Worldwide, Les Paul is a legend in the history of music, invention and lutherie. Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Mr. Paul is known as the inventor of the solid body electric guitar. He was a prolific Country, Jazz and Pop music performer, as well as a songwriter. He was a sound technology innovator. He did it all. Three halls of fame have inducted Les Paul: The National Inventors Hall of Fame, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and The Songwriters Hall of Fame. In his early career, he was known as Red Hot Red, and performed at the Capitol Theater – more recently known as the Park Theater – in Racine, WI. Might this have been the first stage the legend set foot on?
According to Les-Paul.com, as a teenager, Les regularly played his guitar and harmonica at a local drive-in restaurant in his hometown. To get people in the back to hear him, Les amplified his guitar sound by taking the tone arm from his father’s phonograph, jamming the needle into the guitar bridge, taping the arm in place and wiring it to his father’s radio. This was the birth of the electric guitar! The rest is history. Just imagine your favorite band without this invention!
The young musician started his career playing country music. He went by the names “Red Hot Red” and “Rhubarb Red”. If you browse online for information on his first performances, most sources will show his career as beginning at venues in Chicago in 1934. However, he did perform at the Capitol Theater in Racine, Wisconsin on a Saturday night, on February 15, 1930. Could it be possible that this was his first stage performance? Only further research might reveal the answer.
The Capitol Theater, a weathered but solid building, is days away from being razed. If that happens, an important part of the history of American music and invention will be gone forever. In 1930, when Les Paul played at the majestic Capitol Theater, someone decided to give this young teen a chance, announcing: “He sings, and plays – And How! He’s great, you’ll like him”. This was one of the first steps for a career that forever changed music. Young musicians have always needed a space to perform, to get started, to meet other musicians. The Capitol Theater can still be one of those places.
Around the world, old buildings are repurposed, renovated and restored by city governments and not for profit organizations. If a building has a solid structure, there is no reason to waste it by destroying it. We must look at the past of our cities, with an eye to the future, preserve historic buildings and provide public spaces that build community. What better way to do that than having a theater where people from all walks of life can enjoy the performing arts?
The Friends of the Capitol Theater have presented the City of Racine a detailed proposal to bring this historical landmark back into use. The group already has the money to buy the building, insure it, and repair the roof and walls to seal the building envelope.
Will Racine Mayor, Cory Mason, call a special meeting to pause the order to tear down this historic theater? For the benefit of young Wisconsin performers, and the betterment of Racine, I hope he does. Imagine a Les Paul Fest at the Capitol Theater, in just a few years after the restoration is completed? I can see musicians and followers flocking to Racine.
Les Paul had an incredible imagination. He put that imagination into action and created what others never thought was possible. Nobody has ever gotten too far without imagination. The Friends of the Capitol Theater imagine a theater full of activities, life and celebration of our cultural expressions and history.
Imagine. Act. Create. Be like Les Paul.
Save the Capitol Theater in Racine, Wisconsin!