POSTED Mon. Sep 14, 2015

NOLA History

The Orpheum: Renovated & Re-opening
Cree McCree
Written by CREE MCCREE

When Wilco last performed in New Orleans at Jazz Fest in April, pyrotechnic lightning crackling above the Gentilly stage forced the band to cut their set short. Five months later, on September 28, Wilco is returning to town as the first national touring act to grace the stage at the newly-renovated Orpheum Theater.

The synchronicity of that event isn’t lost on Kristin Shannon, the Orpheum’s general manager, who happens to be a big Wilco fan.

“It’s like they’re coming here to finish that show,” says Shannon, who’s clearly pleased about the fortuitous segue. “Wilco will be the first time we’ll be using the adjustable floor for standing room. The orchestra-row seats can be removed and stored, and the floor raises up just below the stage. It’s a real engineering feat.”

So is just about every facet of the Orpheum’s spectacular renovation, which first reopens to the public for a far more dramatic homecoming: the return of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

On September 17, the LPO ushers in its 25th anniversary season by playing the first concert in its old home base since the theater was damaged by the federal floods of 2005. An encore performance of Mahler’s Symphony #2, “Resurrection,” follows on September 19, and two additional concerts are scheduled for September 25 and 27.

Though the orchestra won’t start rehearsing in the space until shortly before opening night, LPO members have stopped by frequently to watch the renovation in process. And on August 27, ten years to the day the Orpheum shuttered its doors, they attended a private reception that was by all accounts a joyous, emotional event. “There were a lot of tears,” says Shannon.

Longtime LPO concert-goers will likely mist over themselves when they enter the beautifully restored Beaux Arts building that houses the theater, which reflects all the glory of its original opening night in 1921. The crowning touch? A floating Baroque dome suspended from the Orpheum’s ceiling, which hovers above the space like a Gilded Age UFO shimmering with golden paint.

Like most of the intricate detailing throughout the theater, the gilded dome was hand painted by owner Mary von Kurnatowski. She and her husband Roland Kurnatowski, and their partner, Dr. Eric George, rescued the “Carnegie Hall of the South” from oblivion when they bought the building in early 2014 for $1.5 million, then spent $13 million refurbishing it.

A true labor of love, the job was completed in record time once the owners rolled up their sleeves. Mary von Kurtanowski worked closely with architect Rick Fifield on the theater’s decor, searching for lighting fixtures that replicated the 1920s originals and mixing paint samples to find exactly the right shade of “Orpheum blue.”

Meanwhile, Roland von Kurtanowski and Eric George applied their engineering skills to designing 21st century features like the ingenious adjustable floor, which allows the theater’s main floor to be raised at the flick of a switch for rock concerts like Wilco show and sitdown dinners for special events.

“Roland and Eric used some techniques they discovered through the oil and gas industry,” Shannon explains. “They purchased these extraordinary jacks that hold the floor and raise it up and down. And our genius contractor, Brett Olive, came up with a custom stage rail system to make a press pit for photographers.”

While Olive supervises workers on scaffolding putting finishing touches on the stage, Shannon whisks me up in the “golden elevator” to take a tour of the theater, which seats 1,500 to 1,800 people, depending on the floor configuration. Designed as a “vertical hall,” it was built without the columns that normally obstruct stage views, and brings the two upper balconies exceptionally close to the stage.

Not only are there no “bad seats” in the Orpheum – the acoustics are especially good on the third level, which has two suites set amid gold-painted industrial beams for hosting private parties. And whatever floor you’re on, you’re never far away from the facility’s six bars and multiple, well-appointed bathrooms.

Designed to be physically flexible, the Orpheum is already booked for several big Carnival balls. And though the LPO will always be the theater’s anchor tenant, the programming is diverse enough to appeal to almost every segment of the community.

On the heels of the LPO and Wilco, comes country star Dwight Yoakam (October 10) and Wizard of Oz: Movie with Orchestra (November 6). Other upcoming touring artists include comedian Rickey Smiley, Chick Corea & Bela Fleck and Paul Taylor Modern Dance Company.

While the theater’s stage isn’t large enough to accommodate big Broadway productions, Off-Broadway and local productions are already in the works and will benefit from state-of-the-art lighting and sound.

“New Orleans has a very active arts community, and we want to be a vital part of that,” says Shannon, a hands-on manager who pays as much attention to detail as the von Kurtanowskis.

Throughout our tour, Shannon’s been snapping photos of last-minute to-do list items, like the errant window label that needs to be scraped off and the low-hanging chandelier that’s a candidate for removal. But she always keeps her eye on the big picture: the Orpheum’s role in New Orleans’ ongoing recovery, which “really strikes a chord with people.”

The Orpheum’s reopening is something of a homecoming for Shannon as well. Before the theater closed, she sang on its stage in several productions, including Handel’s “Messiah.” Now she’s singing “hallelujah” about a resurrection she helped to orchestrate. And she’s delighted that one of her favorite bands will christen the Orpheum’s cool new mechanical floor when it rises up to meet Wilco.

“We didn’t know if it would work with the band’s schedule, but it did,” says Shannon, who plans to test-drive the dance floor herself at the Wilco show. “I guess it was meant to be.”

The Orpheum Theater is located at 129 Roosevelt Way in the CBD. Wilco and the LPO opening night concert are sold out, but there are still tickets available for the encore LPO performance on September 19. Visit the website to purchase tickets.

images by Jamey Shaw.

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