Manager Jack Theakston talks Capitolfest 2014

Exactly one week from today I’ll be in my geeky Honda CRV with a friend heading toward Rome, New York to spend a delicious, classic movie filled weekend at Capitolfest, central New York’s premier film festival.  I published a post a few weeks back detailing what I’m most looking forward to in the three-day event that runs from August 8-10 and you can take a look at that post here.  Now one week out I’m happy to share some information from Jack Theakston, Assistant Manager of the Capitol Theatre, the 1,788-seat movie palace which will house cinephiles from far and wide who will converge to enjoy silent films and early talkies for a weekend.  Mr. Theakston was kind enough to answer a few questions for me and I think you’ll enjoy his answers.

Q:  Have you been part of Capitolfest since its inception?  If so, how has it or attendees changed through the years?  I noticed last year that many people have attended the event since the beginning.

A:  I started attending Capitolfest in 2005 (Capitolfest 3).  I’ve been attending the shows every year, and if my memory serves, I’ve been presenting my

Capitolfest 2013 during a break in the programming
Capitolfest 2013 during a break in the programming

program at Capitolfest since that 2005 or 2006.  I started working for the Capitol in 2010, so there’s an added layer of my interest in the show in that.

(Incidentally, the staff is also responsible for about 125 performances throughout the year.)

The thing that has changed the most is, obviously, the attendance.  We get bigger and better every year.  The first year the theater put Capitolfest on, it was kind of on a lark—a large part of what led up to it because of our Executive Director, Art Pierce, who was a board member at the time.  When there were some audience members who said “wouldn’t it be great if we could see the UCLA restoration of Follow Thru,” Art and our treasurer, Doug Swarthout organized what would be the first Capitolfest, based on the theater’s 75th anniversary, showing stuff that specifically ran at the Capitol between 1928-1933.  I think it was supposed to be a one-shot event, but Art had in the back of his head “if it works this year, we’ll do it again.”  The rest was history.

We’ve also settled into what I think is our format for the foreseeable future.  Originally, the show was strictly Saturday/Sunday.  Then we added a Friday evening “Pre-Glow” over at the Elk’s lodge where we would run stuff in 16mm with their Möller organ accompaniment.  Now, the show starts on Friday, mid-day, and is entirely at the Capitol.

The other major difference on our end of things is that we have a bigger staff now.  When I started working here, it was just Art, Kylie Pierce (our development director), and me.  Now we’re a staff of six—seven if you include our cat, Kallie—and it helps make things run a lot smoother.  Much of our work is done by volunteers, but everyone who works at the Capitol really knows their job—they do it throughout the year, so Capitolfest is a piece of cake.

Q: I read that you’re expecting the biggest attendance to date.  To what do you attribute this?

A: Good taste in film selection is probably the biggest draw.  I don’t think many other classic film festivals pay much attention to period reviews, but Art and1 I scour many trade magazines and vintage newspapers to get a general consensus.  The best ones to guide yourself by are the ones that didn’t take advertising from the studios, since in many cases, that caused a bias.

Capitolfest also has a leisurely, vacation-like atmosphere I think most people appreciate.  Before I was working here, it was a real highlight of my summer, and it still is, even now.  It’s a real social event—most of the cinephiles know each other and can chew the fat about what they’ve seen, what’s been discovered/restored, etc.

What’s really nice is that we have a pretty good breakdown of younger people attending the show, and a lot of them are very into it.  In an era where the amusement industry is spread paper-thin, it’s refreshing to see a lot of new faces show up and enjoy these classics.

Q: How was the decision to have William Powell as your featured star reached? 

A: We checkerboard our star-of-the-year between female and male every year.  A lot of it has to do with print availability, but also what stars the audiences that come to the show like.

Q: I didn’t see specifics regarding screening formats on your website.  Are the films screened in 35mm, 16mm, digital?  If I’m not mistaken all were 35mm last year?

Almost everything we screen now is in 35mm.  Occasionally, we’ll run 16mm or HD Digital when there’s absolutely no alternative, but 35mm is our format of choice at the Capitol.  We’re all set up to do it the right way—regularly-maintained Simplex projectors, Ashcraft carbon arc lamp-houses for the brightest light, and variable speed for our silents.  In fact, last year, we ran a handful of DeForest Phonofilms as part of Capitolfest, and the variable speed came in handy because they need to be run at DeForest sound frame-rate of 21 1/3 fps.

Q: Are there any films being screened provided by private collectors?  Are there new restorations in store?

One of the Capitol Theatre's Simplex projectors with Carbon Arc lamp-house in action
One of the Capitol Theatre’s Simplex projectors with Carbon Arc lamp-house in action

This year, we don’t have many things coming from private collections—the one I can think of off of the top of my head is Tea Pot Town, a cartoon that is coming from Thunderbean Animation.  That counts as a restoration, too, as Steve Stanchfield, the man in charge at Thunderbean, has meticulously restored this short.

Every once in a while, we have a restoration that we are responsible for putting into effect—sometimes it’s just the studio striking a new print, but occasionally, you’ll get the full service.  This year, we’re running the late silent Paramount picture, Forgotten Faces with Clive Brook, Mary Brian, Baclanova and William Powell.  Library of Congress had materials available, as did the Museum of Modern Art.  As it turned out, LoC had the camera negative to the film, a very rare instance for Paramount films from that period, as the stock they used to make intertitles frequently decomposed and took out the rest of the negative with it.  Because someone cut out the intertitle negative for this film, we were truly lucky to have a restored print made for the festival that was printed directly from the camera negative (the titles were replaced from a release print.)

Another very interesting restoration we’re showing is Library of Congress’ new print of England’s second-released talkie picture, High Treason (1929).  The film has only been seen since the ’30s in its silent abridgement, and this will be the second screening of the US Talkie version (about 20-minutes shorter than the UK Talkie version).  The picture is very much England’s answer to Metropolis.

