Capitol Theatre

Singapore Infopedia


The Capitol Theatre, located at the junction of Stamford Road and North Bridge Road, opened in 1930 and was considered one of the finest cinemas of that era.1 Originally owned by the Namazie family,2 Capitol Theatre, along with the four-storey adjoining building then known as Namazie Mansions, was sold to Shaw Organisation after World War II.3 In 1987, the theatre was acquired by the government for conservation. After almost 17 years of dormancy since the last film was screened in 1998, Capitol Theatre officially reopened on 22 May 2015 following a four-year renovation.4

Spanning more than 2,100 sq m, the Capitol Theatre had a neoclassical architecture designed by British architects P. H. Keys and F. Dowdeswell. They drew inspiration from the Roxy Theatre in New York, replicating its seating arrangements, lighting and general plan. Messrs Brossard and Mopin, who were engaged as the builders, began foundation work around July 1929.5 The purchase of the land and construction of the theatre cost $800,000.6

At its opening, the theatre was hailed as having the most modern auditorium with the largest capacity in the Far East. The theatre could accommodate at least 1,600, with 1,100 seated on the ground floor. Another 500 seats were available at the circle that could be accessed via lifts or staircases. The seats were a few inches wider than normal British cinema seats, and the upholstery was supplied by a New York company.7

The Capitol had a large projection room, which was located below the balcony and ran the length of the building instead of being traditionally sited in the rear. It housed the latest Simplex projector and was installed with fireproof protection shutters. Designed expressly for talkies, the theatre’s acoustics and soundproofing were said to be exceptional. Special sound installations costing at least 40,000 Straits dollars were imported from Western Electric Company.8

The theatre’s stage was designed for film as well as stage productions: Changing rooms and organ chambers were built into the theatre, which also featured a multihued lighting system using concealed lamps with a dimmer function. Until the opening of Capitol, multihued lighting had never been used in local theatres. It was said to enhance the look of the silk draping at the stage as when the light fell on the folds of the drapes.9 A journalist at the time described the theatre as “almost too elaborate for a mere cinema”.10

Unlike other cinemas that were decorated simply, the Capitol featured elaborate decorations on its walls and ceilings. The detailing was designed by Messrs Sherwin-Williams Paint Co. in collaboration with local partner Messrs Lohmann and Co. The interior decorations were green and gold, with the golden dome as its highlight. The cinema’s roof could slide open, leaving a 40-foot aperture for ventilation. Besides the floodlit main entrance at the junction of Stamford Road and North Bridge Road, there were two side entrances, one from Stamford Road and the other via North Bridge Road with a carpark space for at least 200 cars.11 The theatre was installed with a ventilation system.12 The iconic Greek zodiac lining the dome and the pair of white Pegasus flanking the stage were only installed in the mid-1960s.13

There were several dining outlets in the theatre building. The main café on the first floor had a dance floor, and adjoining the café was a restaurant. A café lounge was located at the circle. A special cooling room for making French pastries was built in the kitchen on the ground floor.14

During its later years, an arcade from the adjacent Shaws Building (previously known as Namazie Mansions), led to the Capitol cinema. Its walls were plastered with billboards of upcoming shows and between each billboard were mirrors. This passageway was reworked during the renovations of 1992.15

Opening night
Capitol Theatre opened on the evening of 22 May 1930 with the musical comedy, Rio Rita, the film adaptation of a Ziegfeld Follies theatre production and starring Bebe Daniels. Several specially prepared short films were screened to demonstrate the quality of the expensive sound system. These were an overture, “Capitol March”; a cartoon, Finding His Voice, demonstrating the workings of the sound system; and the recorded inaugural announcement by the Capitol’s managing director, Joe Fisher. However, a mechanical fault led to a faulty sound projection during the first screening at 6.15 pm, but this was corrected by the 9.15 pm show.16

Years under the Namazies
Persian businessman, Mohammed Ali Namazie, better known as M. A. Namazie, had commissioned the theatre to be built and formed Capitol Theatres Ltd. to operate it. He served as the company’s chairman with S. A. H. Shirazee as director and Joe Fisher as managing director. The latter had travelled overseas to acquire material for the theatre’s furnishings, decorations and design. Fisher, who became a key figure in the Malayan cinema industry, was also responsible for purchasing films for the theatre.17 Through him, Capitol Theatre gained exclusive first-screening rights for many Paramount and Universal productions, along with exclusive distribution rights for Radio Pictures. The theatre also screened the British Pathé Sound News, as well as a new film every week. The Capitol soon gained a reputation for offering quality programming.18

Soon, however, Capitol faced many issues including financial difficulties. Besides the sudden death of M. A. Namazie in 1931,19 the challenges of the Great Depression in the 1930s coupled with strict censorship laws that led to awkward cuts in dialogues,20 competition also grew in quick succession with other cinemas – such as Victoria Theatre, Alhambra and Bioscope – offering talkies around the time Capitol opened.21

