January 31, 1957 – Great Names in Entertainment World Played Capitol

The story of vaudeville, its heyday prior to the “talkies” and its demise was told by John R. Shields, retired manager of the Capitol Theater, at the weekly luncheon meeting of the Ansonia Rotary Club, Wednesday, at the YMCA.

Mr. Shields, who was in the theater business for 40 years prior to his retirement last June, recalled that some of the big names in the entertainment field played the Capitol Theater, including the late Fred Allen, Lillian Roth, William Frawley, now a member of the “I Love Lucy” TV cast; ventriloquist Edgar Bergin; opera star Lawrence Tibbett and comedian George Burns, then without Gracie Allen.

Mr. Shields said the vaudeville artists used to like to play the Capitol because it had two shows a day. Because the Capitol was an independent theater it was able to book the outstanding entertainers of the period.

The speaker, introduced by Judge Carl A. Lundgren, who was in charge of the program, described two of the many incidents which harass the life of a theater manager.

He told of an elephant act which he booked for the Sterling Theater, Derby. He mentioned the difficulty in getting the pachyderm, a small one, to climb the 22 steps leading to the orchestra of the Sterling Theater and up a specially built ramp to the stage. The elephant was just about to step over the footlights when it slipped and crashed to the floor, hit the piano, and bounced across the hall.

The elephant knocked over seats and created a “mess” which necessitating canceling the matinee performance, Mr. Shields said.

Fell to Street

Another experience involved five lions, he said. He recalled the difficulty encountered in getting the individually crated lions into the Sterling Theater by block and tackle and how the rope snapped on the fifth cage and it fell to the street.

Mr. Shields said the act was booked for a show scheduled to open on a Monday but that the animals arrived on a Thursday. He said he was notified by the Derby police of the arrival of the animals whose crates had fallen off the truck transporting them on the Derby-Shelton Bridge causing a little commotion.

Republican Lion

He mentioned that on the Sunday, preceding the performance, the Democratic Party was holding a rally at Sterling Theater. The principal speaker was David E. Fitzgerald, mayor of New Haven and candidate for Governor.

The crated lions were backstage and during Mr. Fitzgerald’s speech one of the cats gave out with a loud roar. The audience broke into laughter. The Democratic candidate for governor was unruffled. He quipped: “That fellow is a Republican”.

Mr. Shields said on the second day of the performance one of the lions attacked the trainer and the other cats, smelling blood began jumping around the cage which was on stage.

“Six women in the audience fainted. What a night that was!”

The last performance of vaudeville at the Capitol Theater was in November 1928, Mr. Shields said. The first “talkie” was “Sonny Boy” with the late Al Jolson.

What contributed to the discontinuance of vaudeville acts in the Capitol Theater, Mr. Shields said, was the increase in costs.

Mr. Shields said the movie business today is “bad”. He attributed this, not to the advent of television, but rather to the automobile, which he said is the movie industry’s greatest competition.

He pointed out that the local theater had its best years during “gas rationing”. He said the theater once played to half a million customers per year.

Dr. Edward C. Gardella,  president, presided at the luncheon meeting. Guests were Robert and Ronald Barth, twins, of the Pine High School. Howard Joyce was the song leader. Rev. Ward I. Crawford, pastor of the First Baptist Church, gave the invocation.