Reviving downtown theaters
Photo Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection
Once you go in, and you get a feel for what it was … it just kind of grabs you:” that’s how it feels to walk into a mammoth un-restored New Orleans theater.
Even seasoned New Orleans real estate professionals can sound pretty star-struck when they start talking about the phenomenal development of theatrical entertainment space in the business district, a flashy side-effect of creative state and federal tax credits restoring some of New Orleans’s most distinctive architectural treasures.
According to Kurt Weigle of the Downtown Development District, “we had a Canal Street development strategy in 2004, but the state historic tax credits were not enough. Projects could only have a $1 million value.”
“We put together a statewide coalition of historic preservation groups and other downtown developers to educate the Legislature – and the Legislature created a $5 million taxpayer credit cap. All those historic office towers converted to hotels and residences: that’s because of the tax credit expansion of 2005.” Preserving old theaters falls into that tax credit category, too.
The DDD didn’t lead the effort for the performing arts tax credit program (the reason all those movies are shot here), but “one of the elements of that is a tax credit on performing arts infrastructure, the cost of redeveloping a theater itself,” Weigle says. There is also a tax credit for operation of performing arts facilities.
With tax credits (including some Federal ones) acting as an incentive to developers to leverage their investment dollars, the number of restored theaters began to grow.
“The thought in the back of the mind of the DDD is to create an entertainment district. We don’t know how deep the demand is, but we do know that these are unique places. We could want all these theaters to do live music and plays year round. There may not be a demand for that. But, we think they should be maintained as close to the originals as possible.” Weigle says.
The oldest establishment with a makeover is the Civic Theatre (510 O’Keefe Ave.; the Civic sign is at the original entrance at 533 Baronne St.). The Civic first opened Dec. 29, 1906 as The Schubert Theatre, a local branch of the Schubert theatrical empire, which today still owns or operates seventeen Broadway theaters. Opening night featured a 50-person cast in a dramatization of romantic moments in the life of Sam Houston. The new fireproof theater had seating for 1,800, boasted no posts to block patrons’ views and even offered visiting actresses a place to plug in electric curling irons.
Developers of the new Civic are Brian Gibbs, Bryan Bailey and the Solomon Group. Architect for the restoration was Steve Dumez of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple Architects. While attention was paid to restoring plaster decorative work where possible, sleek modern touches are included and technically the Civic is up to the minute. Amenities include three greenrooms, each with private bath, for visiting performers.
The youngest theater to undergo a much needed post-Katrina renovation is the Joy Theater (1200 Canal St.). The theater’s creator was Joy N. Houck Sr., owner of theaters in numerous small towns; in 1940 he had four theaters in New Orleans alone. The 11,000 square foot steel-and-masonry Joy, designed by Favrot and Reed architects, opened Feb. 7, 1947, with the film Lover Come Back starring Lucille Ball. The retro neon sign with the letters J-O-Y stood sentinel as the building fell into disrepair, closed in 1978, was revived by New Orleans theater operator Rene Brunet and finally closed again in 2003. Thanks to Joe Jaeger and fellow investors Allan McDonnel and Todd Trosclair, the Joy now is revitalized and open as a multi-purpose entertainment space.
The Saenger Theater (1101 Canal St.) re-opened after a $53 million restoration in September 2013. The grandest of the city’s movie palaces, it opened with a parade on Canal Street on Feb. 4, 1927. Ads proclaimed it the “Theater of a Thousand Wonders.” Architect Emile Weil had designed the auditorium as an Italian baroque garden with 150 lights, and the 4,000-member audience was awed. Today, through a painstaking restoration by architect Gary Martinez, the chandeliers are still spectacular. Arts Center Enterprises theatrical group of Houston, along with a number of local investors and public funding, completed the project.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited restoration is the Orpheum Theater (129 University Place). Patrons of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra are looking forward to music in this familiar setting, and Studio Network-Orpheum partners Dr. Eric George and Roland von Kurnatowki hope for completion in 2015. Designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, the Beaux Arts-style building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. At the Orpheum’s first grand opening on Feb. 7, 1921, the entertainers were Singer’s Midgets – they would later star in The Wizard of Oz. No Munchkins, but one of the attractions of the new Orpheum will be an electric floor – one that can go up and down. “You could have a banquet at lunch and a concert that night,” von Kurnatowski suggests. Even the basement is becoming office space.
Last of the downtown showplaces set for recovery is the Loew’s State Theater (1108 Canal St.). The DDD is working with Joe Jaeger to bring back the glamour and the glitz described by New Orleans author Lyle Saxon in his coverage of the Loew’s State opening on April 4, 1926: “The theater itself is a lovely thing … with its magnificent chandeliers, luxurious carpets and comfortable armchairs that serve as seats.” According to Saxon’s reporting in The Times-Picayune, the evening opening was “a brilliant affair that will be remembered for many years.”
Happily, New Orleans has equally brilliant theatrical affairs in its future.
The Carver Theater
The reopened Carver Theater (2101 Orleans Ave.), returns some glitter to the downtown area below Canal Street. Optometrist Eugene Oppman arrived here in 1987 after finishing school in Texas, and reopened an eye clinic in a medical complex located in the former movie house. He bought the building in 1991 and just finished restoration; the renovated space has already hosted a movie premiere. “Sweet 16 parties, family reunions, concerts – we’re ready,” Oppman says. The Carver, an African-American theatrical landmark, opened Sept. 29, 1950. “First date, first kiss, first movie: lots of people have told me a Carver story,” Oppman notes.