In the 1920s, the Central Business District of New Orleans was also a lively Theater District. The twinkling marquees of the Orpheum, Loews State Palace, Saenger and Civic Theaters lit up the skyline. Touring Broadway shows, symphonies, comedy acts, concerts and eventually, films, were all readily available to the New Orleanian of the past.
Of course, times have changed, and most of us consume our media via tiny screens in the palms of our hands, or at our own home theaters in living rooms and on laptops across the city. But the theaters are still here, their vintage marquee fonts hanging above the traffic and construction of busy streets. Some, like the Loews State Palace, are in an historical limbo of sorts; their nostalgic significance just strong enough to keep them sitting empty, in need of renovation and rebirth.
But things are changing downtown. The Theater District is coming back to life, and the culture of evening entertainment is expanding right along with it.
Built in 1906, the Civic Theater is the oldest in town. Now the theater is fully restored and has been hosting private parties since early 2013. "We like to call it oldest-newest theater in town," chuckled Laura Dore, a representative of the Bailey Project, one of the real estate partners responsible for the extensive renovation. On a tour of the venue, Dore explained that the trickiest part of the renovation was to maintain the historic setting while making it a state-of-the-art venue that could appeal to any professional tour. It's safe to say that the partners at The Solomon Group, Gibbs Construction Company and the Eskew, Dumez & Ripple architecture firm have a success on their hands.
The theater feels all at once sleek and modern, cozy and historic. Bare, painted cement stairwells, exposed brick and a minimalist white lobby lead into an impressive theater hall, where ornate molding frames the large stage and a stunning Art Deco chandelier centers the room. The chandelier is a sixty-year-old gift to the theater, a relic from a 1940's renovation of the Roosevelt Hotel. The balcony seems to offer the best view in the house, giving one an up-close look at the chandelier and a perfect stage perspective. Indeed the theater is just the size that there is no bad seat in the house. The stage is close enough to feel intimate but the room is impressive enough to feel grand-scale.
The renovations include a modular flooring system that can be raised or lowered for custom seating (at maximum capacity the theater seats 1,100), three full-service green rooms for talent, a motorized fly system for set staging and a high-tech lighting rig (even the lights in the bathroom can be customized to fit a show's theme).
The state of the art investments paid off, for the Civic now has a booking partnership with The Bowery Presents South. The New York City-based concert promoter has a southern hub in Atlanta with Tim Sweetwood leading the way. Sweetwood is excited to bring The Bowery Presents to New Orleans since it is such a culturally diverse city: "There will be a show for every audience; we aren't limited to genre." The fall/winter lineup was certainly diverse (Coheed and Cambria, John Waters, Aaron Neville and Neutral Milk Hotel to name just a few) and its adjustable seating arrangements make it ideal for a varied roster.
The diverse, genre-spanning calendar means that some shows will be all ages, but fear not, this customizable venue has also accounted for custom cocktails. Neil Bodenheimer (of Cure and Bellocq) created a Civic Signature Cocktail menu for those of us who wish to invest in the well-rounded theater experience. The small-batch spirits, organic ingredients and crafted techniques will not disappoint.
In a smaller city like New Orleans, with so many petite venues, there isn't much middle ground between Frenchman and the Mahalia Jackson. The Civic is stepping in to bridge that gap, and with promoters as prestigious as The Bowery Presents, this city can now be a regular stop for many tours that typically wouldn't swing so far south.
Stepping up to give the Mahalia Jackson some company is the historic Saenger Theater, which wowed everyone with it's re-opening last September (Mayor Landrieu called it the best theater in the United States). Jerry Seinfeld kicked off an impressive season line-up, which included a live broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" with Garrison Keillor, Bill Maher, Bonnie Rait and the Broadway in New Orleans Series starting with the Tony Award-winning "Book of Mormon," followed by "Memphis," "War Horse," "Chicago" and "The Phantom of the Opera" come fall. (And look out for John Legend on May 1st!)
