Peter Shapiro Never Stops: Cap 10, A New Memoir & A Whole Lot Of Music Magic

Photo of Peter Shapiro by Dino Perrucci

If not for Peter Shapiro, The Capitol Theatre might still be hosting bar mitzvahs rather than performances from some of the biggest rock and jam bands in the world. This year the Port Chester, N.Y., venue is celebrating its 10th anniversary since Shapiro renovated and ultimately purchased the theater, reopening the refurbished Cap with a Bob Dylan show on Sept. 4, 2012.

“Brandi [Carlile] played there a while back and loved it. The Capitol Theatre is obviously a legendary venue. We’re really lucky to have Pete open it back up and put so much love and care into it,” Duffy McSwiggin of Wasserman Music tells Pollstar. “I think we all know Peter Shapiro is an important family member and part of the fabric of the community of this business we work in. I think he tapped into something really special [with The Cap].”

But first Shapiro had to win over owner Marvin Ravikoff during negotiations about the lease that stretched more than a year, during which Ravikoff raised the price after they’d agreed to terms – twice.

ON THE COVER: Peter Shapiro pictured outside The Capitol in Port Chester, N.Y. Photo by Jonathan Healey

As Shapiro details in his new book co-written with Dean Budnick, “The Music Never Stops: What Putting On 10,000 Shows Has Taught me About Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of Magic,” if The Capitol had been a normal venue he would have walked away on day 3 of negotiations out of 470 – but he knew The Cap is extra special. And all that effort was worth it to bring back the magic known as live music.

The 2,050-capacity venue was meant to put on rock shows – it’s in The Cap’s roots. The theater was designed by esteemed architect Thomas Lamb (complete with 271 plaster squirrels throughout the building) and opened in 1926 as a playhouse that went on to screen films like “Casablanca” and “Gone With The Wind.” Following an initial renovation, the Capitol Theatre hosted rock shows in the early ’70s from acts including Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead (with Jerry Garcia naming The Cap and The Fillmore East his favorite venues) until the music died out with a village ordinance banning live entertainment after 1 a.m.

Ravikoff, a local developeer, purchased the venue in 1983 and after more renovations the venue once again put on events including plays and musicals, as well as a run of rock concerts in the early ’90s including gigs by Phish and Blues Traveler. By the time Shapiro came around, the venue was hosting the occasional concert with most of its calendar devoted to weddings and bar mitzvahs.

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All Of The Lights: String Cheese Incident photographed at The Capitol Theatre by Phil Leo.

Thankfully, Shapiro earned Ravikoff’s trust and got the chance to reopen The Cap with new state-of-the-art light, sound and video systems, along with upgraded bathrooms fresh paint and new carpets. Plus, Shapiro transformed an empty storefront adjacent to the building into a 250-capacity space dubbed Garcia’s that could host intimate gigs on nights The Capitol was dark.

The beloved venue – which offers the perfect blend of gorgeous architecture and history along with modern amenities – has attracted a devoted following over the years, from artists who love returning to the theater year after year to the local community (including a group of 90 volunteer ushers and members of the street team aka “the Squirrel Squad”) and music fans who travel across the country to visit The Cap for multi-night runs from artists like Phil Lesh and Ween. During the pandemic, while in-person shows were shut down, fans showed support for the venue by purchasing merch and engraved entryway tiles priced at $450.

Shakedown street: Fans line up outside The Capitol Theatre, ready for some Cap magic. Photo by Chad Anderson

“It’s a big room, but it feels very intimate and it sounds great. Oftentimes, a lot of these beautiful [old] theaters have excellent sound. It’s just the way they were created. When you walk into a room like [The Cap] there’s an energy – the room could be completely empty and you still feel this energy rolling through it. It’s the sightlines, it’s the fact that some of my artists have an audience where some of them like to sit, some of them like to be down front dancing and the room has the ability for both types of experiences,” says Patrick Jordan of Red Light Management, who manages Capitol Theatre regulars Trey Anastasio and Ween.

Of course, a big part of The Cap magic is what Shapiro brings to the experience. He is a sort of Renaissance man of the music industry, having taking on a range of roles including music documentary filmmaker, venue owner (starting with New York’s Wetlands Preserve from 1997-2001), magazine publisher, hero of the Deadheads as the promoter behind the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows, LOCKN’ festival co-founder, and activist as chairman of non-profit voter registration organization HeadCount. He’s also a devoted husband, father and, as always, a music fan.

