When the Orpheum Theater was built in 1918, among the architectural features was a room-sized concrete tub below the stage. This tub was filled with dry ice during summer performances so that cool air could be drawn up through the seats to chill the audience efficiently without the noise of a mechanical contrivance bothering the audience. Standing on the balcony, developer and co-owner of the theatre, Roland Von Kurnatowski, explains that duplicating that effect was one of the major challenges that he and co-owner Dr. Eric George had to address when reimagining the space. The balcony is lit by a combination of beautifully restored ceiling fixtures and standard construction lamps strung through the corridors. Von Kurnatowski points out an impressive new series of vents cut every couple of feet into the risers below shelves where the seats will be affixed. The replication of the early 20th century cooling innovation demanded a 21st century solution; in the new scheme cold air comes down through the walls into a large pocket and is gently pushed through the vents via the accumulated pressure. It is clear that the absolute preservation of the sanctity of performance is built into every aspect of the renovation scheme.
This is a perfect metaphor for the path that Von Kurnatowski has walked in his public role as the owner of Tipitina’s, founder of the Tipitina’s Foundation and now co-owner of the Orpheum. It is clear over the course of our afternoon walking through the rapidly reviving theatre that the balance between historical New Orleans and contemporary New Orleans is one that Von Kurnatowski has learned to weigh expertly. A New Orleanian by birth and a developer by trade, he stepped into a public role when he purchased a majority stake in Tipitina’s in 1996. This transition was rocky for the new partners. Browsing through The Times-Picayune archives from that period reveals the shape of the tension but not the cause. Even the progression of article titles gives the reader a sense of what was happening. “Tip’s Taking Long Hard Look at Booking and Use of Space” in November ’96 is followed by “New Hand Running the Show at Tip’s” in January ’97 and “Stage Manager at Tipitina’s Leaves After 23 Years at Club” in March ’99. Why should a club garner such close scrutiny? Since its inception in ’77, Tipitina’s has transcended labels like “bar” or “club”. Tipitina’s is the figurative kitchen table where the family of New Orleans musicians gathers in the morning to have coffee and catch up. This is the space where fans become families of their own (one need look no further than the annual January gathering of the Fishheads around the Radiator’s reunion shows to see this principle in action). One of the ironies of true community spaces is that without a guiding hand they can often disappear, as Tipitina’s itself did for a year and a half in the mid-’80s. When Von Kurnatowski stepped into the scene in ’96, he recognized that danger and worked to strike a balance between tradition and development of the future. This balance came in the form of the Tipitina’s Foundation.
Over the course of our time at the Orpheum, Von Kurnatowski and I discussed moments of serendipity, “You heard somebody give you a piece of advice or a suggestion that just kinda came out of nowhere or one call leads to another and the next thing you know the picture is either clearer or the goal more attainable because of that twist.” One afternoon Von Kurnatowski found himself mired in the traffic that has come to accompany the downtown road renewal program. As his mind began to wander, he noticed that not only was the Orpheum for sale, but it was listed by his old friend Don Randon. Von Kurnatowski didn’t have a current number for Randon, but there it was on the sign, so he figured that he would make the best of his time in traffic and give him a ring. Randon was immediately able to convince him to take a tour of the space, which he and Dr. George put under contract a couple of days later. It so happened that the president of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s board of trustees, Hugh W. Long, was planning to attend an event at the Von Kurnatowskis’ house a couple of days after the contract was executed, so Roland was able to deliver the news in person and invite the LPO back to their pre-Katrina home. “To be in the room with Hugh, I struggled with whether to say anything because it wasn’t a done deal, it was the beginning of a contract. There were a lot of hurdles to overcome before the contract would be realized. In a lot of ways it was premature to say anything, but it was Hugh and I couldn’t contain myself in a way. His reaction was extremely interested. The reality is we sat in a room at my house and talked for an hour and a half. The essence of the meeting was 10 or 15 minutes. We knew this could work. We wanted it. We felt that having the LPO come back to the Orpheum just made sense on every level.”
Von Kurnatowski shows me the old LPO bandshell frame and explains that before the storm the heavy frame was mounted on large counterweights that rolled around the stage into position. The disadvantage of this system was that the Orpheum has a relatively small Vaudeville style stage, which means that there is no backstage, and the only storage for large set pieces was in the wings – directly off stage. Von Kurnatowski and his team have devised a new scheme to restore the bandshell and fly the individual pieces above the stage as a means of freeing up space while maintaining the tradition of the bandshell itself. The Orpheum project seems to consist entirely of these moments of synergy; the serendipity of connections among individuals captured and executed through careful stewardship of relationships through planning and engineering.
Several times during our conversation (and many times in print since he purchased Tipitina’s) Von Kurnatowski asserted that he was not an expert on music. Yet, when he tells stories about his relationships with the musical royalty of New Orleans, clearly he’s an expert on musicians. While we stand in the open foyer of the theatre, he tells me two stories.
