A Letter From Hollywood
Capitol Days - by Charlie Barrett



Russell W. Barrett,
operator of The Capitol Theater,

  My father, Russell Barrett, after operating movie palaces for Warner Brothers Studios in Boston since the 1920s, brought our family to Willimantic in 1943 when he took over operations of Warners' Capitol on Main Street. My dad helmed the Capitol's Golden Era in Willimantic during the 20th century until he retired from the theater business in the 1960s. Until 1948, the Capitol was owned by Warner Brothers Studios, but the anti-trust laws that year put an end to studio's both producing motion pictures and owning movie houses. A new company called Stanley Warner Theaters was formed in New Haven, and Russell was a key figure and investor in that new organization when it took over the ownership of the Capitol from the studio. The new firm maintained more than a dozen movie houses in New England. Russell, a tall, distinguished gentleman, always natilly attired (sometimes in a tux), could be seen in front of The Capitol's box office, or in the lobby (often with a cigar) -- greeting patrons, and, at the same time, keeping a watchful, jaundice eye out for pranksters and mischief makers, which there was never a shortage of.

Growing up in Willimantic, I spent a great deal of time at the Capitol where I saw about 5,000 movies if my calculations are correct. It was literally my home away from our family home on Lewiston Avenue. The Capitol influenced my life more than I had ever imagined. I realized at a young age that I too had the entertainment industry "bug" and, after leaving Willimantic in the 1960s - - went on to work as a publicist and producer for 20th Century Fox, Paramount Studios and NBC in New York, London, and Hollywood. If not for the Capitol, who knows, I may have become a mule skinner!

 Early Memories: Staff, WWII Parade And Ten Cent Coca Colas:

As a kid in 1945 I can recall the joyous World War II Main Street victory parade that I watched while sitting atop my mother Marjorie's shoulders as the Capitol staff all assembled in front of the theater. Mom wrapped my new brother Jim in her arms...there were cashiers Helen Hallahan and Milly Potter, and stage manager Henry Morrisette, who cheered as the procession of Willimantic's Home Guard, Air Raid Wardens (including my dad), police and fire vehicles as well as WWI vets moved down Main Street as a local marching band beat out "The Washington Post March."

The Capitol had two candy machines in the lobby with boxes of Old Crows, Milk Duds and Oh Henry's for 5 cents....there was also a 10 cents-a-cup automatic soda machine that sometimes didn't work and people would kick it hard. I liked the Coke. In the 1940s, men like Otis Fairbanks and Jerry Lussier served as the theater's projectionists for many, many years. Lionel Chauvin worked as the Capitol's Maintenance Director, keeping the grand theater spotless and ship shape.

Later, in the 1950s, usher Marion "Pencil Louie" Miecyznski and doorman Jim Kilmartin, always dressed in their taupe jackets with brass buttons -- were Capitol fixtures; candy stand girl Shirley Nadile popped the best popcorn east of the Pecos!

There were so many, many movies....on October 20 , 1946, "The Courage of Lassie" broke the previous house record in its three day run with receipts of $1,726. Tickets were 25 cents for kids. I also remember "The Yearling" playing for two weeks.

Later, in the 1950s, usher Marion "Pencil Louie" Miecyznski and doorman Jim Kilmartin, always dressed in their taupe jackets with brass buttons -- were Capitol fixtures; candy stand girl Shirley Nadile popped the best popcorn east of the Pecos!

There were so many, many movies....on October 20 , 1946, "The Courage of Lassie" broke the previous house record in its three day run with receipts of $1,726. Tickets were 25 cents for kids. I also remember "The Yearling" playing for two weeks.

On December 9, 1953, "The Robe " with Richard Burton opened at The Capitol. It was the very first film in Cinema scope with a top adult ticket of $1.25. Patron lines curled down Main Street past Jim Sullivan's Coffee Spot and Hyde's to the YMCA, just nearly touching the Gem Theater's box office -- the watermark my dad knew would fill up the Capitol's 1200-plus seats. The St. Mary's Drum & Bugle Corps marched with Mr. Barrett down Main Street to trumpet the opening of "The Robe" at the Capitol that year. The biblical epic played the theater through December 19th. More than $6000 in ticket sales were recorded, not to mention all the popcorn, ice cream and candy sold.

Other great movies played the Capitol too like "Shane," "From Here to Eternity" with Burt Lancaster as well as Film Noir classics "DOA" with Edmund O'Brien and "The Asphalt Jungle" with Sterling Hayden. "The Thing" in 1951 scared people out of the theater. Willimantic was introduced to 3 D with "The House of Wax" in 1953 too.

