Posted April 6, 2016 by Cooper Point Journal in Arts & Entertainment

Capitol Theater

Characters & Stories from the Olympia Film Society

By Andrea Pardo

A week before I relocated to Olympia for a writing program at the Evergreen State College, I woke up to an email from my professor, stating I was required to secure a venue for observation three days a week in order to produce a story, and by the first day of class. It was New Year’s Eve, so in the midst of excitement and grief I felt for the end of another year, I frantically searched Google for volunteer opportunities in Olympia, a city I had little to no familiarity with. After a couple hours of anxiously scrolling and Googling random sequences of words based on my interests, I found the website for the Olympia Film Society. As I read about the organization and its presence at the historic Capitol Theater, my intuition told me that this would be the place I wanted to volunteer; a feeling that was further solidified by my first visit the following week.  If you’ve ever walked along 5th avenue, between Washington and Franklin in downtown Olympia, you’ve probably noticed a fluorescent sign that reads “Capitol” hanging overhead. This Theater is home to the Olympia Film Society.

Already pioneers of the cinema scene by the 1920s, E.A. Zabel and William Wilson conceptualized and built the Capitol Theater in 1924 to serve as a “monument to amusement lovers in Olympia,” as it says on their website. The so-called “picture palace” was designed for orchestras to accompany silent films, and to function as a space for community networking in addition to performances of comedy, song, and dance. Though the theater was constructed to seat 762 guests, an audience of over one thousand appeared on opening night and the Capitol Theater became a prominent showcase for film and art in the years that followed.

Zabel above all was known for his whimsical productions, especially when hosting events for Olympia’s youth. For example, during World War II, he held a “grease matinee,” where in exchange for a pound of fat, any child could come to the show and “no further interference would be permitted.” Zabel had to specify that the grease be in a container of course, for his intention was to send it to the U.S army.

Zabel and Wilson’s efforts to create an establishment for family entertainment paid off, and the Zabel clan operated the theater until the mid-1970s. It was then owned for a short time by local organist Andrew Crow, and later by a property investor from Chehalis, Washington.

Meanwhile, in 1980, The Olympia Film Society (OFS) was formed as a nonprofit; their mission to enliven and enrich the community by presenting and fostering the development of independent and underrepresented film, music and allied arts. Determined to secure a home base for operations that would enable the nonprofit to carry out their mission, in 1986 the OFS became sole tenant and caretaker of the Capitol Theater.

A few years later, in 1990, the OFS began leasing the theater before eventually purchasing the building in September of 2010. In an effort to maintain the Capitol Theater’s legacy, the Olympia Film Society strives to include only the finest award-winning, international, and independent pictures in their weekly film series, many of which are on 35 mm film. In addition to delivering a hand-picked selection of shows, the OFS commits to supporting local artists by displaying works in the halls of the theater, and occasionally provides members with one-time-only screenings of films, along with question and answer sessions with filmmakers and performance artists.

The OFS is also responsible for attracting between 5,000 and 7,000 visitors every year for the Olympia Film Festival. The festival began in 1983, and features a ten-day succession of films, filmmakers, special guests, performances, discussion panels, and educational workshops. Though the festival has earned recognition outside of Washington state, the energy exerted to put on this event is purely local, made possible by volunteers and the support of local businesses in the South Sound. It is this aspect of the Capitol Theater and OFS that is perhaps the most important; the community of people who choose to get involved. The volunteers at the Olympia Film Society not only keep the organization alive, but keep the Capitol Theater up and running by staffing the lobby, projecting the films, promoting the events, and cleaning the facility, in turn preserving a landmark of 5th avenue for future generations of films lovers in Olympia.

The first time I approached the Capitol Theater’s doors for a shift, I was greeted by Morgan the volunteer coordinator who has kind eyes and a natural sense of humor. As I stepped inside, Morgan hurried around the theater to finish up several tasks before doors opened that afternoon, and I met two other volunteers who were there to do projection. One of them wore thick, silver earrings that dangled from their  earlobes, the other seemed less than enthused to interact with me, but I admired their neck tattoos and green hair. After our introduction, the volunteer with the earrings proceeded to tell me about their  tattoo shop and science fiction novel they had been working on, which they asked me to edit after I mentioned I studied writing. Morgan then trained me in the art of tearing tickets. While I waited for filmgoers to arrive, I managed to overhear an intriguing conversation about documentaries, Nine In Nails, and Bauhaus.

I completed my ticket tearing duties and as I headed out the door, someone with thick glasses conversed with Morgan about feminism’s influence on film. After leaving the theater that day, I knew I wouldn’t have trouble finding something to write about. Not only did the Capitol Theater operate differently than any establishment I had ever been to, but it was full of character and I could feel the sense of community right away. Hearing some of the stories shared within the confines of the old theater made me realize how unaware I was of what the Olympia Film Society provided for people. I could tell the Capitol Theater was more meaningful in the lives of those who spent their time there than I could fully gather yet.

