When Brent Ronning ascended the stairs to the left of the stage at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday and realized there were at least a hundred people sitting in the brand new seats, he couldn’t help but grin.
Saturday’s open house at the theatre was a melding of both old and new for Portal Players Dramatic Society (PPDS), which purchased the Capitol in 1989 from the Warren family.
The theatre reopened last week following an extensive summer renovation, which saw all 275 original seats replaced with some purchased from the Galaxy Theatre in Campbell River. The sloped hardwood floor was also refinished, and track lighting and new carpeting installed.
Harold Warren installed those original seats in 1936, a year after his father Jack died. Jack had just sold the Port Theatre down the road and bought the land where the Capitol sits today.
Harold, barely out of his teens, took a chance in building the theatre so soon after the Depression, said his son Rick. Construction of the theatre took just four and a half months and cost $30,000, most of which was financed. But its state-of-the-art equipment brought the first movies with sound to Port Alberni, revolutionizing the way people watched movies.
Both Rick Warren and his sister Linda spoke of the family’s history in theatre during the open house, and the depth of their presentations kept people glued to their seats.
Warren’s children expressed their appreciation to the Portal Players, who they credit with saving the Capitol. “This is a huge honour for our family,” Rick Warren said following the unveiling of the Warren Wall and historical photo gallery in the upstairs lounge. “It’s made even more so by the fact that this building is supported by all these volunteers.
“It’s starting over. It’s new growth,” he said.
The amateur theatre company itself is undergoing a transformation too. Faced with cuts to gaming grants and the dissolution of the shortlived theatre manager’s position, the society has struggled.
“It’s a rejuvenation,” says Ronning. “We need to bring in our volunteers again to take ownership of the theatre.”
Volunteerism has fallen off in the past couple of years and the society is taking steps to change that.
“We’re being more purposeful with our season this year,” says Ronning. The first play, Les Belles-soeurs, a “dramedy” written by Michel Tremblay, was specifically chosen to draw new talent, he said. The play features 15 women in a play that, when it was first produced in 1968, turned Quebec culture on its head.
“It’s different from a lot of things we would do,” Ronning said.
Chantal Baumgartner is one such example of the new talent the PPDS is excited to draw. Baumgartner played a shy ghost in the costume room during the open house, but is primed for a spot in Les Belles Soeurs next month.
“It’s my first play,” she said, and her first time performing with PPDS. “I’m so stoked for it.”
Baumgartner was enrolled in the Capitol Glee program when she was younger, and has returned to the Alberni Valley looking to carve out a spot on stage.
Janis Cameron was another newcomer who took advantage of the open house. Cameron accompanied her husband Garry, who has been a PPDS member for many years—this is Janis’s first.
Ronning is already seeing positive changes, and he’s heartened by the buzz.
“What this will do is start bringing renewed energy so next year we can have a full season again and start bringing in more external events. So we can be more of the community asset we want to be.”