“People put [Shapiro] in the same category as, let’s say, a Bill Graham or Ron Delsener … legendary concert promoters and concert producers,” says Capitol Theatre GM Bruce Wheeler. “And he just has that energy that draws so many great people into his circle, into his orbit. You know, it’s rare that you see somebody in the industry not only in tune with agents and managers, but also with artists, with touring people. He has a real talent for being able to communicate in that 360 way.”

Grateful BFFs: Capitol Theatre owner and live music renaissance man Peter Shapiro (right) squeezes in for a photo with Phil Lesh at The Cap on Nov. 3, 2013. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Jordan concurs, noting, “I remember the first time I toured The Cap, Peter was showing me all the little details, walking up to the top of the balcony and looking at the sightlines – he’s like a kid on Christmas morning when it comes to making fans happy. His enthusiasm is just contagious in that sense. And the same goes for the artists, in that he really always wants to have the artists leave the building going, ‘Yeah, that was my favorite show or shows of the year.’”

The Capitol Theatre is celebrating its anniversary with a run of shows that includes nine nights with Phil Lesh & Friends between Oct. 14 and Oct. 31, with each weekend featuring a different lineup. The run will include Lesh’s 100th performance at The Cap since it reopened.

Pollstar caught up with Shapiro as he was preparing to welcome Steely Dan to The Cap for three shows on the band’s “The Earth After Hours Tour” Aug. 10-13.

Pollstar: First of all, congratulations on your new book and The Cap’s anniversary.
Peter Shapiro: It’s been an amazing ride. Ten years. I’m standing outside The Cap right now. We have Steely Dan, three nights. We’ve done multiple Steely runs. We’ve done about 1,000 shows – and many more, if you include Garcia’s.

We’ve had some amazing moments. One thing that’s interesting is we’re 30 miles outside New York City. Most of the 2,000-capacity venues that have [hosted artists like] Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Phil Lesh and all that are in a city. The Fox in Oakland or Fonda LA or Chicago Theatre or The Met in Philly … I don’t think there’s any other theater at this capacity with this lineup of bands that’s in a town like Port Chester. There’s a great community who love live music. When we went up with Sheryl Crow on sale, and Sheryl also went on sale at the Beacon in New York City, we sold faster.

I think the location in some ways is even better than being in a city because we get the New York City people – they’ll come tonight for Steely Dan. The train station is right at the theater, it’s only a 45-minute drive – with no traffic (laughs). But then we get all the fans in Westchester and across the tri-state area.

We have 90 volunteer ushers and we have a Squirrel Squad – our volunteer street team. And they’re a big part of the Capitol Theatre.

Has the community of volunteers been there since you first took over the venue?
All of this has been there pretty much from The Cap’s re-opening in 2012, with the help of Stefanie May, who ran marketing for The Cap and helped organize it. Obviously, a large part of the venue’s culture and spirit is from the world of The Grateful Dead and the jam music scene. That kind of music lends itself to community and people being friends. Sue Harmon, she’s the leader of the Squirrel Squad. I swear, this is an awesome middle aged woman who is a fucking street teamer for a concert venue. And she loves it. We have a community and a culture that’s really unlike anything else I have ever seen for a music venue.

Two of the Capitol Theatre’s famous squirrels are seen in this snapshot of the venue’s architecture.

In the book you discuss spending over a year negotiating the lease for The Cap.
I kept fighting. I kept pushing because I knew that a theater like this is just one of a kind. You know, you can’t make them like this. It’s a Thomas Lamb theater. He’s the architect. It opened in 1926. He’s the preeminent architect of theater, really, in American history. He did the Boston Opera House, the original Ziegfeld. When I first walked into the theater, I saw an amazing music venue but also the bones of an amazing planetarium. That was my idea to try to use those rounded edges of the walls to kind of create a planetarium effect. And that lends itself really to The Deadhead music that’s got some psychedelic in it. We have 10 cinema-quality projectors. And we do projection mapping – we basically turn the theater into a planetarium.

You reopened the venue with a Bob Dylan show in 2012. You asked if Dylan could go on later that evening but his manager said no, which was a great story.
You know, Bob goes on when Bob goes on. That’s the real world you learn doing this business. People who read Pollstar know. You can only control what you can control. You just do your best … set the table and then you hope the magic kind of happens.

