Capitol Theater, Willimantic

November, 2016 by Ray Bendici
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Courtesy of Google Earth

The Damned Story: As with many old theaters across the state, the Capitol Theater in downtown Willimantic has had its share of dramas, both on and off the main stage. And although many theaters talk of having “ghosts” in the sense of memories of past productions, there are those who believe that this theater literally is home to otherworldy spirits.

The Capitol Theater was completed in January 1926, and according to the Willimantic’s Mill Museum’s website, when it opened, the ornate theater offered over 1,200 seats, brass light fixtures, a large balcony and promenade, private seating boxes, smoking rooms (for ladies and gents) and a marble staircase. Audiences were entertained by both movies and live vaudeville acts on the 80-foot-wide stage for a few years before vaudeville faded and the facility switched over to just showing movies.

Hundreds of films were shown here over nearly four decades before the curtain came down in October 1973. The building then sat empty for nearly 30 years, falling into serious disrepair.

In 2002, a $17 million renovation was begun to return it to its former splendor, and two years later, it re-opened its doors as a regional arts magnet high school, Arts at the Capitol Theater (ACT), and home to the Capitol Theater Arts Academy (CTAA). The gorgeous art deco-themed facility now has multiple stages, classrooms, galleries and studios as well as other theater-related spaces.

As for hauntings, there are two stories that related to the theater.

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The first one dates back to the 1920s, and in it, an actress involved in a love triangle was killed in the balcony by a misguided bullet fired by one of her actor lovers that was intended for her other actor lover. The second tale is that during a live performance involving a sword fight, the scene went horribly awry and one actor accidentally stabbed another, who subsequently died from his wounds. (Every actor wants a dramatic death scene, right?)

As it turns out, there is no record of any murders or stabbings, accidental or otherwise, having occurred in the Capitol Theater. The only known tragedy was when a woman fell from the balcony and died a few days later in a local hospital. (A few performers also may have figuratively "died" on stage during bad performances, too!)

In 1924, there was a Willimantic love triangle that ended in murder, but apparently that involved a mother and daughter who owned a dress shop next door to the theater; the husband/father was killed shortly after the affairs came to light, although it was never determined if he was murdered by the wife, the daughter or the lover. It’s certainly possible that over the years, this story morphed into the one about the shooting in the theater balcony, although it never occurred on the premises.

Over the years, various paranormal phenomena have been reported here, including ghostly entities being seen in the balcony and dressing rooms. Others have claimed to have heard disembodied voices, footsteps and a baby’s cry in various spots throughout the building. Photos involving purported spirits have also been taken here.

Our Damned Experience: Although we think it’s a capital idea, we’ve never tread the boards at the Capitol Theater.

If You Go: The Capitol is now the regional arts magnet high school known as ACT: Arts at the Capitol Theater. It is located at 896 Main Street in Willimantic, and although is not open to the public, per se, offers a regular schedule of theater events available to all throughout the year. The theater is also available to rent for special occasions.

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My mother was the manager of the Capitol Theater throughout most of my childhood, from about 1960-1972. I knew every floorboard in the place, including backstage, beneath the stage and the view of the railroad tracks out back when the warehouse was opened. My sisters and I used to put on plays for my Mom when movies weren't playing. I saw Mary Poppins so many times I used to be able to recite it! Then there was West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and so many more. She had live plays and beauty contests, too, and Pencil Box Matinee Shows with all Warner Bros. cartoons just before school started every year, and other crazy publicity stunts around Willimantic. There were many stories about managers who hung themselves and we always had this fear for my Mom in the back of our heads. The Capitol was our home away from home. It was a fun place to grow up in; lots of great memories! Popcorn is still one of my favorite foods!

