Historic theaters return to life just as New Orleans’ economy enters its post-Katrina second act.
The latest reopening of the Orpheum Theater this past September is a prime example of the balance owners struggle to strike between retaining the charm of the space and ensuring it is state-of-the-art.
With pomp and circumstance, one by one New Orleans’ historic downtown theaters have reopened, some with grand reopenings, complete with A-list entertainers, eager audiences and a steady stream of new revenue that might just fulfill the long-held vision of a revitalized Canal Street and/or theater entertainment district.
First came the Joy Theater (December 2011), followed in dizzy succession by the Civic Theatre (September 2013) and the Saenger Theatre (September 2013) and then, more recently, the Orpheum Theater (September 2015). Over in the Treme, the Historic Carver Theater — which at the time of Hurricane Katrina served as a medical center — reopened in April 2014.
With an infusion of state tax credits, federal aid, a growing population and the general honeymoon vibe of the post-Katrina recovery period, many of these theaters have come back stronger than ever. Tickets to Saenger’s Broadway theater programming, for example, almost always reach sold-out status. The smaller Civic, armed with the New York-based Bowery Presents booking agency, draws top-flight comedy and indie-rock acts. And the Orpheum, though just a few weeks back in the game, has drawn huge crowds, celebrating the triumphant return of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra as well as a visit by the popular alt-rock band Wilco.
After that, it gets spotty. The Joy Theater, though the first to reopen, still seems in search of its footing (and branding) as it’s tried out a few different booking strategies before settling into a mix of live music, cabaret theater and special film screenings. The Historic Carver Theater, which hadn’t provided entertainment since the 1970s, has already undergone a series of management changes.
If all five theaters can keep up the momentum — recognizing their brand, booking acts shrewdly, and consistently drawing crowds — this rebirth of historic theaters could indeed represent a renaissance of downtown entertainment that transcends what emanates from the French Quarter.
As more residents flock to the city’s urban core, which includes more housing, retail and hospitality options, more entertainment makes for a perfect match.
“A great downtown has special amenities right at the heart of the city, whether that be a symphonic orchestra and other live music, or theater,” said Kurt M. Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District. “These theaters provide us more of those special amenities downtown. (Their presence) has a strong, attractive quality. It’s filling an important role for us downtown.”
LEFT: Among other things, the Saenger Theatre is home to Broadway in New Orleans. ABOVE: Reopened in September 2013, the Saenger underwent a $52 million renovation. Photos by Cheryl Gerber and Courtesy of Saenger Theatre
Michael Hecht agrees. As the president and CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., which promotes economic development, Hecht sees the return of the historic New Orleans theaters as a leading economic indicator — but one that can cut both ways. To Hecht, their return underscores the optimism of locals and visitors of the post-Katrina “boom” economy still in progress. He sees their resurgence as representing a “going back to the future” to reclaim a part of New Orleans’ unique culture. Hecht says they also serve to validate the targeted tax incentives that helped bring about so much housing in the area.
A lot of factors of this growth, he says, “are indicative of the re-urbanization across the country. Young people are more inclined to move to the city instead of the suburbs and take advantage of these venues.”
But the buildings’ return represents the flipside to that good vibe, Hecht cautions.
“These venues, which not only are expensive to operate but also to maintain, will be the canaries in the coal mine for the health of the New Orleans economy,” Hecht says. “As we continue to add companies and great talent from around the country, we need to keep building a middle class that has more disposable income. If, in the post-Katrina environment, as the recovery money goes away that the economy flattens, these theaters are going to be one of the indications of that happening, because this is where that disposable income goes.”
In the best possible sense, the renovated theaters have set a very high bar across the board. Even a venue as simply constructed as the Joy Theater looks lovely, sophisticated and inviting. Guests who have returned to the Saenger have had a hard time focusing on the shows and not gawking at the redone interior, complete with the return of those ornate chandeliers — the results of a $52 million renovation that was years in the making.
And then there’s the recent renovation of the Orpheum, with its $13 million price tag, backed by the ownership team of Tipitina’s owner Roland von Kurnatowski and Dr. Eric George. (Von Kurnatowski’s wife, Mary, literally became a hands-on participant in the renovation work, even handling some of the painting chores.)
“These venues, which not only are expensive to operate but also to maintain, will be the canaries in the coal mine for the health of the New Orleans economy.” -Michael Hecht, president and CEO of GNO, Inc.
“We wanted to restore what this place was and is and not change it,” Roland von Kurnatowski says. “Being involved in the process on a daily basis and sticking to the integrity of what the Orpheum offers … it’s such a beautifully, remarkably appointed and designed space … it was a really remarkable experience.”
