Oldie but goodie: Above, the projector beams its images from the Capitol Theatre’s balcony; left, executive director Art Pierce gets some popcorn at the lobby’s concession stand. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Capitolfest, however, is now resting easier, with three of the planned foursome surviving the incendiary situation; Universal reportedly had backup prints of many titles stashed elsewhere, while other copies were still circulating at rep houses, although the studio’s top priority is to strike new versions of torched films. So the show will go on at Capitolfest, with nine features and 10 shorts presented in 35mm at the 1,788-seat movie palace, as the projectors hurtle their old-school images from a vantage point 160 feet away onto a 20-by-40-foot screen. The silent features are accompanied by a titanic trio of ivory ticklers performing on the 1928 original installation theater organ: Avery Tunningley, Dr. Philip C. Carli and Bernie Anderson.
And since it’s the 80th anniversary of the Capitol, executive director Art Pierce attempted to cull the feature lineup from movies that actually played at the venue from 1928 to 1934, as the silent-movie industry segued to talkies. Virtually all flicks from that period played for one- or two-day engagements at the Capitol, the largest of the four vaudeville-era movie houses in Rome managed by the local Kallet chain, which included the Family, Star and Strand.
Amazingly, the wrecker’s ball avoided crashing into the Capitol, an unfortunate fate that befell so many theaters of that vintage when suburban cinemas of the 1960s flourished and urban renewal projects often failed to properly redevelop the nation’s downtowns. After the Capitol closed as a first-run house in 1973, Kallet still leased it for special events that demanded certain levels of seating. Kallet eventually sold it to the city of Rome for a buck, albeit under the stipulation that the Capitol must morph into a performing arts center, which it officially became in 1985 with its own board of trustees.
Film fare: Among the cinematic rarities at this weekend’s Capitolfest are (top to bottom) Clara Bow and Fredric March in the 1930 silent True to the Navy, Tom Brown and Mickey Rooney in 1932’s Fast Companions (and thanks to Richard Finegan for the still) and a lobby card featuring Lina Basquette and Carole Lombard in 1928’s Show Folks.
Pierce, 47, a hometown Roman and SUNY Oswego grad, remembers seeing hits like Mary Poppins at the Capitol during his childhood. He’s been on the Capitol board since 2001 and one of his first decisions was to get the theater’s organ pipes heard, which naturally meant scheduling a silent movie. The May 4, 2002, booking of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Godless Girl (1928) featured accompaniment by Carli, who came highly recommended from Syracuse Cinephile Society founder Phil Serling. More important, however, Pierce noted that some film aficionados traveled all the way from Chicago to see it, which got Pierce thinking about structuring a weekend devoted to such golden oldies.
Since the first Capitolfest in 2003, favorable word-of-mouth has been spreading. Pierce guesstimates that 90 percent of advance registrations have been repeat business, but there are more new-to-Capitolfest patrons slated for this weekend, with fans coming in from California, Missouri, Ohio, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Vermont. Industry professionals and preservationists also turn up in Rome, hailing from the Library of Congress, the National Archive of Canada and Rochester’s George Eastman House. And those Eastman House people will sit through anything: Representatives made the Thruway trek to see the July 24 Capitol screening of the 1964 Mexican pastiche Face of the Screaming Werewolf.
Since Pierce assumed the executive director seat in September 2004, the Capitol has witnessed much activity, not just silver-screen showings but also live theater and musical gigs. The Capitol hosted 135 performances in 2007, and local bean counters can decide whether it is busier than its Syracuse counterpart, the Landmark Theatre, also celebrating its 80th birthday this year. Pierce has already screened several vintage flicks at old Capitol prices; last February’s run of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with adult fares at 90 cents and kids charged 50 cents, did whopping business, and a Nov. 15 showing of Sean Connery’s Goldfinger, timed to the new Daniel Craig-as-007 movie Quantum of Solace, should also perform well.
The venue has been available for a few birthday parties but only one wedding to date: Pierce’s own nuptials with Kylie, the Capitol’s development coordinator, on Nov. 5, 2005. Carli was on hand to play “The Wedding March,” as well as to accompany Pierce’s surprise for their guests: a screening of Buster Keaton’s 1922 short My Wife’s Relations.
Capitolfest, again programmed by Pierce, offers five different programs spread across two days, starting with a morning slate on Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Kicking off the day will be The Kibitzer, first shown at the Capitol on May 11, 1930; this 1929 Paramount comedy stars Harry Green (in the role played on stage by Edward G. Robinson) as a cigar-store blowhard who knows nothing about handicapping Wall Street and horse races. It’s followed by the Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts short The Soilers (11:20 a.m.; 1932) and the 1932 Fox feature Tess of the Storm Country (11:40 a.m.), a Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell drama last screened at the Capitol on Dec. 29-31, 1932.
