages theaters as well. It was a supreme gift to the Yakima community to have Heinsbergen come out of retirement following the fire that destroyed the originals in 1975 to recreate his interiors and redesign his mural. He further gifted the community with the stunning original murals painted directly on the walls on either side of the mezzanine bar. His death a couple of years later made these some of his last works.

Designed from the outset to serve the multiple needs of both established and emerging art forms, the Capitol’s success has been its ability to adapt to the ever-changing needs of both the industry and the community. Ironically, the fire in the 1970s may have been the only thing that kept The Capitol from joining the majority of the facilities of its age and becoming a parking lot.

It was the commitment and imagination of another age of visionaries that carried The Capitol Theater forward into its next life moving from private to public ownership. What the Mercy family initially provided, several generations have committed and recommitted to sustaining. As the jewel of Central Washington and the only facility of its kind for at least two hours in any direction, it is left in the hands of this next generation to define how the facility will continue to adapt to meet the current and future needs of the industry and the community.

• Charlie Robin is CEO of The Capitol Theatre. He contributes a column in Wednesday’s Explore section every four weeks.

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