To attract business, Joe and his brother, Julius Fisher, started the Mickey Mouse Club in 1933. Members of the club could watch matinee shows for as little as 25 cents or for free.22 The Fishers also brought in the Marcus Show, a revue with a chorus line of 60 dancing girls. The theatre and its various eateries thus became popular hangouts for the young.23

Close to a decade after its opening, the theatre was revamped. Without closing its doors to business, seats were replaced with new upholstered ones, an air-conditioning system was installed and its vestibule redesigned. Costing $50,000, the refurbishment began in September 1939 and was completed by 31 January 1940. The Wizard of Oz was screened the following day to mark the occasion. Although the changes helped the cinema become more competitive, the onset of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) threw a spanner in the works.24

Developments during World War II
Before the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), the British forces requisitioned Capitol Theatre as a food depot25 and to screen films to keep morale high. However, the Japanese forces took over the cinema after they landed in Malaya.26 Renamed Kyoei Gekkyo in 1942, it continued screening western films initially, but this was banned after a few months, and thereafter it screened only Japanese or propaganda films.27 An explosion in 1944 severely damaged the facade of the building.28

Postwar developments under Shaw Organisation
In 1946, Shaw Organisation bought over Capitol Theatre and Namazie Mansions, which were then under mortgage to the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, for $3 million. Shaw made Capitol its flagship cinema and renamed the adjoining building Shaws Building.29

A $100,000 rebuilding work was started at the end of 1948, partly to repair what was destroyed by the explosion in 1944. The renovation led to a new restaurant, a ballroom on the first floor, new lifts and an open-air terrace.30

Following its reopening, Capitol hosted the first-ever ice show in Singapore on 31 March 1951 with the Scandinavian Ice Revue.31 A Danish refrigeration engineer was tasked with building an ice rink in the theatre.32 In the 1950s and 60s, Capitol was also the venue for Miss Singapore” or “Miss Malaya beauty pageants.33 A variety show known as “Musical Express” was held at the Capitol in the 1960s, featuring local acts such as singers Rita Chao and Sakura Teng; comedic duo Wang Sa and Ya Fong; and musical group, The Quests.34

However, despite a S$700,000 renovation in 1989, the advent of the multiplex led to a decline in attendance.35 In 1978, Shaw was reported to be putting up Capitol Theatre and Shaws Building for sale, but no deal was reached.36 Thereafter, Shaw revealed plans to redevelop Capitol Theatre and Shaws Building into a commercial and residential complex with a shopping complex and a multiscreen cinema.37 In 1984, however, the government gazetted the two buildings for redevelopment.38 The state then acquired the buildings in 1987, following which Shaw was allowed leased use of the cinema.39

In 1989, the theatre closed for a two-week renovation costing S$700,000 and subsequently reopened with a new sound system and projectors, as well as a fresh coat of paint.40 On 29 December 1998, however, Capitol screened its last movie Soldier, starring Kurt Russell, and was closed indefinitely.41

Tender for redevelopment

In 2000, attempts were made to put up the theatre for conservation and repurposing under the jurisdiction of the Singapore Tourism Board. Despite some interest from theatre groups to lease the space, the cost of refurbishment was exorbitant and thus the cinema languished for almost a decade.42 In 2008, the theatre – together with Stamford House, Capitol Centre (located next to the theatre) and Capitol Building – was offered for sale as a single site, with specifications for conserved renewal.43 Capitol Theatre, Stamford House and Capitol Building were gazetted for conservation in 2007.44

On 27 October 2010, the site spanning the four buildings was awarded to the joint-venture enterprise, Capitol Investment Holdings Pte Ltd. Construction, altogether costing S$750 million, began on 1 February 2011. Richard Meier and Partners Architects were appointed to design a new building as part of a shopping complex-cum-hotel. Their final design involved the demolishment of Capitol Centre and the use of pedestrianised alleys to open up the space around Capitol Theatre, so that events could spill beyond the theatre space.45

Capitol Theatre officially reopened on 22 May 2015, almost 17 years since its last film was screened. The opening performance was the US$2-million (S$2.7-million) production,Singapura: The Musical, staged by the 4th Wall Theatre Company.46

Following its refurbishment, the theatre now has 977 seats and is equipped for both theatre productions and film screenings, the only such platform in Singapore. The theatre seats can be rotated, transforming the space into a flat floor in less than eight minutes and thus expanding the range of the events that can be held at the venue.47

