Rebuilding the silver screen

Capitol Theatre owner plans renovations, looks for bookings for first year

First came the gallery, then the coffee shop and then an upstairs theater with a 20-foot screen.

Next step for Heath Claiborne and his renovation of the Capitol Theatre in downtown Maryville will place the theater as one of the largest venues in Blount County.

Claiborne plans to renovate the theater to become a flexible dinner theater. There will be a movie screen, movable tables and room for up to 400 people, depending on the configuration of the space. Claiborne will open the theater for parties, receptions, concerts and corporate events.

It’s been almost 40 years since the once-proud theater portion of the Capitol was used, but the memories surrounding the theater still abound.

Everyday someone walks in and shares a memory about the theater, Claiborne said. “They remember a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a fight or one particular movie,” he said. “The locals who come back in and haven’t been here for years, they still attempt to go to the bathroom where they used to be,” he said. “When they open the theater doors, they’re pretty surprised at how large the theater is. They’re shocked it’s still back there. It has been so long and all these memories rush back.”

People who never saw the theater when it was popular, don’t realize what is beyond the gallery and coffee shop walls. Communities all over the country are starting to renovate and reopen old buildings and businesses because they’re tired of the franchises and want nostalgia, Claiborne said.

“Everything we do is to play off memories and nostalgia. There’s only one Capitol Theatre in Maryville,” Claiborne said. “That’s what is going to drive this, the atmosphere of this place and whatever we do to keep it unique.”

Claiborne said he and his wife Benita have been planning to renovate the theater for three years. “I didn’t originally know I was going to open it up as a theater, but people kept coming in wanting to know when we were going to open it up,” he said of the 18,000 square foot building. The stage area is 26 feet deep and 40 feet wide, and the upstairs venue with movie screen is 28 feet by 40 feet.

Claiborne said there are considerations to be made when renovating a historic structure. “Whenever you go into a historic building, you have to give and take. It would be nice if you could go rip it out, but then you get rid of things you can’t replace -- like these stairwells,” he said.

Claiborne said the theater was going to have an art deco style with a retro, historic atmosphere, but all the electronics are going to be upgraded. “You’ll be able to watch a movie in hi-definition, and you’ll have state-of -the-art sound,” he said.

The facility will be a flexible dinner theater style venue for pre-booked events and also be able to do ticketed events. “If we tried to sell movie tickets only, we wouldn’t be able to survive,” he said.

But before workers can begin renovations and create the flexible dinner theater Claiborne wants, the artist/businessman said he’s got to know the business will be there to support the facility. The “build it, and they will come” philosophy won’t work in this case, he said.

To gage whether the bookings are “out there,” Claiborne is offering a special deal for anyone interested reserving the theater facility once it is renovated and reopened. “It’s an opportunity to pre-book the Capitol in a package deal they won’t be able to get anywhere,” he said. “We’ll give an unbelievable deal to make sure we get off to a good start the first year.”

Claiborne said he wants to host anyone who is planning a reception, party or any kind of private event. “I want the opportunity to host them and want them to take advantage of pre-booking to be one of the first to have an event here,” he said.

In between private, charity or business events, Claiborne is planning some ticketed public events.

“One thing we most certainly won’t be doing is showing first-run movies,” he said. “We’ll be doing classics. We’ll do ‘Gone with the Wind,’ and, for my generation, ‘Star Wars.’ We’ll be able to show movies, just not first runs.”

Claiborne said independently distributed movies and art house-type movies could also be shown at the Capitol. Sometimes these movies become commercially successful, such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” that started in small houses and gained commercial success. “A lot of these movies are artsy and are usually for a more discriminating audience, but some can really be funny,” he said. “Every now and then there’s a diamond in the rough.”

Claiborne said he could have patrons pick between more than a dozen independent movies. “I thought it would be fun to show films, and let the community vote on what they want to see. It’s more interactive,” he said.

Interactivity is an idea that piques Claiborne’s curiosity as it relates to his theater’s possibilities. He referenced Epcot Center in Florida as an example of how to create interactive entertainment. “They’ve created interactive venues that have been the most successful attractions they’ve ever had,” he said. “So I’m thinking, ‘What can I do that’s interactive here at the theater?’”

Claiborne said one idea he came up with involves the X-Box game Guitar Hero. “We could have a tournament where you have a battle of the bands. People could be on stage with the big screen behind them, playing Guitar Hero while the whole audience is judging,” he said.

The artist and businessman said that with flexible seating, the theater could host most events. “We can show a movie, a theater production, a concert or a wedding reception. We’ll be able to do anything,” he said.

The Capitol will be able to seat 250 for dinner or a symphony while seated at the round tables or the tables could be moved and staff could make room for 400 seats. There will even be room for dancing, he said.

He has already chosen the tables, round ones with metallic, shiny surfaces that are reflective and modern. “If someone wants something formal we can dress them up,” he said.

Claiborne plans on the theater being a one-stop shop for planned events. “If we do a wedding reception here, we can put their name on the movie marquee sign and roll out the red carpet and show the wedding video on the retractable screen and a band can be playing on stage,” Claiborne said.

Claiborne said he hopes to begin construction in May and finish by August with the first booking on Oct. 1. “We’re telling people to pick a date between October of this year and October of next year. We’re going to take small deposits and then we’re planning on having this place done at the end of August,” he said.

For more information, contact Claiborne at 865-980-1966.

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