Capitol Theatre

569 1/2 Westminster Street,
Providence, RI 02903

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1900s

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Charles Allen announced construction of this theatre in 1900 with the plan to name it Allen’s Grand Opera House, but he ran out of money and sold the unfinished theatre to James A. Foster. The theatre was a well-designed place, one of the best
ever built in the city of Providence. It opened in 1902 as the Imperial. It was located across the street from the still new Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, across Cathedral Square at the intersection (then) of Westminster and Weybosset Streets. It began as a first-class dramatic venue with none other than the Four Cohans appearing opening night. George M. Cohan was from the city of Providence.

With a transitional interior style resembling both a 19th Century opera house and an early 20th Century theatre, it was the only house of its kind built in Providence. It was a three-decker, with an orchestra, balcony, and gallery. The theatre was less impressive from the outside, with its jungle of fire escapes over the Cathedral Square facade.

But the theatre seemed to have a jinx and after its initial promise and creeped into a slow descent. Its location just beyond the perimeter of downtown may have affected its image and potential as well. In succeeding decades the theatre moved into vaudeville and burlesque and then films and underwent many name changes later that included Shubert, Mayflower, Colonial, and ultimately Capitol or E.M. Loew’s Capitol. It met pretty much the same fate as did both the Keith’s/Victory/Empire and the Westminster/Empire/Bijou a few blocks away, becoming a skid-row theatre, the quintessential “scratch-house” featuring frequent changes of double bills of third-run and old movies at rock-bottom admission prices. It was a delight for chronic film addicts but also a magnet for derelicts escaping the outside world for a place to sleep. Not much was done in the way of upkeep.

The Capitol Theatre was located about half a block up Westminster Street from the Modern/Westminster Playhouse near Empire Street. It was demolished in 1965 to make way for a parking lot in the Weybosset Hill renewal project that eliminated segments of Westminster and Weybosset Streets and created a plaza in front of the Cathedral and a complex of buildings adjacent to and near it.

Contributed by Gerald A. DeLuca

Recent comments (view all 21 comments)

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on July 24, 2005 at 12:31 am

Here is a photo of the exterior of the theatre when it was known as the Imperial in its first years. You can see why Roger Brett refers to the front as “a jungle of fire escapes and ladders.”

My June 18 posting above of the time-line of name changes for this theatre (as filed on a PPL card) doesn’t include the name Shubert, which it was called from 1906 for few years.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on August 20, 2005 at 11:19 am

A Providence Evening Bulletin article of November 17, 1965 reported that the Capitol was being demolished at the time of writing in order to create a parking lot, as part of the Weybosset Hill renewal project. The article said that “City Hall officials hailed the availability of more parking space with the death of the Capitol Theater, in view of the Christmas shopping season.” The spot occupied by the theatre and the subsequent lot now maps as being in the line of Interstate 95 where it passes through the city.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on September 18, 2005 at 12:37 pm

It is not true that the Capitol, as stated above, made way for Interstate 95. An aerial view of the area from the early 1960s shows us Route 95 nearing completion. One can clearly make out the Capitol Theatre well east of it. The exact spot is today a parking lot, between Washington Street and the Diocese of Providence Auditorium. If you are driving into the city on Westminster Street, you cross the bridge over the expressway toward the Diocesan Auditorium. Turn left and the lot where the theatre used to be is to the left of that auditorium. Before the Weybosset Hill renewal one could continue (had the traffic pattern allowed) straight through into downtown along that portion of Westminster Street that no longer exists. You could have taken a right down a portion of Weybosset Street that no longer exists. So the Capitol was at the precise intersection of Westminster and Weybosset Streets at what was known as Cathedral Square. That intersection/swquare is gone. The Diocese of Providence could have purchased that historic theatre and used it as their diocesan auditorium and office building instead of building a new one!

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on September 19, 2005 at 1:55 am

In this detail from an early 1960s aerial shot, you can see the Capitol Theatre at the top center. To the far left is Interstate 95, nearing completion through Providence. On the right is the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, seen from the rear. Note the proximity to the Capitol just across the street, a bit to the left. That square was Cathedral Square, now subsumed by the plaza in front of the Cathedral. The two streets at that point were portions of Westminster and Weybosset which were eliminated. The city street to the right of Rte. 95 and paralleling it is Service Road No. 8. The Capitol is now a parking lot. Facing Service Road No. 8, smack in the path of Westminster Street, is where the Diocese of Providence auditorium is.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on April 4, 2006 at 4:22 am

This old postcard image shows the theatre in the first decade of the 20th Century when it was called the Imperial. The theatre, on the right, can be seen with all its fire-escape structure. The “Imperial” sign on the left may have been added in the printing of the postcard. It doesn’t look like a billboard. Images of this theatre are extremely rare.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on April 13, 2006 at 4:49 am

This old postcard image shows the entrance to the Imperial Theatre around the year 1907. The poster on the left is for vaudevillians Baker and Lynn. The shoe-shine parlor on the right charges 5¢ for ladies and gents. The windows above the entrance are for residential apartments, and the start of the theatre’s famous (infamous?) jungle of fire escapes can be seen. This is a rare and remarkable photo of a historic theatre of Providence.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 27, 2006 at 6:01 am

This old postcard image also comes from around 1907. It was mailed in 1909. Notice the signs for the Imperial on the left. The Imperial itself is on the right, decked out in the colors.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 16, 2011 at 4:30 pm

A 1926 newspaper article lists the seating capacity of the Capitol as 1400.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on January 20, 2011 at 10:57 am

In September 1922 this theatre was part of Rhode Island’s Paramount Week. Click to see the ad in Providence News, September 1, 1922, which contains a list of all participating theatres as well as the films shown that week.

PART ONE OF AD
PART TWO OF AD

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