The Capitol Theatre
The Capitol Theatre, the house of a thousand good feelings, had it's beginnings during a time when Belleville was already a significant center of entertainment. Nearby Hillside Pleasure Park was packing in 500,000 fun-seeking customers a year, as many as 50,000 per weekend. It seemed reasonable to expect that a profitable number of those folks, eager as they were for entertainment, might be enticed to come and see this sensational new form of amusement; the motion picture.
It was on April 17, 1922 when the Capitol Theater opened it's doors for the first time. It was located at 362 Washington Avenue, about 1/2 block South of Joralemon Street. It was built on the steeply sloped East side of the avenue which allowed for a natural downward slope of the aisles and seats. It was a 1,400 seat state-of-the-art motion picture theater, it presented the very best of this exciting and popular new kind of entertainment. Movies, still the silent type, were growing in popularity every day. Movie star magazines, already enormously popular, helped to draw in the crowds. It's success was assured from the outset.
The Alpha theater was still operating farther South on Washington Avenue near Williams Street offering movies, vaudeville and other stage entertainment . The Alpha had been there for years and, although moderately successful, was no match for the Capitol. The Capitol was modern and elegant, a custom designed home for the silver screen.
The excitement would begin as soon as you arrived. The bright lights of the marquee told you that something special was happening here. The fountain of lights at the front was a real attention getter as were the brilliantly colored posters at the entrance. The excitement was building as you approached the ticket booth, coins in hand, ready to pay your admission. You had read about the feature playing today in your favorite movie magazine and you could hardly wait to get inside. The cost was modest. In those early days, matinee tickets for youngsters were 15¢. For adults it was 25¢. Evening shows were 20¢ for youngsters and a hefty 30¢ for adults. (That may sound really cheap, but it wasn't. Take into account that a typical adult paycheck at that time was about $15.00 a week. Those coins were spent only after due consideration. As a youngster, you may have had to do a lot of chores to get them.) You had your tickets in hand and perhaps a couple of friends about you. You would march through the lobby surrounded by richly colored, larger than life images of the movies that would be coming soon. They looked sensational. You might quietly hope that you would have some more coins next week. A collector took your tickets, unlatched a velvet wrapped chain and let you pass. You proceeded through the inner lobby and now faced the most difficult decision of the day. Here was the candy stand ! If you were quite fortunate, you may have still had a couple of coins in your pocket. Oh goodness, what would it be ? There was pop corn, soda pop, Clark Bars, Raisinets, Milk Duds, Good and Plenty, Dots, Sno Caps, Junior Mints, Jujyfruits, Sen-Sen, Turkish Taffy, Mary Janes or Bit O Honey. You must choose wisely because you would be in the theatre for several hours.
Finally you were inside. It made you feel special just to be there. The old Capitol was like a palace. The aisles were cushion carpeted, the seats were comfortable, covered with a dark red velour-like fabric. The art deco designed interior included wall scones to illuminate the side aisles and decorative plaster work highlighted in a brushed gold color. Above was a light-encircled dome and a fine chandelier. Before you was the stage and a great, dark red velvet-like curtain. The old theatre was magnificent.
The show started with cartoons, then a feature movie. Afterwards were the coming attractions, newsreels, short subjects, an episode from a serial such as Ramar of the Jungle or Flash Gordon, and then a second feature movie. You were there for the entire afternoon. You got a lot of entertainment for your coins. It wasn't cheap, but you came away satisfied and looking forward to the next time. There were times when free gifts were given to encourage more frequent patronage. These gifts were usually aimed at the adult patrons; the ladies mostly. Perhaps there would be dinnerware, one piece each time you went, or maybe it would be depression glass. Sometimes an organization in town would host a holiday party with free gifts for the kids.
The wonderful old Capitol Theatre is long gone now, replaced by garden apartments. I can't help but wonder if those apartments are haunted by the laughter of thousands of happy children from days gone by. But the grand old theatre will never be forgotten by anyone who had the good fortune to go there. At least three generations of townsfolk have had very fond memories of the place. Modern movie houses lack the special character of the old Capitol Theatre.
A program from the old theatre has survived. It is dated for the week of December 31, 1923.
If you graduated from Belleville High in 1962, the Class Reunion Committee wants to hear from YOU. The plans are well under way for our 50 year class reunion and we need to hear from you. Even if you don't think you can attend the reunion, at least let us know you are still alive and kicking (or at least breathing). Sad to say, that's not true of all our classmates. Stop in at the Class Reunion Facebook page, catch up on the news and gossip about your classmates and be counted.
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