Port Chester, New York’s Capitol Theatre, in the 1970s, was a great performance space for rock and roll. The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Traffic, David Bowie and Phish played there. The Grateful Dead played the theatre 18 times in one year from 1970 to 71. Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s guitarist, called it one of the best two performance spaces in the nation along with Fillmore West in San Francisco.
The great theatre was designed by noted theater architect Thomas W. Lamb and built in 1926. It was constructed for vaudeville and cinema and continued as a movie theater until 1970, after which it was renovated for use as a performance space. In 1984, The Capitol Theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1976, however, the theatre was shut down due to a village ordinance that prohibited live entertainment after 1 a.m. It was at this time that mother nature became the sole owner of the Capitol Theatre. The roof decayed, and pigeons made the stage their new home. The theatre remained dark until the early 80’s.
Last December, it was announced that the Capitol would be re-opened by music entrepreneur Peter Shapiro, who would present major concerts at the venue. It would undergo a two million dollar renovation with new sound and lighting equipment installed.
Before the renovation, Bob Dylan and his band often used the Capitol as a secret rehearsal space. Dylan apparently liked the acoustics. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Dylan offered to the play as the opening act at the newly renovated hall. That happened last night, when he opened the Capitol with “Watching the River Flow.”
As one who has seen Dylan many times over the past 30 years, it was one of the most energetic shows I've ever seen him perform. It was clear the man was having a good time. He smiled more last night than all the other concerts I've seen him in combined. Others who have been following him on the road told me he has been consistently in good spirits lately, so it probably had nothing to do with being at the Capitol.
As to the theatre staff, they did a lot right. The security was actually friendly. There were no bag checks at the door and no one hassled photographers. It was clear they were glad to see the people there.
A new video projection system used before the concert was amazing. It projected everything from psychedelic patterns on the walls and ceiling to an outer space scene, with an astronaut passing overhead. Trees grew up walls and at one point, the marble theatre walls crumbled, showing images of the next door train station. It was as if the entire building collapsed before your eyes. A bizarre scene, for sure, but a lot of fun.
The Capitol is back and Dylan gave it a rousing send off. The house was packed with Dylan notables, including Sean Willentz, the Princeton historian who wrote Bob Dylan in America, Greil Marcus, who wrote The Old, Weird America and Mitch Blank, Dylan’s archivist.
All photographs by Frank Beacham