The Capitol Theatre: A Rock Palace is Reborn

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Features

The Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NYThe Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY had a glorious history that began in 1920s with vaudeville and movies (silent and talkies) before emerging, in the 1960s and 1970s, as a rock ‘n’ roll palace that dispensed sonic pleasures for those grooving to the sounds of the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and other great bands of that generation. But like so many beautiful old theaters, the doors were locked and, despite an open-to-the-public revival in the 1980s and 1990s, where bands like Phish and local theater groups play The Cap, the venue was at risk of becoming a shadow of its former past. Could the wrecking ball be far behind?

Enter Peter Shapiro who, with concert promotion company The Bowery Presents, decided to substantially upgrade the theater’s light and sound systems. As a public music venue, it has roared to life anew: The Roots, Fiona Apple, Blues Traveler, Indigo Girls, the Moody Blues, and My Morning Jacket are just a few of the big acts who’ve played the renovated room.
The Capitol’s production manager, Jon Dindas was Shapiro’s first hire, and they had worked together on and off for the past dozen years on an assortment of events, including the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on the National Mall. Dindas is a road warrior, but this was an offer he could not refuse. “I was very happy and not really looking to come off the road,” he tells. “But I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work with Peter on bringing back a room that my favorite bands played in the 1970s, and a place where I came to listen to bands in 1990s.”
Dindas had a connection to Eighth Day Sound, having worked with the touring side of the company for many years. “As soon as I got set up here, they were my first call.” He chatted with [tour service director] Owen Orzack, who turned him over to Eighth Day’s director of installation, Tom George.
The Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NYPsychedelic Rock Palace
Designed by theater architect Thomas Lamb, the Capitol Theatre was built in 1926. The last major renovation prior to Shapiro’s $2 million overhaul — which he invested while leasing the space — was in the 1960s, when the owners made it strictly a live performance space.
Finally, in late Dec. 2012, nearly four months after the Sept. 4, 2012 grand re-opening as a public music venue, Shapiro acquired the theater from former owner Marvin Ravikoff, who had been renting it out for catered events and as a rehearsal space, for a reported $11.5 million.
Shapiro, whose ambition was to create a “psychedelic rock palace,” was also quoted in The New York Times as saying, “You can’t create a rock palace. You can only reinvent one, and I am fortunate to have one. This is a queen. This is not a princess. That means giving her the best sound available in the world.”
The space, already hailed as a “great-sounding room” by the likes of veteran rock concert promoter John Scher, has also been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984. So the “best sound in the world” would need an asterisk: along with the latest audio technology, the installation would require that the aesthetics of the old theater be preserved.
Dindas, who describes the installation as “preserving the past while bringing it into the future,” notes the concerns over messing with the historic venue’s aesthetics. “It has a 1926 gold proscenium, and we didn’t want a bunch of huge boxes in front of it.” The solution to this dilemma, as Dindas would find, would be the ability to get big sound out of smaller speakers.
Hanging the stage right d&b audiotechnik arrayAn Alphabet of Cabinet Choices
In the early stages of the project, Dindas met with reps from all the major speaker companies. He found himself increasingly drawn to systems from d&b audiotechnik. Michael Eisenberg helped steer the installation team toward d&b’s V-Series gear.
“I went to visit the theater as the sound system was being installed and I was impressed at how beautifully restored the building was,” says d&b’s Eisenberg. “But I also saw the chal-
lenges they had with the room.” He notes the V-Series’ pattern control down to 200 Hz as a key plus — “amazing, considering the size and weight of the cabinet.”
But the team made one stop on the way to embracing that particular system.
“Originally, the Capitol was considering d&b’s Q-Series, but when Eighth Day Sound contacted us, [George] mentioned that this project might be suitable for the newer V-Series rig,” Eisenberg adds. “After the numbers were crunched, they realized that the V-Rig was the best choice, and it became the first V-Series to be part of a permanent installation in North America.”
Eisenberg says the 75-pound V-Series was designed as a smaller version of the J-Series (143 pounds). “Although the V8s and V12s are three-way passive, the V-Series was designed to totally match the J-Series, and Jon [Dindas] was familiar with the J-Series sound.”
“The J boxes were just a little too big,” Dindas confirms. “And the Qs would have sounded great, but we knew that some acts would need more [SPLs].”
The V-Series array consists of 10 to 12 boxes, plus subs. “There are also some ancillary products that come with the platform that includes d&b wide range speakers and d&b M4 stage monitors,” Eisenberg says. “They are very powerful and lightweight.”
Eighth Day director of installation Tom George also had a hunch that the compact, powerful V-Series would be “a better fit for this room,” but, at the time, the new gear “was just beginning to ship and I didn’t know if we could get our hands on any for the opening.”
Eighth Day made calls to d&b, and it was touch-and-go for a while. But when the Capitol Theatre’s initial re-opening date was delayed slightly, it created just enough wiggle room for d&b to rush the V’s there.
The Capitol Theater as it looked in 1926Challenges & Solutions
“First of all, I love projects like this,” declares George. “Old theaters are amazing.” The fine line of upgrading a space like this to what contemporary ears demand while maintaining as much of the room’s original integrity requires a special kind of artistry, one that in addition to knowledge, skill, and experience, requires good negotiation skills. At some point a plywood floor was put on a metal frame that leveled off the orchestra pit, making the stage nearly flat with the floor. The team was able to convince a reluctant landlord that that needed to go.
“Running wire in a building like this is always a challenge,” George sighs. “But we were able to get the pipe in and work it out so it’s not conspicuous.” Another challenge was that whatever lighting or audio they put up, they couldn’t put in a lot of rigging points, and those needed to be chosen judiciously.
The biggest trepidation to George was the acoustics of the old room. He says other members of the team kept thinking it wouldn’t be bad, but concerns were realized when they turned on the PA for the very first time.
“The room is a marvel of engineering, built to amplify the voice of vaudeville actors, but it was never meant for major modern concerts. When we shot sound up to the balcony, the sound wave traveled 180 feet and came back almost double the volume, so we had to do a good amount of treatment to the balcony under the projection booth.” But the fact that it was on the National Register of Historic Places meant they had to be very careful with what they did.
Technological Design Studios of Annapolis, MD (technologicaldesign.com) and Snap Wall (snap-wall.com) were brought in and treated the room quickly and incredibly well, George says. He adds that they complemented that acoustic work with a convex rounded section on the balcony, taking care to minimize visible changes to the historic structure.
The Capitol Theatre todayA Memorable Opening
Driving those speakers are an Avid VENUE Profile and an Avid VENUE D Show (FOH and monitor world, respectively, though Dindas picked the pair so they could be switched if that was preferred). The Avid boards were chosen for the desire to go digital, plus the sheer ubiquitous of them makes these familiar to the majority of FOH and monitor engineers coming through.
The installation also included Shure’s UR Series wireless mic system. “Most acts are touring with it, plus we have the belt packs available for corporate parties or other events that might rent the venue,” George says. In addition, there is now a nice package of mics including several other Shures, Audio-Technicas and Sennheisers.
“It’s a great venue,” George says. “We’ve received compliments on how great it sounds, and we’re glad we found a quality P.A. worthy of it.”
“I used to be on the road, and I wanted people to walk in and go ‘Wow,’” Dindas says. “I wanted them to be able to leave everything they brought on their truck.”
“Tom [George] had an excellent installation plan, and did a great job making the room sound great,” Eisenberg says. Noting that he was also impressed by “how well everyone worked together with this project,” he’s pleased that this project represents the first installation of V-Series gear. “I think anyone who goes to a concert there will be happy with its performance in the room.”
None other than Bob Dylan was called on to play the first performance in the re-opened space on Sept. 4, 2012. (Dindas says that Dylan and Paul Simon, both of whom live nearby, used to rehearse there in recent years and were fans of the acoustics.)
When asked about that night, Dindas laughs, “To be completely honest, I don’t remember much of the night!” But he does have one special memory: a conversation with Dylan. In a rare, unguarded moment, Dylan let himself be approached by Dindas, who told him that his daughter Johanna was named after his song, “Visions of Johanna.”
“That night,” Dindas notes, “he included that song on the play list.”
With a magical opening night like that, how could the Capitol not succeed?

