New Brunswick

Backstage pass: Top 5 secrets of Moncton's Capitol Theatre

As Moncton's Capitol Theatre celebrates its 25th Anniversary, staff and volunteers who know every nook and cranny of the landmark building agreed to take CBC New Brunswick behind the scenes and reveal some of the secrets of the historic theatre.

25-year-old Capitol Theatre reveals curious aspects of historic building most never see

Winston Pearce, 83, was the first member of the Capitol Theatre board of directors and is now a member of the house committee. He gave CBC New Brunswick a tour of the theatre from the basement, to the balcony, to the rafters. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

As Moncton's Capitol Theatre celebrates its 25th Anniversary, staff and volunteers who know every nook and cranny of the landmark building agreed to take CBC New Brunswick behind the scenes and reveal some of the secrets of the historic theatre.

1. Original fire curtain

The late broadcaster Peter Gzowski was the first performer to sign the original 1920s fire curtain that hangs at the Capitol Theatre. His Eveningside show christened the stage when the theatre reopened on Aug. 11, 1993. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

A fire in 1926 destroyed most of the Capitol Theatre, but there are a couple of relics that survived, including the original fire curtain from the 1920s.

The heavy, fire resistant curtain is designed to prevent a fire that starts on the stage from spreading to the rest of the theatre, explained managing director Kim Rayworth.

"So if the fire alarm goes off and there's any kind of perceived fire, that will drop like a canon to stop the fire from going from the back of house to the front of house or taking out the whole building," she explained.

From left to right, Winston Pearce, Marshall Button and Kim Rayworth reminisce as they look at the hundreds of autographs from performers at the Capitol Theatre over the past 25 years. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

During the refurbishment of the Capitol in the early 1990s, the original fire curtain was found, covered in soot from the 1926 fire, in the basement of Resurgo Place.

"And the artisans who were here to refurbish the hall … they said, 'We know exactly what to do,'" Rayworth said. "They made bread dough, and it was with the raw bread dough that they were able to clean all the soot and years worth of grime."

The original curtain started a new tradition at the theatre, and every performer since the Capitol reopened in August 1993 has signed the back of it.

Capitol Theatre staff and volunteers take CBC News behind the scenes to reveal some secrets of its history. 1:16

It is a who's who of Canadian talent, including comedians, singers and actors.

Artistic director Marshall Button found his own signature from his first performance with Theatre New Brunswick in 1993, and pointed out Stompin' Tom Connors's autograph from 1998.

"That was around the years when it became no longer legal to smoke in a building and Tom said, 'I'm not going to follow that. I'm going to smoke where I damn well want to,'" Button said.

2. A bird's eye view — from the chandelier

Few people see the view from above the original chandelier that hangs from the painted ceiling of the Capitol Theatre. If you are charged with changing the lightbulbs, Winston Pearce jokes you have drawn the short straw. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

The original chandelier that hangs from the ceiling of the theatre has been updated with LED lights, but 83-year-old Winston Pearce said those light bulbs still need to be changed once in a while.

To get there, crews have to climb three creaky, wooden ladders and climb on their hands and knees.

Pearce, a former board member, current house committee member and longtime volunteer at the Capitol Theatre, takes the rungs two at a time.

You have drawn the short straw at the Capitol Theatre if you have to change the light bulbs in the chandelier that hangs above. This is the view from the rafters. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

When you make it to the top, the view is worth it.

"It's a long way down," Pearce laughed. "I always ask the question before I take somebody up. 'Are you afraid of heights,' so we find out who likes heights and who doesn't."

3. The film vault

Pearce in a fire-proof vault in the basement of the Capitol Theatre, which used to show motion pictures. The space is now an electrical room, but in the 1920s and 1930s was used to store films that could spontaneously combust. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

In the basement of the Capitol Theatre is an old vault that was used to store film reels in the 1920s and 1930s.

"They kept them in this vault because they had a bad habit of catching fire," said Pearce. "Spontaneous combustion."

In the 1920s and 1930s, the movie industry used nitrate film, which is flammable and could ignite under the right conditions.

"So if they didn't store [the film reels] in a fireproof vault these things spontaneously combusted and started fires. So this was where they kept the films from when they were running those early films."

The vault now serves as an electrical room for the Capitol Theatre.

4. A charred beam survives

You can still smell the smoke if you get close to this charred beam in the attic of the Capitol Theatre. The beam remains after a fire at the theatre in 1926. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

Behind a secret door off the balcony of the Capitol Theatre and up a ladder, you will find another original relic that survived the 1926 fire.

"You're going to see some wood on the side that's burnt and you could put your nose right up to it and the scent that you have was created in 1926 and lingers to this day," Button said.

One of several ladders you have to climb to get into the rafters of the Capitol Theatre. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

For some reason, Button said, the charred beam was overlooked and never replaced when the theatre was rebuilt at a cost of $300,000 during the "golden age of Vaudeville."

5. Lost firefighter 'here with us still'

Kim Rayworth says she and many others have heard the footsteps and seen evidence of the ghost of A.H. (Sandy) Lindsay, the firefighter who died trying to save the theatre in 1926. (Ian Bonnell/CBC)

The Capitol Theatre also has a secret that dates back to the fire in 1926 that you can't see, but Rayworth attests you can definitely feel.

"There was a volunteer firefighter that died trying to save the building … and many members of the team here have different little stories and feelings that they've had." 

Rayworth herself is convinced she felt the presence of A.H. (Sandy) Lindsay one winter when she was alone, in the balcony of the theatre, between Christmas and New Year's, checking the building.

"I really heard and I sensed the vibrations of big footsteps running on the steps right over my head, and every little hair on the back of my neck stood up."

Rayworth said the presence she felt wasn't scary but rather "a good feeling," and she believes Sandy is glad people still gather at the Capitol Theatre.

"Other people have talked about finding soot in different, very unusual places where there should not be soot, or what seems like ashes. So we think Sandy is here with us still."

Many late Canadian icons, including Mr. Dressup who was played by Ernie Coombs, have signed the back of the fire curtain that hangs at the Capitol Theatre over the past 25 years. (Submitted by Kim Rayworth)

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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