Management for virtually all of the theaters spoke to walking that fine line between retaining the original, historic charm of the spaces while updating with modern sensibilities to create a complete experience. So while the lobby of the Orpheum reflects its original design, a modern LED poster touting upcoming shows wouldn’t feel completely out of place.
While management of the respective theaters say they don’t look at one another as competition, they know they’ll each have to recognize their mission and audience to survive and keep these huge venues humming at a profitable pace. The Saenger Theatre, for example, is at its best when booking its touring Broadway shows but also finding the right market for high-profile music, comedy and family acts that best suit the 2,700-seat venue. David Skinner, who manages the Saenger and the Mahalia Jackson Theater (reopened in 2009) through the ACE Theatrical Group, pointed to a shift from outside to inside booking as a key to finding the right fit for the venue. About three-quarters of the booking is now contracted through Nasvhille-based promoter Mark Perthel.
While they’ve been more successful, Skinner notes, they haven’t necessarily gotten smarter at booking, and have to analyze a range of factors on a given act.
“In the entertainment industry, there is no more difficult market to try to understand than New Orleans,” Skinner says. “Anybody in this business will tell you that New Orleans is a head-scratcher. We never have figured this market out. But being in the promotion business today, we feel we have a better grasp on it than anyone else.”
Since its rebirth in September of 2013, the Civic Theatre has specialized in top-flight comedy and indie-rock acts. Photos by Stephen Young
The Civic Theatre, which at its best can host 1,200 guests, took a little while to find its niche, but through Bowery Presents, has become a go-to venue for popular indie-rock bands as well as comedic acts. On any given night you can catch singer-songwriter Shakey Graves ($20 a pop) go big and see Damien Rice ($40), or wait for John Waters’ Christmas show ($35-$50)
“We’ve learned that New Orleans loves certain bands, but not at $45 a ticket, at $35 a ticket,” says Civic Co-owner Bryan Bailey. “We definitely know we have limitations there, and you have to be respectful and mindful of that. We’re not afraid to say that if an artist needs a certain amount and we don’t feel our community can afford the ticket price, we’ll say, ‘Look, maybe you should go for a larger venue where you can meet your ticket price.’”
Many things to many people
With such large venues and high stakes, versatility is everything. That’s why Orpheum Theater General Manager Kristin Shannon points to her theater’s ability to present the classical sounds of the LPO on one night, the rocking folk of Wilco the next — their early slogan was “From Bach to rock” — and the screenings of the New Orleans Film Festival on yet another night.
To keep people coming back, Shannon aims to offer visitors an enjoyable (but affordable) experience. This translates into a craft-cocktail menu curated by T. Cole Newton of the popular Twelve Mile Limit bar and food from Host Pfeifer of Bella Luna Catering. If you want M&Ms, fine. Or, you can sample “kicked-up concessions” that include chocolate-covered pretzels or savory popcorn.
“You have to have service and you have to have a modern take,” says Shannon, who persuaded Von Kurnatowski to build a kitchen in the Orpheum in a space initially reserved for offices. “It’s the idea that we’re going to take care of you. We’re trying to give you a show before the show, and things you won’t get from other shows.”
And when the nights are otherwise dark, there will be something going on — from a Carnival ball or a wedding reception to a corporate gig.
“We’ve learned that New Orleans loves certain bands, but not at $45 a ticket, at $35 a ticket,” -Bryan Bailey, co-owner, Civic Theatre
“New Orleans is an interesting market in that there are so many destination events going on,” says Bailey. “There are conventions, there’s private business coming to town. There are all these activities happening outside the Convention Center. You take that and factor in that New Orleans is unique architecturally, and it’s a fairly small footprint of a city given how many activities there are.
“In New York and L.A., there are so many event venues available,” he continues. “If you do music in New York, you’re not thinking about being all things to all people. In New Orleans, there aren’t that many venues, and certainly not that many that have such a beautiful place like we have, and one that’s not only the oldest (theater) in the city, but has been updated to handle these events.”
Not all of these rebirths have gone as smoothly as the management would have liked, and it’s taking time for everyone to find their groove. For the Civic, the painful lesson was with acoustics. At first, the space’s sound quality varied wildly at concerts, forcing ownership to go back and cough up an extra $400,000 to make the experience more consistent in quality regardless of the artist.
Bailey makes no excuses for the error.
“We didn’t have an acoustician as a consultant on the front end,” he said. “We had sound people, and we ran tests. That was a mistake. It cost us more in the end to get it right.”
For the Joy Theater, it was a matter of finding its identity. Early on the booking rhythm seemed erratic; one month would see a smattering of shows, and another month you wouldn’t see a new show advertised on the marquee for weeks.
