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A Brief History of the Capitol Theatre Project
Reflections on the Capitol project from Kevin McMillan
Upcoming at the Chatham Capitol Theatre
Chatham Capitol Theatre holds its official opening



A Brief History of the Capitol Theatre Project


The Capitol Theatre, located in the city of Chatham, Ontario, Canada, was built in 1929-1930, and was announced as one of the largest and grandest of its day in the country. Here are some historical quotations:


“Another venture, undertaken about the same time, was more successful. C.S.Hadley, leading a group of citizens interested in establishing a theatre featuring live entertainment as well as talking pictures, managed to realize this ambition. Like all dreams, its fruition needed much hard work and planning. It also required money, a good bit of which Hadley contributed personally. In the end the results were most pleasing to all concerned, for Hadley's group efforts resulted in the building of the “new” Capitol Theatre at the southwest corner of King and Forsyth Streets, the site of the Piggott Lumber Yard (downtown).

This theatre, reminiscent of the old Scane's Music Hall, was larger than its magnificent predecessor but did not seat any more than the Scane had accommodated. It opened to a packed house on July 9, 1930, with a screening of the musical comedy hit “Sally”. The first admission ticket was sold to Mr. A.E.Pilkey who is said to have observed that it was a most entertaining performance.”

John Rhodes, Centennial Chatham


Photo right: Kevin McMillan (left to right), Robert Fox, and Dan Donaldson – standing in front of one of the restored opera boxes in the Capitol Theatre – from a feature article in the Western Alumni Gazette. Photo credit: Claus Anderson

Capitol Theatre, 1945. Photo courtesy of The Chatham Capitol Theatre


“Contract awarded for Construction of New Theatre - All of the Preliminary work has now been completed and balance of excavation work is started - will be running cement of foundations in a few days - theatre will be one of the most modern in the country.”

“The general contract for the construction of the New Chatham Theatre, under the direction of Harris Theatres Limited, has been awarded to the Avery Ship Construction Company, who are at present finishing the work on the Chatham Vocational School.”

“Seating for 1,500 people.” “Modern conveniences - the stage will be fitted up with dressing rooms and all modern conveniences, and a space will be left on the Forsyth Street side to enable the company to handle all the scenery on its own property instead of using the street for this purpose. A driveway extends along the west side of the building through which supplies can be delivered. It will also be a protection from fires in surrounding buildings.”

“Above the foyer will be the projection rooms, and other mechanical rooms and one private box capable of holding twelve people.”

Chatham Daily News, September 5, 1929


“Famous Players Purchase Chatham Theatre - New Chatham Theatre to be operated by Famous Players Canadian Corporation Ltd. Deal was completed in Sarnia yesterday whereby the building, ground and equipment of the new "Chatham" Theatre is sold by Harris Theatres Limited - means highest class of entertainment for Chatham.

Purchase price was around $225,000 - Both parties to the negotiation satisfied with the agreement - Credit due Charles S. Hadley for providing Chatham with one of the best theatres in the country.”

Chatham Daily News, February 18, 1930


Original Capitol Theatre stage. Photo courtesy of The Chatham Capitol Theatre


Restored opera box. Photo courtesy of The Chatham Capitol Theatre


“Mayor Bedford Formally Opens New Capitol Theatre - Appropriate Ceremony marks the Dedication of ‘Palace of Pastime’”

“In the hope that Chatham will identify the confidence of those who have given a testimony of their faith in this city by erecting such a magnificent theatre, I now declare this palace of pastime officially opened to the people of Chatham and district. With these words, Mayor Burton L. Bedford formally dedicated the new Capitol Theatre of the Famous Players Canadian Corporation to the enjoyment and edification of the public.” “Claiming to rank second to none in Western Ontario for type of fire-proof construction, artistic interior decoration, gorgeous appointments, and comfort and convenience for patrons, none of the immense crowd which entered the theatre for the first time will dispute the statement.”

Chatham Daily News, April 12, 1930


The Capitol Theatre functioned thereafter largely as a cinema, but also, as required, for live entertainment. Performers as diverse as Canadian opera diva Teresa Stratas, Buddy Rich and his Orchestra, country singer Jim Reeves and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra appeared on its stage. In 1975, its size was deemed too large to support a single cinema, so a dividing wall was installed to make two smaller theatres. In 1992, the theatre ceased operations, and was put up for sale. In June 1995, it was purchased by the City of Chatham, and ear-marked for demolition.

