Symbolic Burning Puts $1.9M Capitol Theatre Loan to Rest

“Does anybody here have a match?”

Country music singer Slim Lehart of Jamboree USA obliged.

Slim Lehart and Frank O’Brien put flame to paper. When The Capitol Theatre reopened, Lehart was so excited, he kissed the stage floor, O’Brien noted.

The query had come from Wheeling/Ohio County CVB Executive Director Frank O’Brien, who then, with the help of Lehart, put flame to paper for a symbolic “burning of the mortgage.”

Morgage papers go up in flames.

Dozens of guests met in the alley beside The Capitol Theatre Wednesday evening for mingling, dinner in The Capitol Ballroom, a short video and the “burning,” all followed — appropriately — by a dessert of flaming Bananas Foster, to celebrate putting the 10-year, $1.9 million loan to rest.

But the real match had come years earlier, when like-minded individuals lit the fire to get The Capitol Theatre renovation project started.

“The Capitol Theatre was saved because of an extraordinary partnership between the Wheeling/Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wheeling Heritage [then Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation], Ohio County Commission, the City of Wheeling and the City of Wheeling’s Sports and Entertainment Authority,” O’Brien said.

“It was the right thing to do,” noted Hydie Friend, who was president of the CVB when the project began. She was one of the co-signers of the loan. She also was executive director of WNHAC from 2002-11, and was one of those who led the effort to evaluate the purchase, renovation, operation and management of The Capitol Theatre.

The theater closed in November 2006. It was purchased by the CVB in April 2009 and reopened on Sept. 23, 2009.

The $1.9 million loan, along with a number of grants, paid for safety upgrades, ADA compliance, new seats, wall treatments, a new digital sound system, upgraded LED lighting and roof replacements — which all totaled about $4.5 million, O’Brien said.

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Bill Hogan and Hydie Friend

“Thanks to Wheeling Heritage and Hydie Friend, we were able to access a federal Save America’s Treasures Grant from the late Sen. Robert Byrd. The grant was matched by the city of Wheeling through a TIF program to stabilize the terra cotta and façade of the theater. It was a $400,000 project. WNHAC also provided funds for the elevator to the theater ballroom. For nearly 70 years, if you couldn’t climb the stairs, you didn’t have access to the ballroom.

“We also applied and were granted several hundred thousand dollars in matching monies from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Those grants were used to meet ADA requirements for restrooms in the theatre and inside the ballroom. The CVB and private donations served as the matching dollars for the state grants,” O’Brien explained.

The private sector contributed close to $1 million. The Chris Hess Foundation and Gary and Flip West gifted the “lion’s share” of the private money, he said.

O’Brien said that the CVB paid the mortgage and was the funding source for projects over and above the mortgage payment. The CVB covered the monthly payment of $22,555 for the last 10 years.

“Now that the theater debt is retired, the CVB and its board of directors will evaluate the most effective way to use the money to continue to benefit residents of the city of Wheeling and Ohio County. There are many options to consider including increasing our marketing to drive more visitors to Wheeling, perhaps use some of the money for additional programming,” O’Brien said.

“The theater is a wonderful and well-built structure that will continue to need the support of the CVB and the community. It has played an important role in the city’s past, present and now will always be part of its future.”

The alley next to The Capitol Theatre is dressed to the nines, left. At right, chefs Michael Travis and Rocco Basil prepare Bananas Foster.

• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.