How unique, generations-old talents rebuilt Flint's historic Capitol Theatre

For a year and a half Flint resident Joe Katrinic, Jr. was up and down on scaffolding, paintbrush in hand, working with a team of constructions workers and artisans to bring the Capitol Theatre in Flint back to life. Katrinic, a second-generation journeyman painter, is part of a crew of craftsmen from Artistic Decorating, a Flint-based paint contracting company. 

There was plenty of work to do when the Artistic Decorating paint crew arrived in August 2016. “It was an abandoned building,” says Katrinic. “The bones were still in decent shape. It just needed some rejuvenation to bring it back to its glory.”

And they definitely brought it back. 

The painters used 96 different colors throughout the building. While finishing up details on opening day Katrinic says, “We just added one more.” 

Painters arrived on the scene armed with old photos in sepia or black and white depicting what the theater looked like in its heyday. While these images offered insight into the plaster designs and shading of the paintwork, the lack of color made the project challenging. Much of the building had been repainted which required the research team to scrape, sand, and drill through the layers to find original colors. Photos in the hall outside the theater illustrate the various hues that were labeled and cataloged as inspiration for the design team. 

A look at what the theater looked like before restoration. This small block was left in original condition. In the back of the theater, visitors can see how the painters used what they found to recreate the original look and feel of the building. A small section of the ceiling is preserved in the condition it was in when the painters arrived. The original colors, faded and dulled by time, merge with the glowing gold, bold red, and soft cream of the surrounding renovated panels. This section is a tribute to all the Capitol has been through over the years and how far it’s come since the restoration began. 

To paint “Big Blue”—the ceiling in the theater area—the team of painters worked side-by-side sometimes for six hours at a time with no breaks. The entire area had to be scraped, primed, scraped again, primed again, and then painted with two coats of stunning blue. “In a couple places, we were on our knees with rollers,” Katrinic says. The work involved being synchronized as a team, so there were no lap lines. Lights sprinkled throughout the ceiling create a night sky effect.

“You couldn’t stop, couldn’t take a break,” Katrinic says. With pride, he adds: “It’s awesome.” 

Katrinic’s favorite area of the building is the ceiling in the balcony stairwell. Painted in quadrants, the project took a month to complete and involved the use of 10 different paints and glazes. As he inspected his finished work, including over 4300 “candy dots” on the ceiling, Katrinic noticed one white plaster dot that should have been painted blue. “I saw it and I thought, ‘I should go paint that out,’” he says. “But then I said, ‘Nope, I’m not going to do it.’ It’s part of the story. Everyone stops and looks for it.” Nobody has found it yet, and Katrinic isn’t about to spoil the fun.

Another favorite area for Katrinic is the lobby area with a domed ceiling covered in 82 octagonal medallions created by Richard Lipp of Lipp II, Inc. The 3-inch-thick octagons are framed with plaster rope with a bead and rail trim. Lipp created a mold for the rope detail used throughout the building by making a cast of clearance sale yellow nylon rope from Lowe’s. The medallions were attached to the ceiling and then plaster was added to make it look as if they were inset. Katrinic designed three paint schemes for the medallions and laid out the pattern so that none of the color variations are next to each other.

"Big Blue" took a team of painters to complete. The work at the Capitol was a family affair. Katrinic and his son worked together on the project and plasterer Rick Lipp got his granddaughters in on a special part of the job. Lipp designed flowers to decorate the fountain in the theater. He sent the design to his granddaughters, Callie and Ella Wischman, and they made him prototypes out of pink Play-Doh. Together, they then made a mold from the Play-Doh flowers to create the plaster flowers. The Wischman girls installed those flowers and Katrinic’s son, Joe Katrinic III, painted them. The younger Katrinic even changed the color scheme from the original purple to pink to mimic the Play-Doh used by the girls. 

“There were a lot of good construction workers putting in a lot of hard work,” Katrinic says. The atmosphere was cooperative rather than competitive, and it was fun. “If you’re going to be creative, you might as well do it in a theater,” Katrinic says.

Katrinic has moved on to new paint jobs in the retail sections of the Capitol building and in homes around the area. While these jobs don’t require the same level of intensity and creativity, he enjoys the opportunity to “turn the brain off” for a while. He’s been down to visit his intricate work in the theater two or three times. “I just sit and look. Am I going to miss it? Yeah. I think so. I thoroughly enjoyed being here.”

Look carefully though and you will always see a bit of Katrinic there. In the intricate paintwork, in the shared family pride, and in that bright red hat with a white plume mounted on the wall of the lobby. See, all contractors were required to wear hardhats during renovation, but that got tricky when Katrinic was working on intricate ceiling designs. So he swapped out the traditional hardhat with his own very bright, very recognizable red and white version, except when his son was on break from college and working at the theater.  “I made him wear the hat for the three weeks he was here,” Katrinic says. The hat was a running joke for the father and son duo. When the job was done, it was mounted on the wall of the lobby. “I lost my hat,” Katrinic says, “But I gave it up for the good of the community. Everyone loves it.” Hearing a nearby visitor comment on the hat, Katrinic can’t help but tell her: “The painter left it there.” 

Little did she know, there was so much more to the story.
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