Dividing wall installed to make two smaller theatres in 1975. Photo courtesy of The Chatham Capitol Theatre

To think it all started with walking my dog: Reflections on the Capitol project from Kevin McMillan


At this time, I lived in Chatham with my family, based there while performing in Canada, U.S., and Europe, and teaching voice at the University of Western Ontario, an hour’s drive away. One night, while walking our dog Ralph through the downtown, I noticed the Sold sign on the theatre, and was happy - thinking that it might be revived. When I discovered that it was to be demolished, I quickly sent a letter to the editor of the Chatham Daily News, asking openly if anyone else in Chatham felt that this would be a waste. Very quickly, a group that became known as the Chatham Capitol Theatre Coalition banded together around me to see what could be done to save the building. In July 1995, we made a presentation to Chatham City Council, and achieved a three-month stay in the demolition of the building. At the end of that three-month period, we were required to present to City Council a five-year management proposal for the operation of the theatre, a marketing study on the usage of the theatre, a fundraising plan and an architectural design study to assure the fitness of the facility for such a use.

During this three-month period, the Chatham Capitol Theatre Coalition set to these tasks, and raised sufficient funds through a series of events to cover the costs of these studies. In October 1995, we made a full presentation to Chatham City Council, and achieved unanimous approval for their efforts. As a result, City Council moved to halt demolition of the building and accept an offer from the Chatham Capitol Theatre Coalition to purchase the building for the same price they had purchased it – $100, 000.



Shortly thereafter, the Chatham Capitol Theatre Coalition dissolved, and a new entity formed - the Chatham Capitol Theatre Association, Inc. (CCTA) - a not-for-profit corporation, with Revenue Canada charitable status and a Board of Directors numbering 14. It assumed ownership of the real estate agreement with the City of Chatham for the purchase of the theatre, and closed that deal on November 29, 1996. It then become the owner and operator of the Capitol Theatre.

Since then, much has transpired.

Money has always been an issue with this project, since at inception there was not a lot of governmental support for such an effort. However, the Capitol Project soon discovered that by becoming affiliated with the Job Creation Partnership (JCP) provisions of the then Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) we could access a labour pool of individuals who were receiving Employment Insurance benefits.

Through this program, much of the renovation and restoration work at the Capitol Theatre has been done. These individuals have done everything from answer the telephone to fashioning ornate plaster work....and very effectively. The painstaking and time-consuming restoration of the heritage plaster interior of the Capitol was all completed by these people, under the capable guidance of designer David Hannivan, and the plastering instruction of the late Arie van Eyk.

Right: Chatham Capitol Theatre Association president Kevin McMillan addresses theatre supporters after the announcement at city hall Friday of a $7-million grant from the Ontario government. The Chatham Daily News, Saturday, March 29, 2008.


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This program has been a total success for Chatham-Kent, with nearly 300 people working in it over the years.... and roughly 70% of them going on to full-time employment. There are still JCP employees at the Capitol - now under the aegis of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities of Ontario - and they are working hard to finish the final interior work before opening.

Some other landmarks during this time included: extensive support from the Government of Canada in support of the JCP program; a $1M investment by the Municipality of Chatham-Kent, spearheaded by the late Mayor William Erickson; the retaining of the services of Robert Fox - a retired Lambton-Kent Board of Education Director - to lead and manage the restoration/renovation process (without his courage, tenacity and outstanding generosity, the project would never have been completed); a $600,000 investment from the Federal/Provincial Superbuild program; a $7.5M investment from the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Initiative (MIII) of the Province of Ontario; a Trillium grant, used to retain the services of the present General Manager of the Capitol Theatre, Dan Donaldson.... and donations by thousands of Chatham-Kent businesses and individuals totaling well over $4M.

Left: JCP participant works on a plaster molding. Below: Restored Capitol Theatre ceiling. Photos courtesy of The Chatham Capitol Theatre

The Municipality of Chatham-Kent had to assume the ownership of the Capitol Theatre before the application to the MIII grant could be made, so, in 2008, we sold the theatre (valued at over $10M) to the Municipality for $1. In that year, as well, the building next to the Capitol Theatre, which was once a grocery store, and controlled by Loblaws, was relinquished to the CCTA for use as the ‘Capitol Theatre Annex’. This property was crucial to the development of the Capitol, since it bounded the rear of the theatre, and we would not have been able to build the fly tower at the rear of the theatre without that access. Furthermore, the Capitol Annex will provide office space for the Capitol Theatre management, as well as become a profit centre for the operation of the Capitol.  


Architect's rendering of completed fly tower at rear of the Capitol Theatre.

