After 10 years, a grand revival of one of New Orleans’ classic theaters
“I call this the ghost room.”
That’s how sixth-grader Mary Grace von Kurnatowski, scaling a metal stepladder, introduces the second-floor mezzanine of the refurbished Orpheum Theater. The iconic Beaux-Arts building was first opened in downtown New Orleans in 1921 and has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina. Mary Grace’s parents, Tipitina’s Foundation founders Roland and Mary von Kurnatowski, have restored the Orpheum to its former glory.
“Everybody who meets this building kind of falls under its spell,” Mary says, standing amid the wooden pallets, whining saws and bustling construction workers during the final weeks of the theater’s renovation. “We want it to reassume its place as a shining star in the firmament of New Orleans.”
The magic that attracted the von Kurnatowskis to the theater has rescued it from ruin before. Designed by architect Gustave Albert Lansburgh for the Orpheum Theater and Realty Company, which operated a national chain of vaudeville theaters in the years following World War I, and converted into a movie palace during the golden age of Hollywood, the four-story structure faced demolition in 1979 but was saved by the New Orleans City Council. Three years later, the Orpheum was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina damaged the roof and the federal floods inundated the basement, leaving the future of the theater in question and forcing its tenant, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), to find alternate venues.
Now the story has come full circle. After a Champagne reception Aug. 27 (10 years to the day after the venue closed), the LPO opens its 25th anniversary season Sept. 17 at the renovated Orpheum.
“For those of us that are returning to the hall, that have history in the hall, it’s deeply personal,” says LPO flutist and piccoloist Patti Adams, who recalls performing for Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and the Four Tops in the old Orpheum. “You have so many powerful memories tied up in this building. … It was incredibly gratifying and very emotional to see that someone is as in love with this building as all of us are.”
The von Kurnatowskis and Dr. Eric George purchased the building in February 2014 for $1.5 million and refurbished it at a cost of $13 million, placing the Orpheum among a growing rank of downtown New Orleans theaters revived in recent years. The owners were encouraged to reclaim the old building by Louisiana’s generous tax code. (See “So many stages” page 21.)
In addition to longstanding state and federal tax credits for the rehabilitation of historic structures, the Orpheum will claim newer state tax subsidies for live performance infrastructure. Introduced in 2007, the program includes an 18 percent tax credit on certified Louisiana expenditures of more than $1 million and an additional 7.2 percent tax credit on payroll expenditures to Louisiana residents. Infrastructure credits are capped at $7.2 million per project and as of July 1, $43.2 million for all projects.
As part of the renovation process, the theater submitted plans to the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission (HLDC), which must approve changes to the exterior of buildings deemed architecturally significant, including the Orpheum. Though the scale, proximity and importance of downtown’s historic theaters is unique, HDLC Executive Director C. Elliott Perkins says their renovation and reopening results from a much broader commitment to safeguard the city’s landmarks.
”We have a pretty extensive preservation history in this city, so as urban downtowns across the country fought disinvestment, we had mechanisms in place to protect some of these vulnerable buildings,” Perkins says. “We’re really reaping those rewards.”
Following local, state and federal guidelines for restoring historic structures was in keeping with the owners’ respect for the property.
“I’m hoping that people come into the space and feel both at home and amazed at how it’s been reimagined,” preservation architect Rick Fifield says. “I hope that it’s still the same space that they knew but has been enhanced by the work that’s been done over the past 18 months.”
Renovation of the 1,500-seat theater, which combines modern amenities — a state-of-the-art movable floor, catering by Bella Luna and a bar program developed by Twelve Mile Limit — with ornate aesthetics, has been a “labor of love,” Mary says.
In consultation with Fifield, she took a hands-on approach to the process, even mixing 70 gallons of “home brew” gold paint in her kitchen sink to achieve the perfect hue.
“I love working on old buildings,” Mary says. She opens two large pink binders containing pre-renovation photographs showing mismatched paint, peeling mildewed walls and timeworn cornices, arches and columns. “At some point in life, you wonder if you’ve done anything that will matter, and with [the Orpheum], you know that it’s going to live on after you and have a tremendous effect on the community.”
As Mary Grace leads the way through the theater, promising a “shortcut” to the next floor and commanding us to crouch “like spies” in the aisles, Mary explains the choices behind the decor, a throwback to the Orpheum’s prime. Light fixtures purchased in Atlanta closely resemble the originals, while the second-story mezzanine retains the patterned terrazzo floors installed shortly after the end of World War II. The interior’s centerpiece is the Baroque floating oval dome, which is “unsurpassed in the city,” according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination. It is painted in a brilliant shade that Mary has taken to calling “Orpheum blue.”
“We believe that is probably as close as we’ll ever get to an original idea of the color of the dome,” Fifield says. “The lighting in the auditorium space is also skillfully done, so the blue has an ethereal quality. It seems otherworldly to me.”
In addition to serving once again as the permanent home of the LPO, the Orpheum’s schedule will include theater, dance, film, comedy, corporate and private events, and music “from Bach to rock,” according to General Manager Kristin Shannon. The only limitation is the size of the stage, which precludes the possibility of some large productions requiring multiple sets, such as traveling Broadway shows.
For Shannon, who once sang on the Orpheum stage, the theater also is a symbol of the city’s ongoing recovery.
”It strikes a chord with people,” she says. “I think that people were starting to feel upset that it was sitting like it was. It was just a sad story: ‘That poor building, it’s so beautiful, and no one’s saving it.'”
More than a music hall, as Adams and LPO timpanist Jim Atwood recall, the Orpheum has been a place for the city to come together in times of trouble, from the Gulf War to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. Tuning into coverage of the storm’s aftermath on a battery-operated television in their Colorado cabin, Adams and Atwood knew from seeing waist-deep water on Canal Street that Atwood’s timpani, stored in the Orpheum’s basement, had been destroyed.
The LPO will pay tribute to the past decade with its opening night selection: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, aptly named the Resurrection Symphony.
“There was so much heartbreak, but we survived,” Adams says. “And we’re still making music.”
“We’re not trying to make her look like she was built in 2015,” Mary says. “We’re just trying to make her look really, really good for 100.”