13 Campbell Street,
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The Capitol Theatre was built on the site of the 1893 Sydney Fruit and Vegetable Market in the Haymarket area of the city centre. The site was later redeveloped for Wirth Bros. Circus, opening as the Hippodrome in 1916. The original facade of the markets has been retained, although the 36 street level arches were rebuilt up to the second level of the building.
In 1927, Union Theatres took over the lease (the property was and is still owned by the Sydney City Council) and converted it into a movie palace. Sydney architect Henry White, went to America in 1927 to get ‘know-how' on what was the latest in theatre design.
What no one knew until the 1970’s, Stuart Doyle, head of Union Theatres, employed John Eberson to design much of the Capitol Theatre, particularly its auditorium. His finished plans were sent to Henry White’s office in Australia, then released with only Henry White’s name on them. Whereas, the American drawings listed ‘Henry White, Sydney, and John Eberson, Chicago, Architects-in-Association’ as the principal architects.
When the conversion was complete, the Capitol Theatre reopened as an Atmospheric style movie palace on Easter Saturday, April 7, 1928; with the silent feature “His Lady” starring John Barrymore and Dolores Costello. Seating was provided for 2,973, in orchestra stalls and balcony. There was always a lavish stage production with orchestra, singers and dancers, before the main feature. The Wurlitzer 3Manual/15Rank theatre organ was played by the American organist, Fred Scholl, the organist from Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian theatres in Hollywood, California.
After the close of Greater Union Theatres' lease in 1972, “Jesus Christ Superstar” played on stage for a couple of years, and then rock concerts took over the venue, with vandalism beyond belief. In 1977 the ailing building was classified by the National Trust of New South Wales. In 1989, it was decided to restore the theatre as a venue for live theatre. Restoration and extension work started in 1993.
Some $AU30 million later, the fully-restored Capitol Theatre opened on January 24, 1995. In July 1995, “Miss Saigon” became the theatre’s first big stage production. The stage had been extended into a street at the rear of the theatre and the orchestra pit enlarged to accommodate 110 players.
The stage is now one of the largest in Australia. The fly-tower is some 5 floors high. A 35mm projector was installed in 1999 for nostalgia screenings whenever the theater is closed for ‘live’ shows. “Gone With the Wind” was the first of many films in the pipeline, but because of changing theater management and policy, the screening of films has suspended. A great shame, as the theatre was originally designed for movies.
For a complete visual history of Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, a 60 minute documentary on VHS cassette “Once Upon a Dream”, is available exclusively from Kino Cinema Quarterly in NTSC and PAL format for $US20 (including overseas airmail postage) and $AU30 (including Australian postage).
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