Saturday’s afternoon session, 2:10 to 6 p.m., begins with the 1929 Warner Bros./Vitaphone short showcasing music from Tal Henry’s North Carolinians. At 2:20 p.m. is The Vagabond King with Jeannette MacDonald and Warner Oland, returning to the Capitol after its engagement May 20-22, 1930. This 104-minute musical is a restored two-strip Technicolor beauty from the UCLA archives. The afternoon wraps with Fast Companions (4:40 p.m.; 1932), a Universal programmer about horse racing that features support from youngster Mickey Rooney; 74 years later, Rooney was still stealing scenes in 2006’s Night at the Museum. The Capitol last ran it down on Aug. 20, 1932.
The Saturday evening program, 7:30 to 11 p.m., features organ accompaniment by Tunningley for the silents. The selections begin with a Joe E. Brown Warner Bros./Vitaphone short subject Twinkle, Twinkle (1928) and the Walt Disney cartoon Oh! What a Knight (7:45 p.m.), a 1928 silent with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit that Disney created during his brief stint at Universal. Clara Bow, always a Capitolfest fave, is paired with Fredric March for the 1930 silent version of True to the Navy (7:55 p.m.), originally shown at the Capitol on June 8 and 9, 1930. Columbia’s Shaw and Lee comedy short Mind Doesn’t Matter (9:25 p.m.) and Paramount’s 1934 thriller Double Door (9:45 p.m.), a rarity first screened at the Capitol on May 29 and 30, 1934, ends the Saturday lineup.
Sunday’s morning segment, 9:45 a.m. to 1 p.m., starts with the 1930 Vitaphone short Ben Bernie and His Orchestra, another music-filled time capsule. The 1930 Paramount musical comedy Let’s Go Native (10 a.m. ), a Capitol headliner back on Nov. 7 and 8, 1930, features Jack Oakie and Jeanette MacDonald under the direction of Duck Soup auteur Leo McCarey. Google-eyed Ben Turpin stars in the 1928 silent short subject Why Babies Leave Home (11:35 a.m.), followed by the 1928 silent feature Show Folks (11:55 a.m.), with early turns from Robert Armstrong and Carole Lombard. The silents will be scored by organ master Bernie Anderson.
Selected shorts dominate the final program, running 2 to 5:45 p.m. Sunday, which commences with vaudevillian Jack Osterman in the 1929 Vitaphone one-reeler Talking It Over; a 1937 edition of Columbia’s Screen Snapshots series (2:15 p.m.); more arcane stuff at 2:30 p.m. when film collector Jack Theakston presents his annual grab bag of clips, trailers and shorts; and 1929’s silent short Movie Night (4 p.m.), another must for Charley Chase fans.
The fest winds down with the 4:25 p.m. showing of director William Wyler’s 1929 Universal drama The Shakedown (1927), with James Murray portraying a crooked boxer whose life is changed by a waitress (Barbara Kent) and an orphan (Jack Hanlon). Last shown at the Capitol on June 23, 1929, the flick will feature organ accompaniment by Carli. Pierce notes that the Sunday afternoon program ends earlier, so that out-of-towners can catch later trains back home without missing anything.
As a prelude to the weekend’s 35mm schedule, Capitolfest offers another evening of 16mm silent selections on Friday, Aug. 8, 7 to 10:30 p.m., at the Rome Elks Club, behind the Capitol 126 W. Liberty St. The program, which will have Tunningley performing on the club’s 1933 organ, includes the 1928 film The Little Wild Girl (7 p.m.), with an early performance by Boris Karloff; the 1928 Edward Everett Horton short Vacation Waves (8 p.m.); the 1927 Max Davidson short Flaming Fathers (8:45 p.m.); and Mary Astor and John Boles in the 1925 Fox feature Romance of the Underworld (9:05 p.m.), a Capitol booking back on Feb. 3, 1929. Reservations are strongly recommended, however, since the club only has room for about 100.
The festival’s three-day weekend pass fetches $50 for adults, $25 for children 12 and under, while a Saturday-Sunday pass is $45 for elders, $22 for young’uns. Single-day passes run $25 adults, $12 kids, while separate sessions are $14 adults, $5 children. The mint-condition prints hail from the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, George Eastman House and the vaults of Universal and Sony Pictures. For information, call 337-6453 or visit www.romecapitol.com.
Images of the Capitol’s former marquee.