Submitted by Skipper Barrett (not verified) on
Christian....I knew your mother, Marge. She took over The Capitol after my dad Russ Barrett left the theatre biz in 1960. I too spent much of my time there as a kid from 1944-1960. I have some wonderful memories of the palce too, like you. On ghosts...there was a lady who died in the balcony mezzanine area in the 1950s. It happened one evening before the films began. Killourey Bros funeral home came and took the body away with the Willimantic Police. She had died of a heart attack and was elderly. Many have said they have heard an old woman's voice in the mezzanine area calling for "Mary". Your mom was a very nice woman and I remember her kindness and professionalism in running the theatre back then. It is too bad Willimantic could not have restored The Capitol as other cities in Connecticut have done with their vintage/retro movie palaces. But, that is another story....

Submitted by Julie Laumark (not verified) on
The tale I heard was that in the early 70's, the Capitol was playing a double feature of "Klute" & "GEt Carter". Footsteps could be heard running through the theater, but no runners could be found. The activity kept increasing until Connecticut's famous ghost hunters, the Warrens, we called & performed a "cleansing". This story was told by a friend who was working as an usher at the time. Does this tale have any truth to it?

Submitted by Loren La Terra ... (not verified) on
Hi My friend Julue! Ironically I'm just seeing this! Not sure about the running, but went to the bathroom during Jaws (1975?) Upstairs, as hot as could be as upstairs wasnt ac'd, got to the janitors closet before the bathroom whose door opened in front of me all by itself with frigid air blowing in my face and no one, earthly, there, but I could feel someone, or something. I no longer had to go to the bathroom and ran shaking back to my seat and friend Sharon, lol

Submitted by Lucille Medina (not verified) on
I often enjoyed movies at the Capitol in the l950's. My uncle Jack owned Brett's Pharmacy which was across the street from the theater. Although I lived in California at the time, I visited my grandmother during summer vacation.

Submitted by Livvie Kurnyk (not verified) on
hey, i currently go to the arts magnet high school. at school we joke alot about the "ACT ghost" Some teachers/students have claimed hearing footsteps, and we've always wanted to see if there really was a ghost in our school. it would be super cool if people could come check it out.

Submitted by sydney (not verified) on
i too are currently go to the capitol for a summer program and have been for four years we put on a play at the end and i have been in every dressing room, everywhere backstage and through the entire building including the catwalk and mezzanine and i am pretty sure there is something in the building but a i am NOT 100% sure. the one place that i do belive there is something there is the catwalk,but i love the place and have had such good memories and plan to continue to for many years.

My mother used to go to the Capitol Theater to see film in the '60s. She tells me - and swears its true, though I'm a skeptic - that one night, she and a friend snuck up to the balcony and saw a terrifying specter. As they watched the film, they heard a door open in the rear and ducked down in their seats, thinking it was an usher coming to chastise them for being out of place. After a few minutes they sat back up and resumed watching. Then, her friend turned ash white and shook my mother's arm, pointing to something standing at the edge of the balcony: a translucent, human phantom. They were petrified with fear until the specter turned and began floating along the front of the balcony, finally turning down the aisle my mother and her friend were sitting in. My mother says she clearly observed that the ghostly image had no feet and glided on nothing but air. In any case, she screamed and the pair of them took off for the exit before the figure reached them. As I said, I'm skeptical. But this is the story as my mother tells it, and she is adamant that events occurred as she describes.

Submitted by Gabes Brown (not verified) on
I graduated from Arts at the Capitol Theater. While I never saw anything, I did have my own experience. I was using the restroom of the fourth floor, it was during class time so no one would be in the halls. All of a sudden I heard steps coming from the short hallway toward the bathroom door, the shoes would have been high heels. The steps began in the middle of the hallway, not from an entrance which I would have heard. Then there was a knock at the door and I said just a second, I opened the door in less than 30 seconds and no one was there. There was no sound of walking away, no opening of the door to the stairs, which makes a noise loud enough to hear because of the handle, and no time to use the elevator, which would also make a sound. There is only one classroom on the fourth floor and I was in that class so I am certain they were not from there. The steps came out of nowhere and vanished just as mysteriously.