When a naughty Italian film called "Bitter Rice" with buxom Italian actress Silvana Mangano played the Capitol in the 1950s, the Catholic League Of Decency picketed the theater. Nevertheless, it sold out for every showing. Several local priests joined the picketers. Some of the city's most prominent citizens asked my dad to let them into the Capitol through one of the theater's side doors so they could see "Bitter Rice." The religious movie "Our Lady of Fatima": with Jennifer Jones was a hit too.

On Saturday mornings during the holidays, the American Thread Company, The American Screw Company and The Electro Motive would each hold Christmas parties at the theater for their employees' children, who would be treated to Bugs Bunny cartoons, a Three Stooges featurette and perhaps the classic "Scrooge" with Alastair Sim. Each child would receive a special Christmas gift of candy, or maybe a baseball or a toy truck. Abbott & Costello movies were also a big hit at Christmas.

A back-to-school "Pencil Box Show" also proved a yearly success at the theater where kids would get free school supplies for buying a 25 cent admission ticket.


The Stars Came To Willimantic:

In the early 1950s, during the Senator McCarthy blacklisting era, the studios sent stars on trains across America to let the nation know that not all of Hollywood was infested with Communists. Hand-picked "Good American" stars like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Esther Williams, James Whitmore ("Battleground"), Rhonda Fleming and others came to Willimantic's Union Station. My dad held a reception for the Hollywood stars in the Capitol's lobby, which was attended by then Mayor Florimond Bergeron and other local dignitaries. I remember the chocolate cake they served and all that ice cream from Hallocks in Willimantic. I have Mr. Gable's autograph somewhere.

Since the Capitol was designed as a vaudeville theater, several live stage productions were produced at the Capitol in the 1940s and 50s. Each year residents of the Mansfield State Training School produced their own minstrel show.

In costume and make-up as plantation slaves -- they would sing and perform songs like "Camp Town Races", "Mammy" and "Old Man River." This was always a sell-out event. Today, this kind of show would not fly anywhere in the country.

Willimantic's own dance studio -- operated by Miss Evelyn McFarlane above the YMCA -- would hold its annual public recital at the Capitol. Kids who aspired to be the next Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers would treat the folks in the packed house to some soft shoe....some songs...some terrific entertainment. One particularly talented youngster I remember was Jimmy Knapp, who unfortunately died at a very young age. I too was a McFarlane student, but never actually made it to the Capitol recital. Ms. McFarlane rented the Capitol for $450 for her June 9, 1953 annual recital.

An annual touring Halloween stage show -- featuring a one-eyed magician and his two accompanying pin-up girls in bikini's, would grace the Capitol stage for some spooky antics. There was a Frankenstein monster and a Dracula too. This annual show played the Capitol each year until the early 50s. The lights would go out and everyone got thoroughly spooked. Capitol staff members would get into the act performing as hooded, phosphorescent ghosts. One year some prankster poured black ink over the balcony onto the unsuspecting heads of patrons below. The Capitol got a huge cleaning bill and show never returned. The pranksters were never caught.

The Capitol's patronage started its slow decline in the 1950s when TV became more available. The opening in the late 50s of the Mansfield Drive-In Theater didn't help either. Also, U-Conn got its own College Theater, which later was to close as well.

My dad left the Capitol in the 60s and retired. After graduating from Windham High School (Class of '58), I got a job as the local reporter for The Hartford Times covering Windham/Willimantic news. I also enrolled at Willimantic State College and U-Conn to study liberal arts. I left Willimantic in 1966 to take a job with 20th Century Fox Films in New York to work as a trainee publicist on the hit movie "Dr. Dolittle" with Rex Harrison. The last movie I recall seeing at the Capitol was "The Pit and The Pendulum" with Vincent Price.

Little did I expect to go on to work for such a long, long time in the entertainment industry, capped with my eight years with "The King of the Night" -- Mr. Johnny Carson and "The Tonight Show" while at NBC in Hollywood. Other notable stars and productions I have been associated with/worked on include: the horror film "Rosemary's Baby" (shot in the famous Dakota building in Manhattan), Anthony Perkins, Patty Duke, Robert Stack ("Unsolved Mysteries") Connecticut's own Meg Ryan ("City of Angels"),Charlton Heston and Pierce Brosnan's James Bond films.

Windham should be proud of the Capitol for there is no such facility to match it's legacy and beauty in all of eastern Connecticut. I want to see Willimantic kids -- and adults too -- enjoying the Capitol again as I did.

Thank you. "A marquee light still sparkles......" (anonymous, 1934) Charles "Skipper" Barrett


WILLIMANTIC GEEK MAKES IT TO HOLLYWOOD: This photo was taken in 1987 at the Beverly Hills Hotel in California when Mr Johnny Carson was celebrating his 25th anniversary show TV special at NBC and I served as his press agent at the time. The pretty lady with Mr. Carson and I is my lovely wife, Barbara Wall Barrett.