Jon Dindas: "Heady Times at The Capitol Theatre" (and Onward)
You’d attended shows there when you were growing up?
Yeah, I was at the show where Phish opened for Blues Traveler, which later became famous because it was the one where Phish opened for Blues Traveler and not the other way around [10/6/90]. That was the first show I saw there, and then I saw a couple others, and the next year Phish played again, and I was up in the balcony and they played “Bouncing Around the Room” and the balcony bounced. At that point I’m sure I wasn’t sober, and it may be hyperbole, but I was telling people, “This thing was moving like a foot! Two feet, it was crazy!” And remembered that until the day we went back and actually did some testing on the thing. I saw Strangefolk there, I saw MMW there, I would guess there were eight to ten shows in that run from 1990-1993.
So when Pete said the Cap, I was working with Bob Kennedy doing festivals, basically the Vibes, Mountain Jam, Solid Sound, and I loved what I was doing. I was in no way really looking to go back to a room the way I was at Irving. But, the combination of it being Peter and being that room, I couldn’t say no. I grew up in Mamaroneck, which is three towns over, my parents still live in New Rochelle, in some way, though I’m a city kid through and through, in some way I was going home. It was critical mass, there was no way not to do it. It was daunting and definitely uncertain at times but it was something we had to do and something we had to do right.
I have no idea what it looked like when you first walked in there. Can you describe the biggest production challenges?
When I walked in I had to go in under the guise of doing a show there, because that was the only way the current management would let us walk. It had been an event space. It was no longer a rock and roll theater, let alone the rock palace that we were envisioning. It was an event space; it was a place where people would have Bar Mitzvahs and wedding receptions. The floor was built up, the stage was twelve inches high, and I knew that was going to be a problem. The downstairs looked well enough, it was fine. The upstairs, my favorite thing is, at some point they had to raise the steel railing at the top point of the lower seats, and we went up one day and they had taken some PVC tubing and spray painted it grey to match the steel and zip-tied that on. So it wasn’t show ready.
One of the problems was that in the interim, in 1998, MTV did two shows in there. They scheduled a Rolling Stones show that the Stones cancelled two weeks out but David Bowie went in and did the show and then they had the Stones show a few weeks later. So what we heard a lot was, “Well we had the Rolling Stones here, everything is fine.” Look at the videos on YouTube and it wasn’t the same thing. MTV came in and ripped things out and put in lights and had things replaced.
Pete’s term, that I think is very apt, is the “bones were there.” The dome is the amazing architectural feature and that was there. Everything needed to be painted—the most difficult thing was getting into the modern era. Getting the power, ethernet cables, getting wiring redone. That was the most difficult part because some stuff had never been run or run in a way that didn’t make sense. So there was a lot of that and then there was the aesthetic and the decorative, stuff that in the long run, people notice. People don’t care about wiring, but the carpet or the now famous wallpaper in the second lobby with Janice and Jerry in it; that stuff really does set it apart and that’s where Peter is brilliant in his visual sense. The front of the house was trying to make it into a useable space in terms of ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and as far creature comforts and we were just trying to get it ready to rock. Let’s put on a big rock show.
It could have been opened with fewer amenities and people wouldn’t have known. Clearly there was a commitment to make the experience appreciably different. Can you talk about that process?
In terms of the attendee coming in, the term we kept coming to was Rock Palace. We wanted to take the best of the great theaters—the Vic, or the Warfield or the Orpheum—we wanted to take a little bit of Bill Graham and make it historic. There’s a picture of Jerry that you’ve seen backstage talking about how the Fillmore and the Capitol Theater are the only two venues that have made any difference to him, so we wanted to do that. The mission was to enhance the history while bringing it in to the future.
There are two entrances to the Capitol Theater, the front door and the stage door. Through there we have the two demographics we need to keep happy: the audience who are buying the tickets and the bands who are coming and playing to those audiences. The stage door was my domain exclusively and I wanted people to come in—managers, and tour managers and artists—and say, “Wow, these guys thought of it all.” When I was on the road it was so obvious the difference between the rooms where people gave a shit and where people didn’t. That sets the tone. So when you walk into a rundown, dilapidated room, people are like, “The owners don’t care enough to put money into fixing this for us, they want to keep whatever money they have in their pocket.” And you get that kind of show.
Artists aren’t machines, if they have a good experience in a room before they go on, that’s going to change the show. And if the crowd is feeling great and that energy hits them, that’s going to change the show. I’ve been doing this a long time, and the places that make magic are the places that get the energy of the band to a certain level because they’re being treated right and given what they need to perform, and getting the energy level of the crowd together because they’re giving them things that they’re not used to seeing.
Our projection system was much thought about. Part of that is for the shows absolutely, we want the bands to be rocking out—the American flag for Phil or for MMJ have the moon for those songs. But part of it is walking in. For the first two months, my favorite thing to do was just to watch people come in after doors and look at the things on the walls, taking pictures, and that helps make a difference. On Tuesday night at a lot of venues, things can be take it or leave it, but a Tuesday night at the Capitol Theater is going to kick ass regardless, and that’s the whole point.
What are some of those things that the audience never sees but bands and crew appreciate?
The first thing for me and the crew that we hired, most of them had been on the road, was an understanding that [musicians and crew] are not always going to get off the bus and be in a good mood or have had a good trip the night before. One of the things we wanted to do was make it easy for bands by giving them the best gear anywhere in a room that size and I think we have done that. By allowing them to leave some of their gear on the truck or allowing us by having great people running our gear, having them feel like they were embraced as soon as they walked in. There are some shows where the artists may not spend much time in the room, but the crew will, and if the crew’s happy, the band’s happy, and if the band’s happy the crew’s happy. It’s a living, breathing thing.
The one thing we couldn’t change about the Cap was the backstage; I often refer to it as the Beacon Theater without an elevator. It’s six stories and there’s no elevator. So if your dressing room is on the sixth floor, then you’re walking up there. In every room backstage there is a T.V. screen that shows the concert when it’s on. So if you’re a wife or a girlfriend or boyfriend, or some guy working for the label and you just want to sit back in the dressing room for a second, you can watch the show. Some places have that in the headliner dressing room, but very few have it in every room. It’s the little things we can do, a little VIP area with a couch and big TV downstairs where Biz Markie watched the entire Celtics Game when Yo Gabba Gabba was there.
It’s thinking about these things. When I did my first talk with our crew, I said, “Part of this is a hotel. We have guests and we’re paying a lot of money for these guests to come here. We need to make sure they feel like they’re part of the family.” I did sixty shows in five months and that’s insane just saying it, but I don’t think there was a night where somebody in the crew or somebody in the band didn’t come to me and say, “You guys did this right” or “Hey, can we have a t-shirt, because we want to tell people we played the Cap.” And on stage, almost every night someone is like, “This place is amazing, it’s our favorite place to play…”
I think some of it is creature comforts, some it is just attitude, but I am a big believer that if the artists are happy and well tended to, they will play better. And that’s something we can offer to our fans. The people out there are like, “It’s a great place to see a show, it’s fun, and every time I go there the band is just killing it.”