Original owners E.A. Zabel and William Wilson were prominent purveyors of family entertainment in Olympia since 1909. The Capitol Theater, built in 1924, was the crowning glory of a succession of local theaters owned by Zabel. The two commissioned local architect Joseph Wohleb to design a “monument to amusement lovers in Olympia,” a luxurious “picture palace” that was designed for orchestras to accompany silent films.On October 7th, 1924, the Capitol Theater opened its doors to an audience of over one thousand people who came for an evening of festive entertainment including organ music, song, dance, movies, and community networking. For the next half century, the Zabel family operated the theater. The theater was used primarily as a film venue and as a home for vaudeville. In the early days, many films premiered here, including Tugboat Annie, Ring of Fire, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, as well as many performances by famous musicians and singers like Judy Garland.
Built in the Mission Revival/Beaux Arts style, the building features glazed terra cotta and circular leaded art glass insets depicting the Greek Muses designed by Northwest glass artist Raymond Nyson. Terra cotta masks designed by Polish illustrator and mask maker W.T. Benda flank the backlit stained glass. The interior above the massive stage was crested with a large “C” which you can still see today, and also depicted the Pegasus you see on the exterior of the theater along with golden angels and horns. Unfortunately, a fire in 1937 caused extensive damage, and much of the interior was removed and replaced.
The theater originally had two manual Smith theater pipe organs installed in 1926. According to records, the organs were moved to Shoreline, WA in 1959 and were eventually broken up for parts and sold to a man in Twin Falls, ID. On each side of the stage are two niches which originally displayed three-dimensional replicas of the State Capitol Building. Currently, we fondly call these niches “The Gardens”, and they are still used today to display works by local artists.
In November of 2009, Mayor Doug Mah, the City of Olympia, and the Olympia Heritage Commission presented the Olympia Film Society with the Historic Preservation Award for replacing a rusty and dilapidated 1940s marquee with a newly fabricated replica of one of the Capitol Theater’s original 1930s marquees, simultaneously revealing and relighting the stained glass muses that had remained hidden for over 70 years. Today, as you pass by, you may still be able to catch a glimpse of what the theater was like in its younger days!
The Capitol Theater is by far one of Olympia’s most treasured landmarks and finest structures. Since 1986, the Olympia Film Society has been its sole tenant and caretaker. Other past owners include local pipe organist and entertainer Andrew Crow; property investor Gary Holgate of Chehalis; and on September 1st, 2010 the Olympia Film Society purchased the theater. We continue to carry on the tradition of the Capitol Theater and its legacy of hosting movies (most on 35mm film), concerts, live stage performances, and work toward the renovation and preservation of this historic piece of Olympia!