Indeed the Saenger will be working in tandem with the Mahalia Jackson to make New Orleans a more balanced and dynamic city for large-scale theater. Both venues are owned by the city, the Saenger taking the Broadway series and Mahalia retaining the symphony and ballet. Now the inventory of available dates for touring concerts is doubled - no need to skip New Orleans because the largest venue is already booked.
The mayor was one of the main driving forces behind this restoration, garnering much political support for the revival of Upper Canal. The Canal Street Development Corporation, a city-operated non-profit, along with Ace Theatrical Group of Houston oversaw the $52 million renovation. Cindy Connick of CSDC reported that after Katrina, the insurance settlement for the Saenger would've been bare minimum, just enough to re-open the doors. An impressive roster of private funders (including Chase, Whitney Bank & Chevron) bolstered the state and grant funded project. Connick and David Skinner, the theater's general manager, agree that one of the missions of the reopening, along with the meticulously accurate restoration, was to say "Hey, we're back."
For the Saenger, the eight years since the storm were forgotten years in the theater industry. As for Broadway, New Orleans hasn't been a requisite national stop since the 1980s. But now, people are asking for the Saenger by name. It is not just a story of post-Katrina revival, the Saenger is a world-class venue regardless of it's storied past.
"We see this as the crown jewel of upper Canal" said Skinner, who emphasized the precision of the restoration to the theater's original state from its 1927 opening. The stage proscenium is ornate, the ceiling a starry sky, the ambiance thick with the magic of the golden theater age when entering the theater was as much an aspect of evening entertainment as the performance itself.
Of course aspects of the theater have been modernized. Bathroom facilities have been increased by 60%, handicapped entries and seating installed and the backstage area expanded to accommodate large productions. Indeed the theater is now up to the highest 21st century standards. But even these modern techniques were employed for the mission of reviving the theater's original charm. Lead architect Gary Martinez used "old-time translucent glazing techniques to bring depth of color" to the original molding.
The theater's legendary Mighty Morton Wonder 778-pipe organ is still about a million dollars away from full restoration. But fundraising efforts are sure to start soon, as this opening season is in and of itself a great campaign for the organ's full restoration.
The theater revival reaches beyond the CBD into the Treme thanks to the Carver Theater, set to reopen for a 2014 spring season. Built in 1950 as an "exclusively Negro" theater, the Carver has hosted some of the greatest musicians to grace the stage. Sam Cooke, after a Blue Room set, would bring his show to the Carver; Irma Thomas once sang there in a competition, only to come in second place. The National Register of Historic Places deemed the Theater as having "exceptional significance" because of its role as one of the first state-of-the-art theaters for black patrons in New Orleans.
Now the Carver seeks to cater to indigenous music, to give a first-rate venue to the local talent of the Treme; they even plan to host talent shows and provide educational outreach for young musicians. The $8 million renovation will bring a dazzling addition to the neighborhood, sitting just across the street from the Lafitte Greenway and Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center, is abuzz with community activities and events.
While the Saenger and Civic are the most recent additions, it is impossible to overlook The Joy Theater, which was the first to undergo renovations and has lead the way for the theater revival since its 2011 reopening. From 1947 to 2003 the theater was primarily a movie-going destination, before closing and suffering significant damage during Katrina. Now the theater has a diverse roster of programs, from film to comedy, music, dance and live theater. This season it has featured Snoop Dogg (AKA Snoop Lion), Bootsy Collins and "Marilyn: Forever Blonde," a one-woman show on the iconic actress. May 15th will host "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," a comedy based on the best-selling book by John Gray.
While these theaters rebuild the city's theater reputation, The Orpheum will be undergoing final renovations after sitting idle since Katrina. In early January, Roland von Kurnatowski and Dr. Eric George, co-founders of the Tipitina's Foundation, announced plans to buy the theater and work towards a reopening next spring.
The concept of entering an ornate building to be entertained is nostalgic, certainly, but thanks to these theater revivals, it is a concept of entertainment that New Orleans can again embrace. Theater culture is here, and hopefully soon the marquees of the Orpheum and Loews State Palace will again flash their relevant wonders above the downtown crowds.