Capitol Theatre

569 1/2 Westminster Street,
Providence, RI 02903

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Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on December 21, 2017 at 9:23 am

In addition to its location outside Providence’s main shopping and theater district, the Capitol had a design issue that probably contributed to the difficulty of operating it as a movie theater. The 1909-1910 Cahn guide describes The Imperial’s seating arrangement as 484 in the orchestra, 388 in the balcony, 40 in boxes, and a whopping 800 in the gallery.

As the stage, though 40 feet deep from footlights to back wall, was only 65 feet between side walls, the whole theater must have been fairly narrow, but the limited seating capacity of the orchestra suggests that the main floor was not very deep, either. The enormous gallery must have been high and steep, and considerably deeper than the main floor, and thus poorly suited for watching a screen set within the 35-foot wide proscenium. The lower seating capacity in the theater’s later years must have resulted from the closing of the gallery, or at least the greater part of it.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on May 24, 2015 at 1:28 pm

CAPITOL THEATRE PHOTO, 1941, FROM MGM REPORT Thanks to Theatre Historical Society of America.

rsalters (Ron Salters)
rsalters (Ron Salters) on May 2, 2015 at 11:37 am

The Theatre Historical Society has the MGM Theatre Report for the Capitol; it’s Card # 540. There is an exterior photo taken May 1941. The address is “Westminster”. Condition is Fair. It was over 15 years old, and was not showing MGM films. The seating was given as 2,000 which seems too high.

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.


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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 July 23, 2005 at 12:24 pm

When this theatre was the Shubert in 1906, there was a renowned performer who played here.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 22, 2005 at 2:14 am

In his book Temples of Illusion Roger Brett writes of the Imperial’s history:

“The Imperial Theater was large, handsome and well designed. It was one of the best ever built in town and it opened [September 22, 1902] with none other than The Four Cohans (including George M.) in their hit musical comedy The Governor’s Son. Its beginnings could not have been more promising, yet it was born under a hex and, despite several fresh starts, could not escape its fate. Like a high-born derelict, it wound up on skid row as E. M. Loew’s Capitol Theater, a ‘scratch-house’ if there ever was one….

“Impressive as it was on the inside, the Imperial was decidedly unimperial on the Cathedral Square façade. Above the lobby and two flanking shops, were the bachelor apartments, completely separated from the auditorium by a fire wall. They rose five floors high and because they were apartments, they were provided with fire escapes. The entire front of this building was, in all probability, the largest jungle of fire escapes and ladders that have ever defaced the streets of Providence. They looked as if they had been erected by a demented crew of iron workers who didn’t know when to stop.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 18, 2005 at 7:24 am

Here is a photo of the stage area of the Colonial from 1916 or earlier. The theatre was supposed to possess one of the finest stages in the city. In 1915 Colonial ads boasted “The Home of Refined Burlesque.”

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 17, 2005 at 11:37 pm

A book called "Temples of Illusion,” by Roger Brett, was published in 1976. It is Mr. Brett’s detailed history of all the old downtown area theatres of Providence from 1871 to 1950. It includes numerous rare photos, a list of theatres with name changes, and a map to show exactly where they all were. The book is an invaluable resource and is owned by many libraries in the R.I. CLAN system. I found a copy for sale online and will use it as a reference for future postings.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 17, 2005 at 11:45 am

Time-line for name-changes for this theatre as listed in the Providence Public Library topical card catalog:

1903-1912 Imperial
1913-1919 Colonial
1919-1922 Mayflower
1923-1931 Capitol
1932-1958 E.M. Loew’s Capitol

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 16, 2005 at 12:15 pm

The theatre first opened as the Imperial in 1902. At the start it was primarily a a theatrical venue before switching to movies. In the end it was considered a “scratch house” because of its cheapness and by then its shabbiness (although it was a theatre of remarkable character beneath all that.)

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 15, 2005 at 10:20 am

In fact before the Capitol was the Colonial, it had been the Imperial and the Shubert. The sequence was Imperial – Shubert – Colonial – Capitol. I found a map of downtown Providence theatres (1871-1950) and their name changes in the files of the Rhode Island Historical Society. That clears up a great deal of confusion for me.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on June 13, 2005 at 12:11 pm

The Capitol was previously known as the Colonial Theatre. A 1915 city directory gives the same address for the Colonial that the Capitol had: 569 ½ Westminster Street. According to a 1940 Providence Journal Almanac entry, the seating capacity of the Capitol was 996. The theatre was part of the E.M. Loew’s chain.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on April 3, 2005 at 8:58 am

This small photo with blurb was a recollection of the Capitol Theatre. It appeared in The Providence Journal, date unknown by me.
View link

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on November 9, 2004 at 8:47 am

That bus, mentioned above, would first go by the R.K.O. Albee and what was then called the Westminster Playhouse, both on Westminster Street, both now gone, before passing the Capitol.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on November 9, 2004 at 8:40 am

As a kid in the 1950s I went to this theatre a good number of times…but I wish I had gone more and spent all of my allowance there. It was unique and cheap and always showed double bills. I believe admission at the time was 35¢. It was located right near downtown Providence, between the city and Hoyle Square. The bus I took would go right by it as it went up Westminster Street. The same bus would then pass the Olympia (which I never went to) at Olneyville Square as well as the long-abandoned Royal, also in Olneyville at Plainfield Street and Hartford Avenue. Among the movies I remember seeing at the Capitol were a revival of THE YEARLING and the boy-loves-bull film THE BRAVE ONE, which I went back to see several times. As we all know, this kind of place does not exist and cannot exist any more. Sad.