“They tried to make it more of a theater venue and host theatrical performances, but based on it being an old movie theater it was difficult to do those, so we did movies and live music events,” said Andrew Portwood, who came on as the Joy’s production manager in the summer of 2013. “We see the city thriving with live music, film and comedy, and we kind of rebranded ourselves in 2013. We still do local and national touring productions as far as plays, but (now) it’s a lot of music and film events. It’s a good blend of everything as far as iconic theater performers and one-man shows, but most lean toward music and film.”
That’s why the Joy has been the place to see such cabaret shows as Broadway performer and “The Good Wife” star Alan Cumming, comedian Sandra Bernhard, and regular showings of local films like the documentary “Big Charity.”
LEFT: The Joy Theater led off the string of theater openings in December of 2011. RIGHT: Since its reopening in April of 2014, the Historic Carver Theater has undergone a series of management challenges. Photos by Cheryl Gerber
“The goal is to always be improving, and making the experience better for the concert-goer,” Portwood said. “And that’s the approach here — from staffing, to everything really — keeping the building clean and the sound up to date, and the technology up to date. The only thing we run into as far as a challenge is how to park people here downtown, and the ease of getting everyone into the venue.”
Before anything else, though, a theater has to be run properly, from the booking of shows to the showing of the books. This is why the situation at the Carver should be cause for concern for at least the Treme community — if not, perhaps, the so-called burgeoning downtown theater district. Just four months after a new management team — operations manager Shelley Everett and sales director John Ernst — started refocusing the theater’s programming, the pair was gone. (In fact, Ernst let me know of his firing just days after our interview.) Everett, a personal friend of owner Dr. Eugene Oppman, says she left after Oppman directed her to fire Ernst and then refused to continue sitting on the board of the Carver’s recently formed foundation.
This was the first of a few curious moves. An attempt to reach Oppman for comment led to a phone call from Lucky Johnson, a former Carver employee and a local New Orleans entertainer, who’d mounted several productions of his musical tribute “Walking to New Orleans.” Johnson, saying that he was speaking for Oppman, offered to discuss the Carver, but when he was told the questions included the apparent management turnover, Johnson said Oppman would call back and abruptly hung up the phone.
Soon after, a message on the Carver marquee read, “Under new management.”
This could represent a third iteration of management for the Carver, which, as Oppman told me in a NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune interview before its April 2014 opening, was going to be “challenging.”
“We’re kind of off the beaten path, and we’re in a neighborhood not everyone feels comfortable going to,” Oppman said in that interview. “But I’m confident and we’re going to do the best we can. It’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
Buildings for the future
The management uncertainty at the Carver might be an anomaly when it comes to the reborn New Orleans theaters, but it’s indication that it only takes one misstep to compromise a large venue with equally large expenses. Moving forward, these historic theaters literally can’t afford to make mistakes.
Recent reports suggest that while New Orleans’ population continues to grow — a reversal of the pre-Katrina era — the rate of increase is slowing down. While New Orleans’ housing market goes through this boom cycle (and rental prices continue to soar), most housing booms eventually are followed by crushing busts, and wages aren’t necessarily keeping up with those rising prices. Recent research released by The Data Center point to wage gaps as one of the bits of bad news compared to the economy’s other successes.
“You have all these venues that primarily aren’t competing, but are more complementary. They’re not a competitor: They’re a sister or a brother.” -David Skinner, manager of the Saenger and Mahalia Jackson Theatres
That’s where Weigle gets concerned. He’s seen growth in three key sectors: the biomedical, digital-media and arts-based businesses. But there’s room for improvement.
“What makes me nervous about the trajectory of the next 10 years is not particular to downtown; it’s that we have to keep our eye on the ball in creating more middle income and more well-paid middle income jobs,” Weigle said. “With real estate prices creeping up to $3 per square foot, we need folks who can afford to pay those rents. The good news is, we’ve got a positive track record the past several years. We just need to expand that.”
The theater operators insist that all they can do is focus on their own mission, their own brand, and hope the customers keep coming. They also hope that their respective sizes are varied enough that there are plenty of potential acts to book for each given space. The Saenger is the largest, at 2,700 seats, followed by the Orpheum, at about 1,800, and then the Joy, at 1,200, the Civic at about 1,100, and the Carver at about 800.
While there’s some overlap, the operators believe there’s plenty of bookings for everyone to survive, and even suggest opportunities to send acts to one another when they don’t see the right “fit.”
“You have all these venues that primarily aren’t competing, but are more complementary,” said the Saenger’s David Skinner. “They’re not a competitor: They’re a sister or a brother.”