Burlington, Iowa's 1937 Capitol movie theatre sat for years in deterioration. Once the center of activity in a bustling downtown, the Capitol shut its doors in 1977 and faced the wrecking ball within the next decade.
The property changed hands a couple of times but without a vision for it, no progress was made to reopen the once elegant structure. It would be more than a quarter-century before the magical mix of people would connect to develop a plan for the Burlington Capitol Theater.
The Capitol Theater Foundation of Burlington, Iowa (CTF) was incorporated in 2005. Inspiration for a fund-raising campaign was born that year when then-CFT Board President Becky Anderson saw the movie The Majestic. Set in the early 1950’s about saving an old theater, Becky focused on the scene when the protagonist, Harry, brings his son into the theater to convince him that they need to reopen it. The son calls the theatre a dump but Harry disagrees: “...when people came to the theater it was like they’d come entering a palace, like in a dream, like in heaven. You had worries and problems out there, but once you came through those doors, they didn’t matter anymore. Would you remember if I told you how lucky we felt just to be here? To have the privilege of watching them. Why would you want to stay home and watch a little box? Because it’s convenient? Because you don’t have to get dressed up, because you could just sit there? How can you call that entertainment, alone in your living room? Where’s the other people? Where’s the audience? Where’s the magic? I tell you, in a place like this, the magic is all around you.”
That was the inspiration for the fund-raising campaign. To Bring Back The Magic to downtown Burlington. Another familiar story, this once-thriving and historic downtown had lost most of its business to new construction on the edge of town. The early board members shared more than a passion for a dilapidated movie house; they knew this picturesque city on the banks of the Mississippi River could be re-imagined and revitalized via a reason to start coming downtown again.
A plan was put in place to buy the Capitol Theater and the adjacent building. Taking on the refurbishing of the marquee proved as symbolic as it was functional. Board member Bob Brueck drew up a plan of what the two buildings might look like when combined to form a performing arts center; the board committed to buying both buildings for a total price of $115,000. 39 donors at that time were willing to give at least $1000 each and local attorney Dan Cahill fronted the money they were short. Board and capital campaign members worked all year to raise money to pay for the theater and reimburse Dan. Setting the goal to light the marquee by the end of the year was intended to show the community that the Capitol Theater Foundation was serious.
By October, funds were seriously short of what was needed to pay off Cahill's loan. The city of Burlington made a $20,000 donation, but they were still shy by $28,000.
Then, a man she had never met walked in to Becky Anderson's office and asked how much more money was needed. She told him they were $28,000 short. Don Current then said that he and his wife June would like to contribute that exact amount. Just… like magic.
CTF soon learned finding money to fix up an old theater isn’t easy. Board members were out presenting to service clubs, hosting “Pay off the Mortgage” Hog Roasts, renting space on the marquee to pay the electric bill, doing whatever they could to raise cash. They hired a Theater Consultant and Metzger Johnson Architects to put together a plan envisioning a new Performing Arts Center. The process took a year and was a starting point; the initial plan was too expensive to sell to the community so downsizing began.
In 2009, CTF applied for a Historic Sites Preservation Grant through the State Historic Society and a Main Street Grant. The application for the HSPG grant was approved providing funding for the theater’s HVAC system, but a Main Street grant was denied because CTF couldn’t show enough local support. The application for historic tax credits fell short as well.
A year later, Downtown Partners, Incorporated Executive Director Steve Frevert indicated that Main Street Iowa had been allocated $14 million from the IJOBS program to fund Main Street projects. CTF was invited to apply since they had been turned down for the earlier Main Street grant, but the application daunted them: the project had to be shovel ready and able to be completed in 18 months. After discussion, CTF decided to apply for $400,000 to complete the Annex and present that as a project which seemed doable.
The team was invited to Des Moines for an interview and on the way there Steve Frevert, Bob Brueck and Becky Anderson dreamed about what they could do if $400,000 was granted. After reviewing the application, the Main Street Review Panel asked why they were not applying to also complete the theater? The trio told them it would take too much money; also, the capital campaign had just begun. Jane Seaton, in charge, said that they wanted CTF to complete the entire project. “You need to ask for $1 million.” The trio looked at each other, speechless, then said, “We want a $1 million”. They ended up getting $1 million, attributing that to...magic.
Metzger Johnson Architects got busy with plans, the bid date was set for April 1, 2011, the fundraisers launched the BRING BACK THE MAGIC campaign and the state historic tax credits application was also approved, adding $368,000 to the IJOBs grant.
Construction began immediately and the capital campaign wrapped up in October of 2011 with total pledges of $1.2 million. The theatre was completed on time and the doors, closed for 35 of it's 75 years, reopened again on June 1 & 2, 2012 in a two-day gala celebration. Hopefully, the magic that brought back the Burlington Capitol Theater will continue to sustain the theater for generations to come. It is a magical place to experience.