The return of Port Chester, New York’s venerated Capitol Theatre under general manager Bruce Wheeler‘s watchful eye puts the truth to the ancient proverb “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” The Roman poet Sextus is credited with first speaking that phrase but doubtless the sentiment has been felt in humanity’s heart since our earliest days of self-awareness. This last year and a half of loss—lost loved ones, intentions, and time—has taken a toll on us all. Hopefully, the lesson, live in the now and appreciate what you have, won’t soon be forgotten.
Even though the club was shuttered to the public, it still managed to host streaming events and even managed to celebrate its 8th anniversary under new management.
The venerated Capitol Theatre stage has hosted figures rightly seen as icons of their genres. Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh, Ringo Starr, Joan Baez, Skrillex, Bonnie Raitt, Snoop Dogg, Kacey Musgraves, The Strokes, Tom Petty, Cyndi Lauper, and Willie Nelson, as well as comedians like Kevin Hart have given performances for the ages in this nearly century-old venue. Jerry Garcia, who along with his Grateful Dead bandmates once turned in 18 shows there in a single year, praised it as one of his two favorite venues in the country. In respect to his kind words and mind-blowing performances, when The Cap opened a smaller, independent stage inside its hallowed halls it was named Garcia’s in his honor.
Thing is, without folks like owner Peter Shapiro and Wheeler none of these shows could happen. Not to mention the staff of “The Cap,” a family unto their own that held together by staying together through this stressful time. Between the government aid programs, the live streams, and their innovative “Family Tile” program the club managed to keep above water until the tide finally started to recede over the last few months. That said, with the doors reopening and the concert calendar rapidly filling up to pre-pandemic levels we thought it might be a good chance to check in with Mr.Wheeler about what changes await the returning family of fans from across the country. Check out his chat with our own Rex-A-Vision below:
[Note: transcript edited for length and clarity]
Live For Live Music: From what I can see the last three years have been a wild ride for you personally. From being tapped by Peter Shapiro to take over The Capitol Theatre, one of the East Coast’s most important music meccas, to facing an unprecedented national shut down to presiding over the cautious re-opening of the music scene you’re in some pretty uncharted waters, right?
Bruce Wheeler: Yeah, it’s been an interesting few years… I took over as GM in August of 2019, but had been the Director of Production here for the two years before that so I had a pretty good idea of how the venue ran. Plus I had managed other venues before, I first met Pete early in my five-year run as GM at Central Park SummerStage in NYC. The transition to the GM role here went smoothly, and I have to thank the amazing Cap staff for the help they gave me in those first few months and continue to give me to this day.
Live For Live Music: During the 18 month shut down I’m sure there were moments of doubt, but how good does it feel to see your dedication and perseverance rewarded with the reopening?
Bruce Wheeler: It’s a hugely satisfying feeling. Our last show was March 8, 2020, and we went from a full slate of shows through the rest of 2020 and well into 2021 that all went away literally in the blink of an eye. Then, our furloughs began with a majority of our full-time staff and all of our hourly staff being laid off, and the few of us left on staff wound up wearing a lot of different hats.
There were surely some uncertain, even dark days in the first few months of the shutdown when I’d wonder how long this was going to last and what the concert and event industry would look like when we got to the other side. Plus, what the shutdown and furloughs meant to our dedicated staffers whose livelihoods were all interrupted? As we got into the summer of 2021 and began to plan our reopening and started to put that schedule together there was nothing more gratifying than calling staffers that had been furloughed to invite them back to work.
Live For Live Music: As GM you surely had to be fearful for your staff. A venue as historic as The Cap surely has employees who are as important to the operation as the very walls and pillars. How happy are they to be back home?
Bruce Wheeler: Again, I can’t say enough about this staff, many who have been here for years, certainly before I came on board. I’m blessed to be working with smart, proactive people who know their jobs and are dedicated to creating a memorable experience for our patrons. This staff knows their roles and continues to excel [at] each and every show.
Live For Live Music: The Capitol saw an outpouring of love from the community at large thanks to the “Family Tile” program. Giving fans a chance to support the venue, while also managing to redo the entrance was one of the most imaginative ways to kill two birds with one stone I’ve ever seen. How heartening was seeing the response to this initiative?
Bruce Wheeler: The response we saw and still see for the “Cap Family Tile” program was amazing! That folks reached into their pockets to help us out during such an uncertain time in the country was quite humbling. We had discussed doing something like this for a while pre-Covid, the trick back then was finding a window of a week to get the old tiles up and the new ones down with how busy the theater’s schedule was. The shutdown afforded us that window, and the revenue generated was well-timed with helping keep the few staffers who were still working on board.
Live For Live Music: Are you planning on keeping up or even expanding the program? I’d love the chance to call dibs on my own seat for all future shows. Nothing too fancy…up front and center would work fine.
Bruce Wheeler: Phase one of the tile project was in the ground for our grand reopening on September 10 and we’re in the middle of offering tiles for Phase two. Tiles purchased in this new phase will go in the ground in the spring of 2022. Some folks also purchased an additional replica tile to give as a gift or display at home, any of these ordered before November 10th will make it to them before Christmas.
Live For Live Music: Do you feel any pressure or duty to the history of The Capitol? I’m guessing anyone…from fan to stage band to General Manager feels a tingle every time they walk through the doors.
Bruce Wheeler: This really is a special place. The history, going back 95 years when it first opened in 1926, is pretty amazing. I don’t know if I’d call it pressure, but I’m very mindful of what it means when I come to work each day, and I try to do the best I can to honor that history and legacy. When I walk across our stage I can’t help thinking of the legends that have stood in that same spot. Garcia, Jagger, Bowie, Cocker, Zappa, Joplin and so many more.