Bonny Tan

1. “Air-Conditioned Capitol Has 1,000 New Seats,” Strait Times, 31 January 1940, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Today’s Opening of The Capitol,” Straits Times, 22 May 1930, 16; “Runme Wins Damage Award,” Straits Times, 7 June 1956, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Runme Wins Damage Award.”
4. Carolyn Khew and Melody Zaccheus, “Nostalgia Takes Centre Stage at Iconic Theatre,” Straits Times, 23 May 2015, 6 (From NewspaperSG)
5. “‘Sea Breezes’ at the Capitol,” Straits Times, 29 April 1930, 19; “Cinema and Theatre,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 9 August 1929, 8; Hazel Yong, “Capitol Downhill,” Straits Times, 2 July 2006, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Today’s Opening of The Capitol”; “Cinema and Theatre.”
7. “Cinema and Theatre”; “‘Sea Breezes’ at the Capitol”; “Today’s Opening of The Capitol.”
8. “The Capitol,” Straits Times, 9 August 1929, 12; “Today’s Opening of The Capitol”; “Cinema and Theatre”; “‘Talkie’ Invasion,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 17 December 1929, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “The Capitol”; “Cinema and Theatre”; “Today’s Opening of The Capitol.”
10. “Capitol Theatre,” Straits Times, 23 May 1930, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Cinema and Theatre”; “Today’s Opening of The Capitol”; “‘Sea Breezes’ at the Capitol.”
12. “The Cinema World – Capitol’s Cooling System,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 10 August 1929, 17; “‘Sea Breezes’ at the Capitol.”
13. Kelvin Tong, “Goodbye, Capitol,” Straits Times, 25 December 1998, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “‘Sea Breezes’ at the Capitol.”
15. “Owners Unhappy Over Acquisition of Land,” Straits Times, 26 February 1984, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Robert Powell, Living Legacy: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage Renewed (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1994), 194. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 POW)
16. “Capitol Theatre: New Amusement Centre Opened,” Straits Times, 23 May 1930, 14; “Capitol Theatre Opening,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 23 May 1930, 10; “The Critics on ‘Rio Rita.’ R.K.O. – A Giant Among Producers,” Straits Times, 22 May 1930, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Today’s Opening of The Capitol”; “Cinema and Theatre”; “S’pore Cinema Pioneer Dies of Heart Attack in U.S.,” Straits Times, 27 July 1960, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Capitol Theatre to Release Outstanding Films,” Straits Times, 22 May 1930, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Mr. M. A. Namazie,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 28 July 1931, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “What is the Future of the Talkie,” Straits Times, 18 February 1931, 6; “Advent of the Talkies,” Straits Times, 20 June 1929, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “‘Talkie’ Invasion”; “Current Cinema Chat and Comment,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 15 February 1930, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Page 7 Advertisements Column 1,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 4 June 1937, 7; “Page 7 Advertisements Column 1,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 17 June 1937, 7; Lee Kip Lee, “Mouseketeer Central,” Straits Times, 24 November 2007, 111. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Lee Kip Lee, “My Fond Memories of Capitol,” Straits Times, 31 December 1998, 26; “Wheeler and Woolsey,” Straits Times, 27 May 1933, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Air-Conditioned Capitol Has 1,000 New Seats.”
25. “No More Shows at Capitol Theatre,” Singapore Free and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 20 December 1941, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Kartar Singh, oral history interview by Jason Lim, 19 September 2002, MP3 audio, 30:52, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002335)
26. Kartar Singh, oral history interview, 19 September 2002.
27. Chan Kwee Sung, “Capitol Screened Japanese Movies,” Straits Times, 8 January 1999, 66; Chan Kwee Sung, “Thanks, Capitol, for Good Times,” Straits Times, 3 April 1999, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Kartar Singh, oral history interview with Jason Lim, 19 July 2002, MP3 audio, 31:12, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002335)
29. “Real Estate Deals Reach $25 Million,” Straits Times, 27 July 1947, 7 (From NewspaperSG); “Runme Wins Damage Award.”
30. “Capitol Re-Building Gets Under Way,” Singapore Free Press, 15 November 1948, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Ice show Put Off 24 Hours,” Straits Times, 29 March 1951, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Will Build Ice Rink on Stage,” Straits Times, 22 March 1951, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), Miss Singapore Finalists at the Capitol Theatre, 21 June 1962, photograph, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. PCD0207 – 011); Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), ‘Miss Malaya’ Semi-Final at the Capitol Theatre, 28 June 1954, photograph, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. PCD0207 - 038)
34. “Page 4 Advertisements Column 1,” Straits Times, 5 July 1967, 4; “Page 4 Advertisements Column 2,” Straits Times, 24 May 1967, 4; Tan Bah Bah, “She’s Lovelier Than Ever,” Straits Times, 9 August 1993, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “Capitol Retains Old Style,” Straits Times, 26 October 1989, 25 (From  NewspaperSG); Charlie Khoo, oral history interview by Chew Hui Min, 8 September 2005, transcript and MP3 audio, 53:53, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002961), 1–33.
36. “Capitol Building and Shaw Tower to Be Sold,” Straits Times, 9 December 1978, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Wang Loo Keah, “Government to Preserve Two Old Buildings in Town,” Straits Times, 12 July 1983, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Oei Sin Giok, “Capitol Theatre Acquired By the Govt,” Singapore Monitor, 24 February 1984, 3; “Owners Unhappy Over Acquisition of Land,” Straits Times, 26 February 1984, 12; Idah Latiff, “Capitol Row Hearings Start in July,” Straits Times, 23 March 1981, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Lee Han Shih, “Capitol Cinema Acquired By Govt,” Business Times, 13 December 1988, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “Capitol Retains Old Style.”
41. Tong, “Goodbye, Capitol.”  
42. Yong, “Capitol Downhill.” 
43. Tan Dawn Wei, “Wanted: New ‘Director’ for Capitol Theatre,” Straits Times, 27 April 2008, 12; Teo Xuanwei, “Curtain to Rise on Capitol, After All,” Today, 18 December 2008, 1; Warren Fernandez, “Unwanted Child of S’pore Conservation?” Straits Times, 20 April 2008, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
44. “Capitol Theatre, Capitol Building and Stamford House,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, n.d.
45. S. Tng, “New Lifestyle,” Skyline, (February 2011): 17–19 (Call no. RSING 354.5957091 S); S. Tng, “Capitol Sale Site,” Skyline (May–June 2011), 6–7 (Call no. RSING 354.5957091 S); Clara Chow, “Capitol Site Renaissance,” The Edge Singapore, (14 February 2011), CC4–CC5. (Call no. RSING 338.7095957 ES)
46. Corrie Tan, “Singapura: The Musical to Open at Newly-refurbished Capitol Theatre in May,” Straits Times, 11 February 2015; “Back in the Spotlight,” Straits Times, 23 May 2015, 1; Caroline Khew and Melody Zaccheus, “Nostalgia Takes Centre Stage at Iconic Theatre,” Straits Times, 23 May 2015, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Natasha Ann Zachariah And Lee Jian Xuan, “Upcoming Musicals and Films at the Capitol Theatre,” Straits Times, 16 May 2015; “Capitol Theatre to Re-Open: 10 Things About the New Capitol Singapore,” Straits Times, 11 May 2015. (From Factiva via NLB eResources website)