Six d&b audiotechnik M4 monitors, arranged in a circle on stage, were used to play back test signals during the room analysis.Acoustical Considerations

Technological Design Studios performed acoustic testing of the Capitol Theatre with impulse responses from 37 locations throughout the venue using EASERA v1.3 analysis software fed from a DPA 4091 omnidirectional microphone into a Focusrite Sapphire Pro14 audio interface. Background noise measurements  were made with a Sencore SP495 analyzer. The source was six d&b Audiotechnik M4 monitors arranged in a hexagon pattern at mid-stage center, pictured here.
TDS thoroughly analyzed the test data and ran countless simulations of the acoustic model to determine the best materials and installation locations to improve the Capitol Theatre.
Some of the findings were that the room’s ornamental surfaces offered a great acoustical benefit. The sidewall, proscenium and dome reliefs provided natural sound scattering surfaces, minimizing harsh reflections to a few problematic areas. Newer buildings use construction methods and materials that are lighter in weight. The Capitol Theatre’s heavier plaster and masonry envelope contains the LF energy that would otherwise pass through the walls/ceilings of newer rooms. This increased low frequency is a benefit to acoustic-based sources such as orchestras, but the high energy, PA-based sources at the Capitol would make the room appear boomy if low-frequency specific absorption was not implemented.
To reduce the room’s reverberation time, the installation crew used broadband balcony absorption materials that were specifically focused at low, mid and high frequencies. Attempts to focus on just low frequency absorption was abandoned due to the lack of available space and the aesthetic and physical limitations of LF-specific, membrane-type absorption materials. A decision was made to reassess this at a later time if it became an issue.
An emphasis was given to the acoustics of the stage area itself, as a comfortable listening environment for the musicians is essential to a good performance. There, thick absorptive materials serve as the solution.
A unique aspect of the Capitol Theatre is a standing audience in the lower house and under-balcony areas. People standing have a very different absorption and sound scattering effect than a seated audience, so little absorptive treatment was required in those areas. Some 1-inch thick materials slightly tamed the down the mid and high frequencies, while leaving the LF reverberation unaffected.