In 1927, a businessman from Sturgeon Falls purchased the property at 150 Main Street East in North Bay to build a theatre. During construction he went bankrupt and sold his interests to the Famous Players of Canada Corporation. Famous Players opened the doors to the new Capitol Theatre on June 1, 1929 for the screening of In Old Arizona, the first Fox Pictures “talkie” motion picture (movies with sound) of its kind. This brand new theatre had 1455 seats, state-of-the-art technology, elaborate decorative touches, and was referred to as a “palace of splendour.” It wasn’t the only theatre downtown; there was the Bay (Club 151), the Odeon (Northern Tikes), the Crystal Palace (next to Guardian Drugs), and the Royal (Royal Office Suites) – but the Capitol was the grandest of them all and is the only one left open today.
It was in the offices of the Capitol Theatre that Roy Thomson, Lord Thomson of Fleet, started his media empire with the opening of his (and Northern Ontario’s) first radio station CFCH on March 3, 1931 – this later became CKAT. It was in the Capitol Theatre that the Dionne Quints enjoyed many Friday night movies when they could get away from their celebrity lives.
The Capitol stood tall through the Great Depression and the Second World War, bringing laughter and plenty of wartime films like All Quiet on the Western Front to North Bay and area audiences. During wartime, patrons could purchase tickets with a scrap of metal from home (pipes, jewellery, cookware, cutlery, etc). This metal was melted down and used to produce munitions for the war effort.
Throughout the 20th century the Capitol has housed many performances and many businesses. The first OPP detachment in North Bay had its headquarters upstairs. Dominion Life Assurance, Mutual Life of Canada, and the Children’s Aid Society all held offices up there too. A dentist rented the room overlooking the Main Street marquis sign until he retired in 1973. The A&K Pierce Furniture Company and an 8-lane 10-pin bowling alley operated by the Salidas brothers shared the basement through the 1930s to the 1950s. The lane markers are still visible on the workshop walls today.
In the 1970s, an organization called North Bay Theatre and Arts Community Centre (TACC) was formed with the goal of establishing an art centre to house all arts-related endeavours within the city and surrounding district. At the time, North Bay had finally developed the Golden Mile area of the Lake Nipissing waterfront, had built arenas and parks throughout the city, and the final missing piece was to have a local performance hall and art gallery. When Famous Players announced in the 1980s that they wanted to convert the Capitol into smaller cinemas, TACC decided that the Capitol was too wonderful to get chopped up into small rooms, and that it could be the perfect facility for their dream arts centre.
TACC obtained funding from three levels of government as well as local fundraising over a period of eleven years, raising almost $2 million. On Friday, December 19, 1985 a cheque was signed by the founder of TACC, Betty Speers, to purchase the Capitol Theatre for the City of North Bay. It is for her leadership that we proudly call our concert hall the Betty Speers Theatre. Two years after the purchase, in 1987, a newly renovated facility was opened and dubbed the Arts Centre. The theatre seating was cut down from 1455 to 998 in favour of better seating and views of the stage. This new facility included a public art gallery, the WKP Kennedy Gallery, named for a prominent businessman in North Bay’s early history and for the Kennedy family’s investment and involvement with the TACC cause. Rebranding in 1997 saw the centre renamed in honour of its history as the Capitol Centre. Further renovations in the 2000s added more accessible seating and cut the seating down again to 932 seats. Through all renovations however, the theatre has retained its original beauty and design with minimal changes other than modern technology.
Since its reopening in 1987 the Capitol Centre and the WKP Kennedy Gallery has seen many great artists Canadian and international, both cherished celebrities and beloved locals like Johnny Cash, Phyllis Diller, Lynn Johnston, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, Jack Klugman, Blue Rodeo, Canada’s Group of Seven, The Barenaked Ladies, Graham Nash, Ed Eng, Jann Arden, Tom Cochrane, and many more. The Capitol truly is your home for arts and entertainment.