The first is about the terracotta accents that had been chipped away in order to allow drywall to sit flush against the original walls. This is a story of restoration and the struggle to find the expertise necessary to restore the damaged art. The second is about booking Fats Domino to play for the Millennium celebration, his exuberant manner and demonstrable awe in the face of both the history of the space and Fats’ legendary talent and character is evident. Whether he’s aware of it or not, Von Kurnatowski is one of the stewards of the legacy of these spaces and performers simply by virtue of his and by extension the Foundation’s friendship and support.
In what obliquely became a moment of serendipity for the city, the Tipitina’s Foundation was established in 1997 and designated as a nonprofit in 2003 with the mission of preserving and expanding the musical heritage of not only New Orleans but Louisiana as a whole. The Foundation would find its true purpose in the aftermath of the storm. The first line of their mission statement post-storm read: “The mission of the Tipitina’s Foundation is to restore Louisiana’s irreplaceable music community and preserve the state’s unique musical cultures.” At this point the “restore” has been replaced with “support,” but the sentiment remains the same. In addition to their Youth Music Workshops and High School Internship Program, the flagship program of the Foundation, Instruments A Comin’, provides underfunded school bands with instruments and mentorship. In a city where many schools had lost everything, this program went from being vital to being indispensable. To date this program has distributed more than $3 million worth of instruments to over 95 Louisiana schools, which means that more than 3,500 students are playing instruments donated by the Foundation daily. It is indeed serendipitous that the kinship of the Tipitina’s family had been distilled into a beacon that could stand for musical renewal in the fragile post-storm city.
The first call that Von Kurnatowski made after touring the Orpheum was to his friend and now co-owner of the theatre, Dr. Eric George. Among his many pursuits, George leads ERG Enterprises, an investment company with such diverse holdings as the Omega Hospital, The Windsor Court and now the Orpheum. George’s group was founded on the idea of delivering high-quality experiences in comfortable environments, which seems like a natural match for the restoration project. “We always try to create a memorable experience for our customers,” George says. “This is no different with the Orpheum Theater. However, with the Orpheum, we must be careful when forming the balance between historic and modern. Jack Sawyer of Eskew Dumez Ripple, our architect on the project, has been instrumental in maintaining this balance. However, regardless of that balance, the level of quality and service must always be high.” It is this combination of attention to historical detail with an eye towards the modern that will give the Orpheum a restored local life and new role within the regional culture. Both men see their role as a stewardship of something much larger. As George points out in response to my questions about community culture “The stories we have heard from friends of the Orpheum really make you understand the importance this venue had in the everyday lives of the citizens of our great city … Our goal is to have the Orpheum continue to serve the community in the same fashion it had been doing prior to our involvement. At the end of the day, the Orpheum is an iconic venue that will live on after we’re gone. So it’s very important that we do it justice by giving it the care and attention that it deserves so that 100 years from now, it will continue to be a focal point of New Orleans’ life.” Both George and Von Kurnatowski see themselves as not simply restoring the Orpheum, but preparing the venue for a new and continued life as part of the culture of New Orleans. Von Kurnatowski laid out this particular vision for the space, “We’re adamant that it stand on its own two feet. This isn’t an ego play from our point of view, it’s great that it’s deemed important. It’s great that it’s deemed desirable to do all this, but we want it to work and we want it to work in today’s world and then let it find its place.”
The enthusiasm around this project is truly infectious. It only takes a few minutes in the space to grasp the potential that’s already emerging through the renovation. Von Kurnatowski refers to Emerson’s observation “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” He continues, “On a project like this there is great enthusiasm all around us.
People want this. They understand it. They can see it. They can almost taste it and feel it being accomplished … What I’ve noticed is that it’s infectious. Solution and consensus, even compromise become just the order of the day and it’s really refreshing.”
In the partnership of these two men the Orpheum has found champions who are capable of rescuing an important part of not only New Orleans history but the heritage of performance, community and play across the United States. The Orpheum Theater will reopen its doors in late summer or early fall with a (yet to be announced) star-studded event.
It promises to be a grand affair showcasing the restoration of this historic and iconic structure. The whole team looks forward to sharing the theater’s beauty and grandeur, as well as the new vision for the space, which will encompass high end entertainment, top-notch hospitality and service excellence. As Von Kurnatowski said toward the end of our time together “You can look at [recordings of] performances in Europe and one of the things that struck me in doing that is you’ll see these performances in these unbelievable settings – they’re probably hundreds of years old – that have been brought up into today’s world. But they’ve preserved the essence of what they were – of what they were supposed to be – if you do it right, that’s the best it can be. Contemporary functionality is combined with the beauty, grace and elegance of what they did a long time ago creating this place. Can it get any better than that? I don’t think so.”
The 14th annual Instruments A Comin’ event will be held on Mon., April 27, at 6 p.m. This annual fundraising event features a Battle of the Bands, Silent Auction, VIP event with food from area chefs and benefit concert in Tipitina’s. Funds raised will support the Foundation’s Instruments A Comin’ Program.
Look for periodic updates on the progress at the Orpheum in future “In Tune” columns and keep an eye on the “In Tune” blog on MyNewOrleans.com for further details and event information.
“Von Kurnatowski asserted that he was not an expert on music. Yet, when he tells stories about his relationships with the musical royalty of New Orleans, clearly he’s an expert on musicians.”
Roland Von Kurnatowski | Dr. Eric George