The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester is easy to overlook.
Few passersby either walking or driving give it a side-glance.
Other than its marquee, it just blends in with the nondescript storefronts along that end of Westchester Avenue near the train station.
But push through its glass doors and past the box office and you enter a former movie palace with bright lights and gold luster. (What’s up with all those squirrel embellishments? More on them later.)
Go inside the theater and take a seat.
Actually, to take in the full beauty of architect Thomas White Lamb’s grand 1926 design you have to go onstage.
Step onto the hallowed black floor that supported all the greats, including Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Willie Nelson and BB King. (It will soon be graced by another great — singer-activist Joan Baez, who will play the venue for the first time in October.)
Go sit on the floor, center stage.
Take in the gentle sweep of the balcony embellished with niches — every fifth one containing a design — as it stretches to the side booths hovering just above the stage.
The rake, the sloping section of the floor toward the stage, was once covered with multi-tiered platforms for a caterer who had owned the theater. This afternoon, it’s covered with red chairs for a Bela Fleck concert.
The plenum is like a huge eye with an engaging gold iris looking down.
It was created to help circulate air. The original belts that ran the cooling system, says Tom Bailey, the theater’s general manager, were made of horsehide (pre-PETA).
Take it all in and marvel as did the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia: “There’s only two theaters, man … that are set up pretty groovy all around for music and for smooth stage changes, good lighting and all that — the Fillmore and The Capitol Theatre. And those are the only two in the whole country.”
He liked it so much that he and the band played 18 shows there from 1970-71. (Jerry’s name lives on in the bar next door, Garcia’s, where you can grab a glass of Capitol Ale by Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. of Elmsford and maybe check out Jerry’s banjo or a statue of his hand — yes, just his hand — or black-and-white portraits of the man who departed Earth in 1995 at the age of 53.)
As I sit taking in Lamb’s design work, a shout from stage left startles me. “What are you doing on my stage?”
Dave Ockun, director of production, marches toward me with an umbrella in hand.
“I’m with Tom,” I say.
“Tom Bailey,” who laughs from his seat up near the soundboard and yells, “Taze him.”
Ockun is protective of “his” stage and tells me stories of bands that I’m told I can’t repeat (upon penalty of probably actually being tazed). He does say that former Westchester County resident Peter Frampton, who played June 1, was a great guy, as was Iggy Pop, who played in April.
And for those crazy concert riders by performers? Let’s just say that they have mellowed over the years. When Iggy Pop requested that wine be in his dressing room, Bailey stepped in since he is a certified sommelier who personally buys all the wine for the venue.
But before Bailey hit the music scene in Port Chester, he was a kid in Minnesota whose first two memorable concerts were The Cars and seeing Prince at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis circa 1981.
Bailey was out in Palo Alto, Calif., earning a degree in symbolic systems at Stanford University, when a buddy asked him if he wanted to make a few bucks as a parking cashier at the Shoreline Amphitheatre a few miles down the road from campus. The venue was built by concert promoter Bill Graham.
The bachelor’s degree in symbolic systems would take a backseat to concert work for Bailey. He cut his teeth at the Fillmore in San Francisco before coming East and onto gigs at The Knitting Factory (at 74 Leonard St. between Church Street and Broadway in Manhattan before it moved to Brooklyn) and the Blue Note jazz club in Greenwich Village.
Bailey got a call in 2010 from New York City concert promoter, filmmaker and entrepreneur Peter Shapiro asking if he wanted to be the general manager of The Capitol Theatre. Shapiro was working to convince the owner, Marvin Ravikoff, to return the space from a wedding and catering hall back into a rock ‘n’ roll palace. Bailey was all in. After more negotiations and a couple million dollars in renovations — including sound dampening boards covering the side walls, projectors, lights and sound system — The Cap reopened on Sept. 4, 2012 with Bob Dylan.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done here,” Bailey says, adding that this year will be “our strongest year ever.”
While the audience varies from show to show (Alabama Shakes fans don’t go to a Slayer concert and vice versa), “Our goal is to put on rock ’n’ roll shows,” Bailey says.
The strength of the act is what drives the audience numbers as well as repeat customers, he says.
While the band Mudcrutch might fly under the radar of those not in the know, it played to a sellout crowd in early June. Mudcrutch is actually the name of the band Tom Petty and his friends started in Gainesville, Fla.
Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band also sold out their June gig.
And the fall season is shaping up as well with Bruce Hornsby, Little Feat, Jenny Lewis and Squeeze on tap, along with South African rap-ravers Die Antwoord due on Oct. 21 with their in-your-face, caustic lyrics.
Now about those squirrels that architect Lamb included in the theater design.
Bailey seemingly dismissed my theory that the squirrels were a result of Lamb building a home in 1920 in the Adirondacks, where the small woodland creatures live large. Rather, Bailey points to a 455-word posting in the theater’s offices, which ends by saying:
“Thomas Lamb put these little critters here for your entertainment. But perhaps more importantly, they were put there to remind us of how man and nature must get along, even if it takes a little effort.”