Cox Capitol Theatre's new staff making big changes

Change is taking center stage at the historic Cox Capitol Theatre.

New faces are in charge of programming, day-to-day operations and the restaurant, and they’re expanding the menu — and not just in the kitchen.

The theater plans to start a monthly event for children. A comedy series is in the works, and organizers intend to bring in a more varied slate of musical acts. A longer-term “wish list” calls for structure upgrades that will allow the theater to target bigger, national performers.

“It’s an effort to expand our demographics and to give back more to the community,” said operations manager Tony Long Jr. “They’re supporting a cause, for us to be able to offer the community these types of events.”

The theater operates as a non-profit organization, Capitol Theatre Holdings. Kirsten West, the new director of development, said she sees part of her mission as raising awareness that “this is the theater for everyone.”

“I want this to be a very inclusive operation and venue,” said West. “We’re going to be looking in the future for some diversity. The thrust of our marketing is to let people know that we’re here for them. This is the people’s theater, and we’re going to reflect that in some of the events and series that will be starting between now and end of the year.”

West joined the theater staff last month after serving as managing director of The Big House Foundation, which raised funds to start the Allman Brothers Band museum in Macon.

The theater has an annual operating budget of $410,000, so her fundraising talents will be put to use.

“We’re behind the eight ball right now. That’s why they hired me,” she said. “I have no allusions about the challenges involved in this. I know that we can turn it around. We’re going to be in a different position and by the end of the year we’re going to be looking better.”

Changes on tap

A big change at the Capitol is the revamped and expanded food service. Good to Go Restaurant and Catering and its food and beverage director Saralyn Harvey are in charge of spicing things up with a menu that now ranges in options from grilled chicken and steak to blackened fish and tacos.

Good to Go was voted top caterer in The Telegraph’s Best of the Best awards last year, noted West, who said the catering service figures prominently in the theater’s plans to host more banquets and weddings.

“I know she’s going to bring business to the theater,” she said of Harvey. “We’re looking at a fall schedule right now that’s really filling up like crazy.”

The theater kicks off a comedy series next month that opens with actress Brett Butler, who starred in the TV show, “Grace Under Fire.” Also on the series bill later is legendary comic Gallagher, who will return to smash watermelons and other messy stuff on the theater stage.

“We’ve never really had a series, to let people know what they can expect,” Long said.

Another series in the works, which theater officials hope to make at least a monthly event on Saturday mornings, is programming for children.

“There’s not a lot to do out there for, say, 5- to 10-year-olds,” West said. “Theaters should provide programming, and do it consistently so parents know there’s a place to take their kids just to get them out of the house and do something a little different.”

The programming was set to begin Oct. 2 with an appearance by an Atlanta group, “Laughing Poets,” but the sponsors, PBS and Georgia Public Broadcasting, asked that it be delayed.

“They didn’t feel they had enough time to promote it,” West said.

The children’s series could include movies and live entertainment. West would like to eventually hold a talent show to capitalize on the popularity of TV shows such as “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent.”

“I think they would really enjoy that,” she said. “We could do a mini-version of that, and do it with children. There’s a lot of talent out there.”

The theater also is working to expand its concert offerings to include more genres of music. West also believes expanded programming will encourage financial support.

“Once we get some of these programs going, we’re going to have some response. People are going to like what they’re seeing here, and they’re going to be more willing to do pledges and sponsorships and straight-forward donations.”

Historic house poised for future

The Capitol opened in 1897 as a vaudeville house. It converted to a movie theater in 1917, but closed in 1975.

Over the years, the theater fell into serious disrepair. Water damage nearly caved in the roof and floor. It reopened in January 2006 after a group led by Long’s father, developer Tony Long Sr., launched a $1.2 million renovation project that recaptured some its lost grandeur.

A grant from the Peyton Anderson Foundation a few years ago paid for a new and improved sound system. West said she wants to pursue grants to help pay for more improvements, including new tables and chairs.

“We have renovations and upgrades that we need to make to the physical structure of the theater. And I have ideas of changing the way the theater is set up on the inside.”

One upgrade would be replacing the oversize, stuffed chairs in the tiered section of the theater with banquettes or booths.

“We could probably get twice as many people on each row,” West said. “It would be very sophisticated. It would be a lot more comfortable, and it would upgrade the theater significantly.”

Retrofitting the theater might allow officials to attract “mid-range, well-known national touring artists,” she said.

“Right now, the way it’s equipped, the way it’s set up, it isn’t impossible to do it, but it isn’t optimum.”

Along with fundraising experience, West brings a customer’s perspective to her role. She and her husband, Kirk, former road manager for the Allman Brothers “have been immersed in the music world for years.” Last year, she promoted and directed the The Indigo Girls concert at the theater.

The group, she said, was “absolutely blown away.”

“They could not believe it. They go home and they talk about it. They tell other musicians, other artists, ‘Boy, you need to check out this theater in Macon.’ That’s what we want. Because it isn’t just getting the people in, it’s getting the artists to know this is here, and this is a first-class operation with wonderful sound and it’s drawing audiences.”

The theater will celebrate its fifth anniversary in January but it’s “still pretty new on the scene,” West said. It and other venues have struggled against Macon’s “bad reputation as far as a town for booking shows,” she said.

“There are some big promoters who won’t do anything here, at any venue, because they just can’t get the audience to come out. We’re going to change that. You do that through a wide variety of programming. We’re not going to be just a rock club.”

The theater’s goal is to become “a regional entertainment center,” said West. The self-described Macon “booster” said the city — and the theater — are poised for big things.

“I think five years from now this place — and not just the theater but Macon itself — is going in a transformative state, and the theater is going to be one of the avenues to get us there.

“I know people are sick and tired of hearing about the potential. Well, there is a lot of potential here. But it’s time. It’s really time to start moving forward, even though the economy is such a mess. If you can lay the groundwork now, once it turns, which it will eventually, you’re poised to really reap the benefits.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.