If the health of the live entertainment scene can be measured by the number of stages that are coming on line, the state of the local art would appear robust. But only time will tell whether the local appetite for live performances is hardy enough to support the proliferating venues.
Louisiana’s tax credits aimed at spurring more live entertainment have helped spark the recent surge in efforts to bring back some of the city’s old and historic live-performance theaters. While the $50 million restoration of the grand Saenger Theater marked a high-point of the activity, more potential comebacks dot the downtown area once envisioned to become Broadway South.
Producer-promoter Gary Solomon Jr., who initially managed the entertainment lineup at The Stage Door Canteen in the National World War II Museum, is among those tapping the tax incentives to bring concerts and other events to the city. His company, Solomon Group, recently returned the Civic Theatre to operation on O’Keefe Avenue. A restoration and the installation of advanced sound and lighting systems equipped the venue for a full schedule of concerts and made it easily adaptable for a range of special events.
The return of the Civic followed by almost three years the re-opening of the Joy Theater on Canal Street. The decades-old former movie house returned to life at the hands of Allen McDonnel, Joe Jaeger and Todd Trosclair, who have attempted to keep the stage hopping with live music, comedy and special events, such as a September show by Dr. John and The Night Trippers, presented by Winter Circle Productions.
Followers of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and the orchestra’s musicians, are pumped that the long-awaited comeback of another downtown icon appears imminent. Work is under way to bring the orchestra’s former home, the Orpheum Theatre, back to life. Its benefactor is a small group led by Tipitina’s nightclub owner Roland von Kurnatowski, who is tackling nine-years of deterioration the Orpheum endured after being flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
A spokeswoman for Von Kurnatowski promises that the orchestra will be able to perform its 2015-2016 season in the Orpheum. She says the installation of an adjustable floor and removable seats will enable the venue to host many other types of events as well.
It’s not yet clear what the return of the Orpheum will mean for the Mahalia Jackson Theater for Performing Arts, which underwent its own extensive post-Katrina repair in nearby Armstrong Park before becoming the de facto home of the symphony, along with local opera and ballet. The venue also hosted some Broadway-style musicals until the Saenger re-opened its doors.
And the inventory of stages continues to grow. In August commercial real estate developer Gregor Fox purchased the Loew’s State Palace Theatre, a former movie house from the 1920s. The facility enjoyed new life for a time during the 1990s as the home of rave concerts but later fell into disrepair. Fox has said the renovation he envisions could last a decade and cost up to $20 million.
Meanwhile, the city has begun work to return the city’s massive Municipal Auditorium to service for the first time since it was knocked out of commission by Katrina. Now known as the Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. Auditorium, it is slated for a reopening next spring.
None of these returning venues poses direct competition to little theaters around town whose bread and butter consists of dramatic works and shows by independent troupes, though they could present a challenge to nightclubs that regularly pack in audiences to hear live bands.
In any case, as local entertainment options expand, competing for patrons could get tougher for everybody, particularly small facilities least equipped for self-promotion. How New Orleans audiences respond to the burgeoning choices will, in the end, determine how the competition plays out.
Photo Courtesy Saenger Theater