I love the story about Janis Joplin and how “Mercedes Benz” debuted on our stage. Her band played two shows one evening in August of 1970, just two months before her death. After the first show, she went to a bar around the corner with some friends and they were writing the lyrics as they played pool and drank. In the middle of the second show she turned to the band and said “Hey, I got this new thing we just wrote that I’d like to perform” And she did so acapella, just like on the recording. Just one of so many amazing evenings here.
Live For Live Music: The internet kept us all sane during the quarantine and The Capitol Theater hosted some wonderful livestreamed events like the Billy Strings shows earlier this year. How weird was it hearing all that wonderful music playing to an empty room?
Bruce Wheeler: It was a bit strange but a very welcome sight after so many months of inactivity. Peter and The Cap had often been involved with doing livestreamed shows pre-Covid, and the venue is well outfitted with cameras and gear for just this purpose. In the early days of the pandemic, we realized that there would be an audience for live music even if the audience wasn’t in the same room. Pete and his team created a new entity called Fans.live and we were off with a mix of livestreams as well as some concerts we have in our archive. The response was massive, it was another addition to our core business and a revenue driver that helped us keep the lights on.
Live For Live Music: A lot of fans are thrilled with the chance to hear live music again but are perhaps a little leery about re-entering indoor musical environments. Could you walk us through the precautions The Cap is taking to keep patrons as safe as possible?
Bruce Wheeler: We want all attendees to feel comfortable when they visit us, and we’re taking every precaution we can to ensure that not only are our patrons safe but our staff and performers as well. Our staff is vaccinated and needs to wear masks when the venue is open. We’re deep-cleaning the venue every day as well as during a show. We’re requiring patrons to show a vax card or a recent negative test in order to gain entry. And we suggest to patrons that they wear masks while inside the theater.
Live For Live Music: You have used the shut down to add some new lights and upgrade the sound system. Can you give fans a little insight into what they can expect when they finally get back inside?
Bruce Wheeler: Our lighting and audio systems are second-to-none and both have been checked to make sure they’re working great. Actually what we’ve done is upgrade our wall projection system. Anyone who has been here will know that we’ve “projection-mapped” the theater’s walls and ceiling in a way that’s similar to an IMAX presentation. We can project images, video, logos, and other types of art, and it really adds a different experience for attendees that sets this venue apart. A majority of visiting artists utilize the system during their performance so it’s always fun to see how they use it.
Live For Live Music: Will there be more concert streams in the future to give far away fans a chance to see and hear these upgrades for themselves?
Bruce Wheeler: Absolutely. Of course, our main business is to sell tickets to have folks here at the theater, but we do offer some of our shows as a paid or often even a free livestream. Folks can always check www.thecapitoltheatre.com for which shows will have a livestream element to them. I had mentioned Fans.live, they have a full schedule of non-Cap shows that they are streaming.
Live For Live Music: How fast is the upcoming schedule filling in? From what I can see on the website you have a solid schedule that runs the gamut from superstars to free shows for the fans already on the books.
Bruce Wheeler: Our booking team is always working hard to put together an amazing schedule. We have a handful of shows that are rescheduled from the shutdown period like Sheryl Crow, The Struts, Frankie Valli, Phil Lesh, Cheap Trick, and others that have new dates, plus new bookings like Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, and many others. It’s such an honor that so many top-level performers like coming through the Cap as they tour the country. When we officially reopened on September 10th we did so with a free show for our patrons as a way to say thanks for hanging with us.
Live For Live Music: In my research for this piece I noticed you originally went to culinary school before venturing into the world of live music. Are there any areas of cross-over from a hectic kitchen to the world of live music production you’ve noticed?
Bruce Wheeler: Wow, that seems like a few lifetimes ago! I graduated from the [Culinary Institute of America] in Hyde Park NY, which some at the time would joke was like getting an MBA with knives. The skills, training, and time-management disciplines I learned there would be valuable to just about any line of work, and there are many crossovers between the restaurant business and the event/venue business.
Live For Live Music: I’m guessing that after three decades in the music industry you probably felt like you’d seen it all but this last year and a half must have taught you a few unwanted or just plain ‘ol unexpected lessons. Are there any positives you can point to this long, scary experience?
Bruce Wheeler: Anyone who knows me knows I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, but as I mentioned earlier there were definitely some periods of doubt and struggle during this thing, mostly because of the unknown nature of what was coming next and how long it will last. Now that it looks like we’re coming out of it I can say that as a venue operator having a strong and capable staff is the lifeblood for someone in my role.
Our owner Peter Shapiro and his leadership was always a constant, he was great at keeping our spirits up. And, most certainly our patrons and fans who bought a tile, a t-shirt, or other merch, watched a live stream, showed up for our outdoor “pop-up store” in front of the theater on weekends this past spring and summer or bought a ticket for a show once we reopened are the true heroes here. We can have the nicest venue presenting the best artists in the world with the best staff, but without our patrons it’d be tough to go forward.
Live For Live Music: Well, before we go I want to express, on behalf of music fans from around the world as well as myself, the appreciation we have for The Cap, the fact that you folks managed to keep it going through all the insanity and just how happy we are to see you back in the world right where you belong!
Bruce Wheeler: Well, I consider myself the caretaker of this fine property and do the best I can to honor its legacy. I get a thrill every day when we have a show that folks out there feel that way about this place, and our hope is that we can continue that energy as we move forward.
Live For Live Music.: Well, it certainly seems like the future of the NY jam scene Mecca is in safe hands.
Check out the upcoming roster of artists on the way to The Capitol Theatre.