A meeting with the novelist Ken Kesey taught you about the art of the hang. Has that stuck with you in business?
Yeah, it’s a big part of it – the ability to hang. Because these artists can choose different venues and people to do shows with. As I said in the book, it never gets easy. It gets easier. One of the parts that gets easier is when you know more people. You know the artist, you know the manager, the agent. It’s hardest when you’re just starting, when you don’t know many people. And also, it’s hard when you have one venue, when I was starting at Wetlands … Once you have a few, like we have different Brooklyn Bowls, it gets easier. I did know The Cap would be such a special place. That’s one reason I wanted to fight hard to get it. And I had a feeling with this location that I would be able to draw out from all different directions.

Laser-Floyd-like: The Cap’s planetarium-like architecture provides a perfect backdrop to groovy production. Photo by Andrew Scott Blackstein

You started your live career with Wetlands, which offered fans the chance to be close with the band. Was that important to keep that spirit going with Garcia’s?
For me, it’s a big part of it. That’s how you meet young bands – like the band Goose, who has already been on the cover [of Pollstar], one of the hottest bands in live music started at Garcia’s. For us it’s a way to enhance The Capitol and support emerging bands.

You talk in the book about the magic that you experience during an inspiring night of music that lasts for 72 hours.
I still love the show part. Live music never fades at all for me, it’s still magic. I still love it. I’m going tonight, I went last night. I could still see a show every day. The daytime part, doing the HR and the booking and [dealing with] problems – that part gets a little tiring. But as long as I can keep going to shows, maybe every 72 hours and I need to get another jones – it’s a little bit like I’m an addict. I’m addicted to live music.

That’s one thing with owning these venues, especially The Cap. I have a great seat. I’m in the house right, middle box – that’s my happy place.

Peter Shapiro and the Capitol Theatre staff celebrate the venue’s post-COVID reopening with a Sept. 10, 2021, show by the Stella Blues Band. Photo courtesy Capitol Theatre 

How do you approach shows as a fan?
Because I’m a fan, I can see and feel what’s right and what’s not right. And I believe that everything matters – the details, how you experience the box office, the bar, the lighting, the sound, the air. If you screw one thing up there, the fan experience goes off.

Your time with Wetlands influenced the environmentally friendly details you put into the Brooklyn Bowl. Did activism come into play at all with the Capitol Theatre?
I try to do the right thing. I’m the chairman of HeadCount, the voter registration organization. We try to have tabling at The Capitol. Since HeadCount started in 2004 we’ve registered 1 million voters at venues and festivals across the country – half a million for the 2020 election. We try to keep the Wetlands spirit alive with positive actions at The Cap. We also organize local volunteering efforts through Cap Cares, where we try to use our concertgoers for a positive force. We actually have a Cap community fund where we raise money for local charities from the sale of our presidential boxes, which is pretty cool. I always try to be a good person, a good neighbor. That’s just baked in. The idea of doing positive things around the shows comes from Wetlands.

Dogs In A Pile perform at Garcia’s, the 250-capacity venue inside The Cap that offers an intimate experience. Photo by Geoff Tischman

The success of selling engraved entryway tiles at The Capitol Theatre seems to show how much The Cap means to people.
Yes. I mean, how many venues out there could sell tiles? For like $400 or $500, and it really helped. We did shows under our marquee outside. We just did whatever we could to survive until the government showed up. By the way, we do our own thing and we book in partnership with Live Nation. So, we have the help of the Big Guy there. We were on our own during COVID. You know, we had to survive. Even though we were booking with them, we were on our own. And the fans stepped up. We had to get creative. We did merch, streams, tiles.

You mentioned in the book that while Live Nation is a corporation, it’s made up of individuals. It sounds like you have a good relationship there.
I’ve learned from them that sometimes you want to go down the slide alone at the playground and sometimes you want to go down the slide on the back of the biggest kid in the playground.

What’s next for The Capitol Theatre?
The Capitol is just going to keep on going. I just realized we’re going to have a 100th anniversary not that far – Holy cow! I never really thought about that until now. 2026!

You know, we all learned what it was like having [live music] go away with the COVID break. It was such a shock to all of a sudden lose live music. And we’re seeing people really come back in support and we see what we do is important, more important now than ever to escape the crazy with all the stressful things happening around the world. And the iPhones we’re on all day. People need more than ever to go to a show. Uplifting people is an important job. … We try to give people magic and we’re going to keep doing it.

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