Roland and Mary Von Kurnatowski sat in their car in their pajamas one evening in June, watching the lights outside the Orpheum Theater. What they were waiting for was still two months away.
The Orpheum Theater’s doors had remained closed since Hurricane Katrina, but now, with a $15 million makeover from the Von Kurnatowskis’ team, it is on schedule to reopen in mid-August.
“It just was one of those moments where you just sit and you’re quiet for a moment because it’s just gorgeous and you’re so happy it’s there,” Mary Von Kurnatowski said.
The Orpheum is not the couple’s first project. They own Tipitina’s and have been renovating or building something almost every day for the past 25 years. When Roland Von Kurnatowski stumbled across the Orpheum project, they jumped on it.
He was on his way to a business meeting when he noticed the for-sale sign on the theater with the listing agent as Don Randon, a friend of the family. It was the third time the historic theater had been up for sale since it was shuttered by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; out-of-state buyers had made promises but no progress on restoring the University Place jewel.
Roland Von Kurnatowski toured the building, and he proposed the project to his wife before Thanksgiving in 2013.
“He said, ‘Well, you’ll never guess what I did today,’ ” Mary Von Kurnatowski said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, he probably invited more people for Thanksgiving. … I’m going to have to get another turkey or thaw something out or get a ham.’ … Then he goes, ‘I went to see the Orpheum today. It’s like the coolest thing. I think we should buy it.’ And I was just like, ‘Oh, thank God I don’t have to cook something up.’ ”
The Von Kurnatowskis and business partner Eric George, a local surgeon, purchased the space in February 2014 for $1.5 million and have put another $15 million into renovations.
For Mary Von Kurnatowski, restoring the theater to its original 1918 beaux-arts design is important. So important that she has spent the past year collecting paint samples from the walls and ceilings, mixing 45 to 50 gallons of custom gold paints and facing her fear of heights while brushing color into the decorative designs in the theater’s 65-foot ceilings.
“When you have something as glorious as the Orpheum to start out with, who would have the nerve (to change it)?” Mary Von Kurnatowski asked.
And the couple is delighted with the renovation’s goals and progress.
“I feel like we put a lot of thought and effort into this, and I would say I’m pretty happy with how it’s coming along,” Mary Von Kurnatowski said. “I think most people will be pleased. I think you can get a real sense of what it looked like when it first opened.”
To complement the traditional aesthetics, the Orpheum will have modern updates: six bars, more bathrooms and wider seats.
“We’re offering many modern amenities to almost give you a show before the show,” business development director Kristin Shannon said.
The space will boast a movable floor that can tip up to a flat surface for dinners and balls when the chairs are removed via an elevator lift to the basement.
It sounds like quite a feat for any venue, but the innovative structure moves in only 10 minutes to allow for a complete change in a few hours.
And, the Orpheum is known for its quality acoustics due to its vertical structure, Mary Von Kurnatowski said.
An invitation-only preview event is set for Aug. 27, but the grand opening event for the Orpheum is the homecoming of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra on Sept. 17. The Orpheum will once again house the orchestra but also expects other live music, meetings, film premieres and Mardi Gras balls.
“We hope to have not only private events … but also booking mainstream music and having a wide range,” Shannon said. “I keep calling it from Bach to rock. It’s known as the symphony home and it’s known as a classical music venue, but then with Tipitina’s behind it and all of our goals to book national music acts, I think it’s going to become a really popular spot for a very wide demographic.”