Throughout the weeks that followed, it became my routine to go to the Capitol Theater every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Now working concessions at the theater, I got used to smelling like popcorn; a scent that gave me a strange sensation of comfort when I’d bring my shirt up to my nose and inhale. I began to effortlessly distinguish regulars from newcomers based on their confidence when buying popcorn, and I enjoyed getting to know my fellow volunteers who I could have genuine dialogues with about David Bowie’s passing, or the X-files revival on Fox.

I noticed that most visitors liked to arrive in the very last minutes before show time, and I looked forward to spotting the same elderly couple every Friday night, who would appear with a box of pizza that they would then bring upstairs to the beer garden. Some days at the theater, my volunteer sessions would be incredibly monotonous. Other times, I’d look up from behind the glass counter and see Black Lives Matter activists marching down 5th. Regardless of how much action took place on a given day, my shifts at the Capitol Theater never felt like work. The friendliness among the staff was graciously extended to guests, and was usually reciprocated by the predominantly kind customers.

I’ll never forget a shift I had with Michael, a volunteer with a distinct southern drawl who noticed a homeless youth  sitting alone outside one night. It was frigid that evening, so Michael invited the young person  inside, bought them  a ticket to see the show, and a medium size popcorn. Although a medium is four dollars, Michael gave me a five-dollar bill, and then put the change in the tip jar for me to keep. This authentically compassionate behavior was something that characterized many of my experiences at the Capitol Theater. Even when I was having an exceptionally low day, the theater provided me with an overall feeling of warmth, or at the very least, the option to watch a film for free.

The Capitol Theater not only recognizes film as an art, but provides knowledge and a sense of community for those who are seeking it. In a society where cash is a necessity for survival, it comes as no surprise that many films are made with the intention of appealing to the masses. However, film exists not only for mindless entertainment, but as an art form, capable of educating and moving audiences. In a world where it would be much more financially secure to screen movies that are mainstream, the Capitol Theater consciously chooses not to. People still continue to show up, whether it be as a volunteer or film goer, individuals are choosing to spend their time at this theater. Besides protecting a part of Olympia’s history, the Capitol Theater preserves a sensation of integrity and interconnectedness that is hard to come by. If what makes life bearable is the relationships we have with each other as humans, then the Capitol Theater creates a space for lovers of film to come together and thrive creatively.


In addition to witnessing random acts of humanity and charming exchanges, my time spent at the Capitol Theater allowed me to better understand the motives of the volunteers I worked with. I learned that Sam, a person I shared a shift with every Wednesday, obtained a DUI as a minor and in his search for somewhere to complete community service, found the Capitol Theater. He now continues to volunteer out of a love for the theater’s film selection. Then there was Jenna, a Junior at Evergreen, who I learned had a sincere interest in film set design. Her goal is to learn projection, so that she can add it to her resume for future endeavors in cinema. While working concessions at the theater’s Rocky Horror Picture Show Event, I also got to know John, one of the theater’s projectionists. When I asked him about his experience at the theater, he put emphasis on how much fun projecting has been. John has lived in Olympia for four years now, and like many other volunteers I’ve talked to, wishes he had learned about the theater earlier. He tells me that when he first moved here, he spent a lot of time by himself or at home, so it’s been “really therapeutic” for him to be volunteering here. Although there are countless stories to be told about my peers at the Capitol Theater, I learned the most about my lobby supervisor, a woman who goes by the same name as me; Andrea. She has been coming to the Capitol Theater since the 1980s but only started to volunteer two years ago. Because of her busy schedule, Andrea never had the spare time to volunteer, though she always wanted to. However, due to unforeseen difficulties with her health and a large amount of stress in her personal life, Andrea chose to quit working full time as a Biochemist for the State Ocean Lab, and began working part time from home doing interior design. Now that she had more free time, she finally was able to sign up for volunteering at the theater. Though her original intention was to do something easy such as tearing tickets, she couldn’t help but notice how much help was needed in other areas of the theater. Because she was a supervisor for such a large period of time, she says “it was hard not to step in or offer help.” As a result, she became a lobby supervisor at the theater, someone who is familiar with all jobs, helps out where it’s needed, and trains new volunteers. She tells me she thinks the Capitol Theater “is in a good place right now,” and believes that the current Board of Directors at the Olympia Film Society are largely responsible for this. She can remember a time when half the board was made up of old school anarchists and no decisions were getting made. A problem that seemed to be reflected in the theater’s film selection during those years, in which she describes the assortment as being the most “quirky and obscure you could find.”