And of course, there’s always my show, which I do on Sunday, which is odds and ends from my own collection.

Q: The price for the entire Capitolfest event is so reasonable how are new prints of films paid for?  That is, if new prints are available. 

The majestic Capitol Theatre
The majestic Capitol Theatre

A: Actually, if you consider the cost of the print rental and shipping, and our low overhead (advertising and staff), the festival doesn’t need a huge, huge attendance to turn a profit.  When we started small, the budget was smaller… it’s gotten bigger as we’ve gotten bigger.  We’ve already got the theater, equipment, concession stand, etc., so the overhead is quite low.

As far as new prints being struck, that is at the discretion of whomever is striking them.  Archives and studios have a budget for what they strike prints of throughout the year, and we stay in close contact with them to get a handle on what will be ready in time.  It’s backfired on us a couple of times, and the restoration wasn’t ready, or we got the wrong print or whatever, but we’re pretty careful and our audience is pretty forgiving.

Q: I know that when possible cue sheets are used from which scores are written.  I’m wondering how many films you were able to get cue sheets for and if not how your organists, who are absolutely amazing, approach each film?  Also, do they ever improvise?  I believe they did so last year, but I never knew it then.  Truly great artists.

A: A long time ago, Art and I decided that it would be a great novelty to have a cue sheet score (I can’t even remember for what film now.)  We found a copy of the cue sheet and looked through my music library and found 90% of the pieces.  Avery Tunningley stepped up to the challenge and really knocked it out of the park.  He’s done that a few times and it always goes over very well.  The only thing that makes it challenging is that he needs a screener copy well in advance to rehearse the timings.

The Capitol Theatre in days gone by
The Capitol Theatre in days gone by

Likewise, Robert Israel and I coordinated doing a screening last year of a film called The Bedroom Window in which I found him the cue sheet, he found the pieces, and played the film almost blind to the cue sheet.  He had a screener, so he got to scan the film for any egregious errors in judgement on the cue sheet’s part, but what was there is what he played, and it was a nice testament to the original way of doing it.

We’ve had a number of artists play at Capitolfest, mainly on our original-installation Möller Theatre Organ—Dennis James, who plays mainly historical scores; the aforementioned Robert Israel, who does some wonderful work on TCM with full orchestra, is equally good on organ with his own compositions and compilations of period music.  Avery Tunningley and Bernie Anderson are here almost every year and do mainly improvised scores with pre-existing or composed main themes.  Avery has been getting very deep into composing, and promises to have a riveting score for Forgotten Faces.  Dr. Philip C. Carli has been with us every year since the first, and literally pulls out all the stops for those barn-burners unlike anyone I know.  He’s also the only person to have recorded scores on the Möller for video editions of silent films.  His scores are improvised.  We’ve also had the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which is an ensemble from Colorado that does some fantastic compiled scores with period music.

Q: I was stunned last year when I entered the Capitol Theater and saw its majesty after seeing your modest marquee.  Are plans to restore the marquee still in the works?  If so, how’s it going?

A: Well, you’ve got me in a corner, as there are indeed plans to bring back the 1928 marquee, but it doesn’t end there.  Last year, we purchased three buildings adjacent to the Capitol, and we’ve got a larger expansion project in the works that you’ll see at Capitolfest.  In October, we’ll be opening one of two small cinemas that will bring art and independent cinema to our county.  We’ll also have a black box space that will seat about 150, added restroom facilities, office space, classroom facilities, a new concession stand, and ultimately a restoration of the Capitol to its October 1939 remodeling, including the original pattern carpet, refurbished seats, and of course that classic marquee.

Q: What is your favorite part of Capitolfest?  And, are you willing to share any clues as to what you are featuring in your Follies this year?

A: I love the films that we run, but I love the type of people Capitolfest attracts every year.  Our patrons are always the most courteous, and I love talking to them all.  I don’t want to give too much away, but expect some unusual trailers (of the vintage variety), and a visit with W. C. Fields.  I’ll say no more!

Thank you Jack Theakston for taking the time to answer these questions for me.  And, I must extend a huge thanks to Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane for providing me the technical questions I posed to Mr. Theakston.  Any question that includes a mm or restoration component was generously sent my way by Will.  Much obliged!

I’ll be back after Capitolfest with a complete festival recap on this blog, but I’ll be posting pictures and information throughout the festival on several social media platforms.  If interested follow me on Twitter @CitizenScreen, Facebook Citizen Screen and Instagram Citizenscreen for Capitolfest news and images.  And, of course, I strongly recommend you like the Capitolfest Facebook page.

Also worthy of note:

  • On hand throughout the three days of Capitolfest will be Roger Bryant, author of William Powell: The Life and Films (McFarland Press).  Powell is the weekend’s featured star.  Mr. Bryant will introduce John S. Robertson’s THE BRIGHT SHAWL (1923) on Friday night (Aug. 8) and will have copies of his book for sale.
  • The Rome Capitol Theatre is gathering items for an upcoming silent auction, held in conjunction with its “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” fundraiser. Do you have any film memorabilia you’d like to donate to the auction? Bring it directly to Capitolfest, or contact Kate today:
  • And, the Berry Hill Bookshop in Deansboro will set up a display/shop in the lobby of the Capitol Theater as was done last year.  You might want to set aside a stash for this purpose because there’s a lot that’s hard to resist. Doug Swarthout is the proprietor of the Bookshop and the items displayed last year were impressive.
  • Tickets to Capitolfest are still available.  Call the box office at (315) 337-6453 for details.

Here’s hoping I run into you in Rome in a week’s time.  Cannot wait!


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