Further resources
Abul Fazil, “Worked At Cinema 38 Years, Never Saw a Show,” Straits Times, 12 April 1967, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Bonny Tan, “Living it Up at the Capitol,” BiblioAsia (Jan–Mar 2018)

Cheow Xin Yi, “A Capitol Idea,” Today, 20 June 2008, 32. (From NewspaperSG)

Cheryl Ong, “Capitol Theatre to Re-open Next Year as Part of New $1.1B Capitol Singapore Project,” 3 April 2014. (From Factiva via NLB eResources website)

Eunice Quek, “Capitol Theatre Is Next Foodie Draw,” Straits Times, 17. (From NewspaperSG)

Eunice Quek, “Feasting in the City: Capitol Theatre,” Straits Times, 19 July 2015, 16–17. (From NewspaperSG)

Goh Yee Ling, “Shaw Group Hopes to Be Third Time Lucky,” Business Times, 26 November 1985, 18. (From NewspaperSG)

Hong Xinyi, “Capitol Theatre Slated for Redevelopment,” Straits Times, 3 April 2009, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Jennifer Koh, “Civic Centre Plan Unveiled,” Straits Times, 12 March 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Joyce Teo, “Capitol Site and Two New Growth Areas Up for Sale,” Straits Times, 20 June 2008, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Kelvin Tong, “Get Reel, Multi Screens Rule,” Straits Times, 8 January 1999, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Michael Lum Yan Meng, “How to Turn Capitol Into An Arts Centre,” Straits Times, 15 January 1999, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

Natasha Ann Zachariah, “New Capitol Singapore Will Be a Green Urban Haven with Water Walls and Themed Gardens,” Straits Times, 24 January 2015. (From Factiva via NLB eResources website)

Opening of Malaya’s Premier Picture Palace – The Capitol Theatre, Singapore,” Malayan Saturday Post, 31 May 1930, 38. (From NewspaperSG)

Page 2 Advertisements Column 4,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 October 1941, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Page 7 Advertisements Column 1,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 30 January 1935, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Page 11 Advertisements Column 2,” Straits Times, 4 August 1932, 11. (From NewspaperSG)

The Capitol Theatre,” Malayan Saturday Post, 17 May 1930, 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The Capitol Theatre,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 22 May 1930, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Untitled,” Malayan Saturday Post, 18 October 1930, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 31 December 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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