New Orleans’ Theater Boom Means More Than Popcorn

CHRISTPHER ALLEN Photograph

There is a renaissance afoot in downtown New Orleans for historic theaters. But as marquees snap back to light, their return promises more than just new entertainment options. They could prove important new anchors for the area’s long-term revitalization goals.

 “It’s playing a critical role,” says Kurt Weigle, executive director of the Downtown Development District. “Hospitality is our bread and butter downtown. We’re creating new industries here, but a key is still creating new attractions that draw more visitors.”

The latest revival is the Civic Theatre, just off Poydras Street, which dates back to 1906 and reopened around New Year’s after sitting idle for some 30 years. A year earlier, New Orleans saw the return of the Joy Theater, which dates to ’47 but closed in 2003. Next in the pipeline is the Saenger Theatre, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina but is expected to reopen this year following a $52 million restoration of its ornate, original ’27 design.

Generations of New Orleanians knew these theaters as movie houses, though today they’re coming back to life with more diverse business plans and broader potential bases of support. Movies may still be on the bill from time to time, but the theaters are also now sites for stage performances, concerts, corporate functions and receptions. The Saenger in particular is being reconfigured to accommodate large-scale touring Broadway productions.

The boom is aided by new business incentive programs, especially the state’s Live Infrastructure Tax Credit, which is tailored to encourage performance locations. Business people have taken note and invested in properties that until recently had uncertain futures.

“This is coming from people who see the new future for downtown that’s taking shape,” says Weigle.

He ties the theater revival to other advances downtown, which has seen new and revived hotels, more residents and a greater diversity of service and retail businesses open in the past few years. Theaters in particular have a great potential to accelerate that development, he says, by providing another draw for people across the region.

“It’s not just the 1.2 million people in our metro area,” he says. “It’s really people from Pensacola, Fla., all the way into Texas who want to come in, see a show that’s not coming to their town and stay for a few nights,”

 

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