Story by Josh Brokaw
Williamsport Lycoming Young Professionals toured the Community Arts Center the evening of July 30. CAC executive director Rob Steele told the group stories of the historic theater’s past, from its opening as the Capitol Theatre in 1928 to its resurrection as a destination venue as the CAC in 1993, and offered insight into his own work behind the scenes of show business.
Steele began the tour in the lobby, where he shared a bit of his personal career history. A Michigan native, Steele spent 13 years in banking, then owned and operated several grinder (i.e. hoagie) shops as a franchisee. He applied to work as the director of a community theater on a whim, and to his surprise, got the job. Eight and a half years ago, he applied to work at the CAC on “a crummy day,” and after a rigorous interview process found himself in Williamsport.
The tour moved into the auditorium, where Steele told of the $12 million renovation project needed to turn the Capitol Theater from an aged, nicotine-stained space which had never fully recovered from a 1936 flood into a place worthy of world-class entertainers.
Beautiful and colorful designs were discovered on ceilings and restored with great care. Plasterers, an artisan species near extinction, were brought in to restore the entry hall walls to their original, leather-like appearance. The original carpet design was discovered, undamaged, under a file cabinet and now CAC patrons walk on the same lush red carpet as did those entering the Capitol Theatre in 1928.
In Steele’s first year at the CAC, he often received complaints about sound and temperature levels at intermission.
“You’d have one guy coming up and saying ‘I paid $45 for this ticket and I can’t understand a thing they’re saying,’” Steele said. “And I’d say I have my best man upstairs working on it. Then the next came up saying ‘my lawyer’s in section 4 and when this show is over I’m going to sue you for damage to my hearing.’ And I’d say, I have my best man upstairs working on it.”
Since then, the CAC has installed a quarter-million dollar Bose distributed sound system and improved its climate control; complaints at intermission have been reduced significantly.
Steele says the CAC is up there with any theater on the Eastern Seaboard for looks – stars often come across the stage at sound check time, usually on the phone, and pause their conversation when they look up – yet the work of improvement is never over. Recently, the 10,000 lightbulbs at the CAC were replaced with LED lights, a $110,000 project that’s saving the venue $3,000 per month in electricity costs. The next big project the CAC has in the works is replacing upper-level balcony rows with corporate-sponsored lounge-style table and couch seating.
In the star dressing room, backstage, Steele told about the strangest request he’s ever received in a hospitality rider: Willie Nelson requested two gallons of organic aloe vera.
After searching in vain for so much skin-soothing lotion, Steele called Nelson’s tour manager:
“He said ‘That’s supposed to be two gallons of aloe vera water. Willie figures he can drink that, and he can drink and smoke whatever he wants, and be cleansed from the inside.’”