The Stars Come Out in WilliamsportJan 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow
Community Arts Center's thirtieth season continues to dazzle.
When you walk into the foyer and step through the doors into the Martin Theatre, you might feel as though you’ve gone through some kind of portal into another time and place. A place that’s elegant as well as welcoming, a place with unique and exquisite architecture—that octagon dome in the ceiling is jaw-dropping.
“It’s always fun to watch people experience the beauty of the space for the first time—how they gaze up in awe at the ceiling and all the glowing details,” says Cindy Davis Meixel, writer/photographer at Pennsylvania College of Technology, which owns the Community Arts Center. “You see this, especially, on the faces of all the children. Just being in that space helps them ‘dream big,’ I think.”
Williamsport’s Community Arts Center is a living mix of a hundred-plus years of community, beginning before the turn of the last century with the Sterling Hotel on the 220 West Fourth Street site, and continuing with the high-tech, restored, refurbished multi-use facility it is today. From the first opening performance in May of 1993—it was the New York Pops with Skitch Henderson—to the upcoming Dancing with the Stars: Live!, CAC has been, for three decades, downtown Williamsport’s beating heart.
“We’re always happy to have an excuse to bring people to downtown Williamsport, whether it’s for a big show touring the country or a local organization or school showing off their amazing skills,” says Steven Ault, manager of marketing communications for CAC.
It just so happens there will be a big show making a Williamsport stop on January 23. The pros from the hit television series Dancing with the Stars, including Brandon Armstrong, Rylee Arnold, Alan Bersten, Daniella Karagach, Pasha Pashkov, Gleb Savchenko, Emma Slater, and Britt Stewart, along with Season 32’s Mirrorball winners Xochitl Gomez and Val Chmerkovskiy will spin, twirl, kick, and strut in an all-new live version of the small-screen favorite. Expect to see on the Martin Theatre stage the same high-energy, I-can’t-believe-they-can-do-that, big-smile-generating performances from these incredible athletes as you would on the TV show’s ballroom floor.
In the thirty years since the CAC opened its doors, nearly two million guests have come through them to see nearly 1,500 productions. Those are impressive numbers for a facility that holds a little over 2,000 people. The list of national and international performers who have graced the stage is remarkably wide-ranging—guests have enjoyed Lord of the Dance, Jeff Foxworthy, Z.Z. Top, Willie Nelson, Madame Butterfly, Weird Al Yankovic, Martha Reeves, Cats, Wynonna Judd…the list goes on, and will, because, as CAC Executive Director Jim Dougherty says, “It’s really important to us to create diverse experiences, and we work hard to offer something for everyone in the community.”
“We love being able to host big national tours and bring celebrities to Lycoming County, but we also love being able to provide a showcase stage for amazing local talent,” Steven says. CAC is the performance home to the Uptown Music Collective (the Williamsport area’s only nonprofit school of music—uptownmusic.org), Williamsport Symphony Orchestra and Youth Orchestra, Lycoming College Music Department, Repasz Band (repaszband.org), and numerous local dance schools.
“Many other local arts organizations perform at the CAC multiple times a year, so that ability to act as a springboard for local talent is amazing,” Jim says.
The Martin Theatre, with its lovingly and painstakingly restored, renovated, and replicated interior, is considered the heart of the facility, but CAC is also home to the Capitol Lounge, a venue in its own right. The bar opens an hour before shows and an hour after, is open during intermissions, and also hosts the Comedy Zone, Murder Mystery Dinners, and evenings of local musicians and local breweries known as Tunes on Tap.
The facility’s history is likened to a play, with Act I, Scene I, being the “death” by fire of CAC’s precursor, the Sterling Hotel, in 1924. An entity known as the Comerford Amusement Company subsequently built the Capitol Theatre on the site, with company president M.E. Comerford promising Williamsport “a new, beautiful, and modern and up-to-date vaudeville theatre.” He delivered. Billed as “the finest in Central Pennsylvania,” the Capitol was not only beautiful, boasting the unique octagon domed ceiling and an array of detailed and colorful accents throughout, it was truly wired for sound. Opening night was October 22, 1928, and the movie was Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool—a talkie, of course. Throughout the next twenty or so years, a variety of community entertainments and stage shows found a home at the theatre, along with the movies.
A flood damaged the building in 1936, and though it was repaired and deemed structurally sound, the ensuing years were not kind to it. Ownership changed more than once, and, despite the efforts and determination of those various individuals to restore the theatre to its original grandeur, the building’s health continued to decline, as did its usage. It was June of 1990 when the Capitol showed its last movie—Driving Miss Daisy. All seats were one dollar.
But it wasn’t the end, by any means. Because just six months before, the Williamsport-Lycoming Foundation (now known as the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania), the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and the City of Williamsport had announced that the college would acquire the Capitol and transform it into a community arts center. The Foundation and PCT each committed $2 million; the City of Williamsport committed $1 million; another $2.1 million came via a public fund-raising campaign.
Renovation, restoration, and replication were slow and difficult processes. Some of the Capitol’s most beautiful decorative accoutrements had been either destroyed or painted over after the 1936 flood, so the restorers were ecstatic to find a bit of original stencil work around the octagon. Only a tiny piece of original carpeting was available, but it was enough to match with the original manufacturer’s records and recreate the pattern. Murals were uncovered and recreated. Colors were revealed. The two-year process included updating electrical and sound systems, expanding the stage, and, later, improving some of the backstage areas.
“Documenting the renovation and reopening of the arts center in the early ’90s was certainly a highlight of my career,” says Cindy. “It was a massive undertaking, and there isn’t a time that I walk into the current spectacular space and not think of how drab the old theater looked when the college acquired it.”
Nothing drab allowed on January 23 for the presentation of Dancing with the Stars: Live! The show starts at 7:30, and a variety of seating packages are available. For tickets or more information about the DWTS show or the remainder of the thirtieth anniversary season lineup, visit caclive.com or call (570) 326-2424. At this time, the last show scheduled for the season (the performance season typically runs from July to early June) is The Book of Mormon on May 2, 2024.
“There’s something happening at the CAC almost every day, and it’s fun and exciting to be part of such a vibrant atmosphere,” Jim says.