Wheeling's landmark Capitol Music Hall faces closure

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WHEELING, W.Va. -- Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and a host of other country music luminaries walked under its illuminated red marquee, strolled through its Art Deco lobby and sang to fans who packed its ornate balconies.

VWH Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette
The lights likely will remain out at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling after a May 18 symphony performance.
Click photo for larger image.

Charley Pride drew so many people in the 1960s that the line choked intersections for blocks. Classical musicians, pop stars, theater troupes and tutued girls making dance-recital debuts took turns on its stage.

Nearly 80 years after opening its brass-trimmed doors, the Capitol Music Hall -- West Virginia's largest, most famous and arguably most beautiful theater -- is for sale and on the verge of closing.

A brief reprieve brokered by Gov. Joe Manchin III and Wheeling Mayor Nicholas Sparachane is expected to keep the historic hall open long enough for the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra to hold the final concert of its Masterworks series May 18.

But that likely will be the final event under the Capitol's current ownership, concert promoter Live Nation, which opted to close it rather than address a flurry of fire code violations. A bluegrass show scheduled tomorrow, with guitarist Tony Rice and Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring dobro artist Jerry Douglas, has been moved to Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.

The closing has prompted Wheeling government and business leaders to step up meetings and draft a plan to buy, restore and operate the downtown landmark that helped to ensure Wheeling's place on the national stage. To do that, however, they may need to come up with as much as $3 million.

"It's drawing the community together from every walk of life," said Susan C. Hogan, executive director of the symphony, which must find a new home while the Capitol is closed. "We're all rooting [to keep it] for the country-western stars, the symphony, the dance programs, the schools that have their Christmas shows there."

The faded but stately theater, which opened in 1928 in the heart of Wheeling's Main Street business district, houses a 2,450-seat auditorium, recording studio, ballroom and shop. It also is home to famed radio station WWVA-AM and five other Clear Channel-owned stations.

Outside, its marquee shields a walkway of embedded stars engraved with the names of country legends -- Cash, Haggard, Wynette, and the Joneses, Grandpa and George -- for whom the hall was a can't-miss tour date.

For more than 35 years, the Capitol also was the home of WWVA's Jamboree USA music shows and broadcasts, which drew throngs of star-struck country buffs from around the Tri-State area each Saturday night and entertained listeners around the country who picked up the station's mighty 50,000-watt signal.

But in recent years, the Capitol's luster declined. The Jamboree shifted focus to the huge summer "Jamboree in the Hills" festival and some artists sought larger, more lucrative venues, city and business officials said.

Fewer events were held and fewer repairs made on the Capitol, which had been owned by Clear Channel before it was sold last year to Clear Channel spin-off Live Nation, officials said. As Jamboree shows dwindled and stopped last year, city leaders and civic organizations began brainstorming about buying, refurbishing and running the hall, Mr. Sparachane said.

That consortium, which included the Wheeling Convention and Visitors Bureau, National Heritage Corp. and Regional Economic Development Group, ordered an engineering analysis of the scope of necessary repairs and improvements, the mayor said.

Ten million to 12 million tourists visit Wheeling each year, drawn to Wheeling Downs, Oglebay Park, the nearby Cabela's outdoor outfitters store, ethnic festivals and other attractions.

The city has successfully operated and attracted events to the 6,800-seat Wesbanco Arena civic center and two smaller riverfront amphitheaters, the mayor said, and local officials believed that keeping the Capitol open and attractive would further boost entertainment options.

"We're very active in the entertainment arena and we know the import of the Capitol to our city and our state," he said. "It made Wheeling famous and it's something we're hoping to conserve."

Live Nation listed the Capitol with a realty company several months ago, with an asking price of $850,000, spokesman John Vlautin said. Also earlier this year, Wheeling's fire department performed an annual inspection and found 23 fire code violations.

Wheeling Fire Chief Stephen A. Johnston did not return repeated calls. Mr. Vlautin would not detail the violations, but said the main ones involved the need to install sprinklers and upgrade the alarm system.

To keep the Capitol open while giving Live Nation time to address the violations, the city stationed firefighters there during a few events this spring, Mr. Sparachane said.

"There weren't very many and we thought it was manageable," he said. "In fairness to Live Nation, they just bought it and they were in transition. They were trying to work with the city."

But officials at Live Nation headquarters in Los Angeles decided to close the Capitol on May 1 out of safety and financial concerns, Mr. Vlautin said.

The abrupt closure upset owners of nearby businesses that catered to Capitol crowds.

George Dormas, whose family has run the homey Bridge Tavern and Grill on Main Street for 52 years, said he and his late father, Pete, stayed open to accommodate performers and fans who poured in after shows for coffee, hearty sandwiches and steaks with all the trimmings.

"I took it on the chin when [local department store] Stone & Thomas closed 10 years ago. I'm going to take it in the gut with this," said Mr. Dormas, ticking off on his fingers the names of stars he's fed.

"I'm a positive person and I will wait everybody out. But it's disheartening,'' he said. "I'm hopeful things will happen [with the city purchase plan] and it will be for the good of everyone."

Unaffected by the closing were WWVA and the other Clear Channel radio stations that operate from rented offices off the Capitol's lobby and are being sold to GoodRadio.TV pending Federal Communications Commission approval. It did force the relocation of the bluegrass show and other events and threatened the symphony concert that, Ms. Hogan said, would have been difficult to relocate.

Acoustics at the civic center weren't as desirable, she said, and the only other auditorium large enough was at John Marshall High School in Glen Dale, W.Va. That plan wasn't feasible because symphony rehearsals conflicted with testing at the school, she said.

After a phone call from Mr. Manchin and Mr. Sparachane, Live Nation officials last week agreed to keep the Capitol open for 30 days to accommodate the symphony and give local officials time to assess purchase and repair options. The symphony this week was working out insurance details and the city again planned to provide firefighters to ensure the safety of concert-goers, the mayor said.

Local leaders have heard that $2 million may be needed to make necessary repairs and comply with codes, remedy cramped and dated auditorium seating and spruce up the lobby's ornate moldings, tiled floor and fancy teal, taupe and terra-cotta-hued friezes. But they won't be sure until their analysis is completed, Mr. Sparachane said.

In the meantime, they've asked Live Nation for information about utility, maintenance, insurance and operating costs, rent revenue and other financial details needed to draw up a business plan. They're also looking for funding sources and ideas on dovetailing the hall's overhaul with riverfront development plans, the mayor said.

"We need to explore this as a business buying another business," he said. "We are only interested if we can bring it up to standard and put a plan together to buy it, renovate it and run it properly."

Despite those unanswered questions, Mr. Sparachane said Wheeling leaders relish a chance to burnish their neglected jewel.

"We had an organization that was not real excited about the venue and we as a city are very excited about it," he said. "This is an opportunity."


Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.


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