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The resurrection of Capitol Theatre
IT will be curtains up at the grand, much-loved Capitol Theatre in three days, when it re-opens with Singapura: The Musical, a US$2 million production centred on life in Singapore between 1955 and 1965.
When The Business Times visited the theatre this week, workers were adding finishing touches to its refurbished interiors. In the dimmed hall, the 12 signs of the zodiac in mozaic on the domed ceiling and the winged Pegasus on either side of the stage glowed. The seats, now plusher, number 977, down from about 1,700. There is more leg room.
Technology has arrived in this theatre built about 90 years ago. Its hall has now been kitted out with Southeast Asia's first advanced rotational floor technology, so the seats can be hidden below the floor, creating an empty space for other uses in minutes.
This transformation nearly didn't come to be - not at least until the issue of how a theatre could be commercially viable was resolved.
Capitol Theatre screened its last movie, Soldier, at 9:15pm on Dec 29, 1998. It was a forgettable sci-fi flick starring Kurt Russell, which 500 people watched. After it ended, the crowd had ripped up film posters and toilet signs off the walls of the cinema and badgered the theatre staff to stamp their tickets with the Capital stamp, just for old times' sake.
The colonial-style building was to sit disused between 1999 and October 2010, even as the government tried to revive it as a performing arts centre. At one point, the project was passed between the Singapore Land Authority and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) which, after evaluations and a search for investors, found it to be a commercially impractical exercise.
In response to media queries in 2008, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) had said that STB had assumed that Capitol Theatre would be revamped and run as a standalone arts performance venue, with no firm plans to redevelop the rest of the site. URA said: "While the proposal was implementable from a functional and operational point of view, it was found to be economically not feasible."
It is easy to see why, consultants say. Film screenings and performing arts do not make for easy profits, and theatres usually cannot make it on their own - unless they are run as a "loss leader" in the context of a larger development with other commercial components.
It was with this in mind that the theatre site was released for tender under the reserve list in 2008, with three other buildings - Capitol Building, Stamford House and the dingy three-storey Capitol Centre. In 2010, the commercial site was triggered for sale, and the parcel eventually went to a consortium led by Pua Seck Guan's Perennial Real Estate and the Kwee family-backed Pontiac Land for S$250 million.
The consortium had its work cut out for it. The brief included the restoration of the by-now-rat-infested place to its former glory, adhering to a slew of conservation rules.
Another challenge lay in undertaking the works - including hacking down the old fly tower, the entire first floor and excavating a basement - while maintaining the structural integrity of the building and other nearby structures.
The URA also required at least a quarter of the land parcel's gross floor area to be used for hotel rooms. Besides the theatre, retail, food & beverage and entertainment uses were also encouraged, and residential use was allowed.
This brings us to the present-day Capitol integrated development, comprising the revamped theatre, Capitol Building and Stamford House, which will now house The Patina, a 157-key hotel; the luxury Eden Residences will sit atop the retail mall Capitol Piazza (Neue), in place of the torn-down Capitol Centre.
Ong Choon Fah, chief executive at DTZ Southeast Asia, said: "Theatres can't quite make money by themselves. To have a viable, sustainable business model, you have to cluster them, string them with some retail, hotel and residences so the numbers will stack up commercially to make it viable. A residential component also enables the developers to sell off land, so it helps their cash flow and reduces their risks."
She added, too, that few investors would want to invest in a theatre building alone, given Singapore's small and not-so-mature arts market. "It's not your West End London. You can't have the same show running every night. It'll run for maybe a few weeks, and then off it goes."
A spokesman for Capitol Investment, the joint-venture developer, said that the sums invested in the rotational floor technology opens up fresh avenues for revenue yields. With the configuration of seating so versatile, the theatre will now also be suitable for conventions, seminars, functions and MICE events.
"We want to ensure the theatre is yielding not only at night, but at all times, which is why we invested in this system."
The theatre's ground-level access also makes it perfect for red carpet events. Golden Village has agreed to be the theatre's partner for blockbuster premieres, and has installed its servers and added its projectors to the theatre.
Mirza Namazie, the grandson of M. A. Namazie, the Persian pioneer who built Capitol in the late 1920s, when asked what he thought of the changes, said he was pleased the theatre has been preserved and has retained its function. Noting, however, that the theatre has evolved from a common everyday cinema to a high-end arts venue, he said: "If you make it more upmarket, of course fewer people will be able to enjoy it, but it's still a landmark."
Mr Namazie, who is managing partner of law firm Mallal & Namazie, added: "As the developers have paid a lot for the site, they would have to plug it in a way that justifies what they paid, otherwise the development won't be viable."
In his 60s, he is old enough to recall Capitol as it used to be. It was his favourite, he said, because of its steeply raked seats, which gave all patrons a good view of the screen.
He also recalled that, as a child, the audience used to have to stand up for God Save The Queen before a movie started.
"That said, in those days, it was also a bit of a luxury to go to the cinema. How many could afford to pay S$1 or S$2 for a ticket back then?"