The Carver Rises Again
Armed with a new staff, renovated space and aggressive live music schedule, The Historic Carver Theater is returning to its roots.
First, a quick history on the Carver: Situated smack dab in the middle of Treme, The Historic Carver Theater was built in 1950 as a state-of-the-art theater for African Americans. For 30 years it served as a hub for cultural activity in the neighborhood.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the theater’s current owner, Dr. Eugene Oppman, operated an eye clinic out of the space. After extensive Katrina damage, he spent 10 years and $8 million on renovations to bring it back to its former glory. The Carver reopened in 2014 as a rental facility, primarily booking not music, but events and private parties.
Last summer, the theater went up for sale for $5.5 million. That’s when Chicago native turned New Orleans transplant Chris Ritter stepped in. Having operated a similar theater in Chicago for 10 years, Ritter persuaded Oppman not to sell, and instead let Ritter make some changes.
Operating as general manager since last August, Ritter renovated the upstairs of the theater into an intimate music space now called the Carver Club, revamped the website, hired about 40 employees, including personnel for in-house ticketing, a box office manager, and security staff.
All this work was to preface the launch of the theater’s use again as a live music venue. Since January, the Carver Theater has been hopping every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with shows in the 100-seat Carver Club; on weekends larger shows like Tank and the Bangas come very close to selling out the 925-seat main theater, Ritter says.
In March, Ritter made his most recent hire, bringing in Paul Cheene as artistic director.
“Paul is one of the most multitalented people I’ve ever met,” he says. “He’s a saxophone player with To Be Continued Brass Band and the former manager of Maison Bourbon.”
Ritter says the shows so far have been “hit or miss,” but that overall the reception has been good.
“We have a very supportive local market and 8 million tourists coming in [to the city] a year,” he says. “And here we offer great live music, plenty of safe and secure parking, a dance floor for days and a sound system considered to be one of the best in the state.”
Ritter is far from done with implementing changes at the Carver. In the next three to six months he expects to be launching the Carver Theater Foundation, which will do business as the Treme Arts Center, a venture dedicated to providing free arts education and performance opportunities to Treme area youth age 6 to 18.
“We’re board building now, and then the capital campaign will begin for the new facility,” Ritter says. “We own a couple of properties on the block that we’ll be renovating into a new space for the arts center. Realistically, I’d say programming would start next summer.”
Noting the theater’s abundance of space and land, Ritter says the Carver will also be launching its own musical festival sometime in mid November. “The details for that are still T.B.D.,” he says.
Mark Your Calendar
Coming Soon @ the Carver
Sat. May 6 at 10:30 p.m. (doors open at 9 p.m.) — Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters, Honey Island Swamp Band, with special guest John Mooney and more! Tickets $20-$35. CarverTheater.org
Kimberley Singletary is the managing editor of Biz New Orleans magazine. A 20-year Southern California veteran, she has been surrounded by the film industry for most of her life.