  In 2009, heavy construction began on the remaining structural portion of the Capitol: the third floor at the front of the building, which affords access to the new 400-seat balcony, and the major effort - a full fly tower at the rear of the building to house the new professional stage and orchestra pit. The lion’s share of this construction is now complete, with everything closed in, and technical aspects of the theatre gradually coming on line. Interior work will continue throughout the coming months, with substantial completion happening in the summer, on time for a Gala Opening Festival, September 18-25, 2010. The final tab for the restoration/renovation of the Capitol Theatre will come in just under $20M...much less than building its equivalent from scratch. It will be a state-of-the-art proscenium theatre, with a fully rigged fly tower, technical equipment, and comfortable seating for 1, a landmark heritage interior.

Above: View from new balcony with new stage in place. Photo courtesy of The Chatham Capitol Theatre

  Interior work will continue throughout the coming months, with substantial completion happening in the summer, on time for a Gala Opening Festival, September 18-25, 2010.

Kevin McMillan and Jade Lester performing on the Capitol Theatre float in the Chatham Canada Day Parade.

  Throughout these 15 years, I have served steadily as the President of the Board of Directors...chairing hundreds of meetings - and doing my level best, through times that have often been intense and difficult, to keep everyone at the board table, working to find a way ahead. I have lobbied local, provincial and federal politicians every step of the way - from the opening skirmishes with City of Chatham Mayor William Erickson and local councillors through to the most recent negotiations with the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada. I have worked intensely right from the beginning with local architectural firm, Jorden & Cook, to make sure that we achieved the best possible theatre on the site. I have donated thousands of hours and dollars to the project, and have faced much scrutiny - both fair and unfair, positive and negative - in the Chatham-Kent community. Despite having to recently leave my adopted community of Chatham to accept a professorship in Virginia, I have stayed on as Board President, with my colleague, Diane McGuigan, acting as Board Chairperson. I keep aware daily of all the activities/challenges leading up to opening.

When I see the plans for the opening of the Capitol in September firmly laid out before us, all of that effort seems completely worth it. Chatham-Kent may not yet realize it, but one of its greatest assets is about to open on King Street in Chatham. I will be there that day, doing my best to maintain my composure, as my chest swells with pride for what a committed, tenacious and hard-working group of people have been able to create in the face of adversity.


To read more about the Chatham Capitol Theatre, and its upcoming opening, please go to: Chatham Capitol Theatre and join the Capitol Theatre on Facebook.


Upcoming at the Chatham Capitol Theatre


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Cosby to headline Capitol festival

A large gathering of theatre supporters, staff and municipal administration took part in an event, which officially announced that Bill Cosby is coming to the Chatham Capitol Theatre on September 22, 2010
The festival is slated for September 17-25. Other performers include impressionist Andre-Philippe Gagnon, Phantom of the Opera's Colm Wilkinson, a production of the ballet Cinderella, and the Dark Nights Movie Company.

For further festival information and tickets, visit the Capitol box office, Chatham Cultural Centre, call 519-354-8338, or log onto




Chatham Capitol Theatre holds its official opening


“By working together our community has achieved something that is nothing less than spectacular.”

KEVIN MCMILLAN, September 17, 2010



Curtain rises on new era – Chatham Daily News, September 18, 2010

Professional experience for local dancers – Chatham Daily News, September 22, 2010

Opening Remarks by Kevin McMillan, September 17, 2010

The Capitol Theatre is Reborn – Chatham-Kent Daily Post, September 18, 2010



Capitol Theatre holds its official opening – Chatham This Week, September 22, 2010


Capitol Theatre Auditorium Named in Honour of Robert Fox


As part of the Chatham-Kent Celebration last Saturday evening to close the RBC Opening Festival at the Chatham Capitol Theatre, Kevin McMillan, President of the Chatham Capitol Theatre Association announced that the main auditorium at the newly reopened venue would be called “The Robert and Lynn Fox Family Auditorium.” The name was chosen by the Board of Directors to recognize Bob Fox’s incredible contribution of both time and money to the project.

Capitol Theatre Auditorium Named in Honour of Robert Fox – Chatham-Kent Daily Post, October 2, 2010

Auditorium Naming Announcement by Kevin McMillan, September 25, 2010






Cosby gives Capitol an A+

“Chatham's Capitol Theatre received an ‘A-plus’ rating Tuesday from longtime comedian Bill Cosby, who entertained for two sold-out audiences last week.”


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Cosby gives Capitol an A+ – Chatham Daily News, September 28, 2010


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