Gregor Fox’s vision for the future of Canal Street looks a lot like its past.
Fox, 42, a commercial real estate developer, purchased the Loew’s State Palace Theatre this month for $3.5 million. The theater, built in 1926 as a silent-movie house for first-run MGM films, was eventually remodeled to include three theaters. In the 1980s, the partitions were removed, returning it to a single auditorium. The building hosted live music performances before becoming a haven for raves in the late 1990s, ultimately falling into disrepair over the past decade.
Now, its next act may come after an extensive renovation that Fox expects to last a decade and to cost as much as $20 million.
A spate of efforts to renovate and reopen the city’s historic downtown theaters has been underway for several years, starting with the reopening of the city-owned Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in 2009 followed by the Joy Theatre in 2011 and the Saenger and Civic theaters last year. The Orpheum Theater, sold to the co-owners of Tipitina’s earlier this year, is slated to reopen by the end of next year.
The flurry of activity has breathed new life into a once-vibrant area of Canal Street that has been plagued in recent years by blight and neglect. While local theater owners, booking managers and tourism officials are optimistic that each facility will find its niche — focusing, say, on special events, live music, movies or plays — some express guarded concern about the prospect of five theaters reopening just a few years and a few blocks apart.
“I would like to think that with how New Orleans is growing, this amount of theaters would be able to supply all of these different aspects of the live theater industry here,” said Winter Adler, the operations manager at the Civic.
With varying sizes, the local theaters could serve as stepping stones to one another, some say. As a band grows in popularity from filling up the House of Blues or Tipitina’s, the thinking goes, it could move on to the Civic or, in a few years, the Orpheum.
Built in 1918 and sold this year for $1.5 million, the Orpheum is scheduled to reopen in time for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s opening night next fall, a decade after Hurricane Katrina left the building flooded.
Meanwhile, the 2,600-seat Saenger Theatre reopened last September after a $53 million makeover, while the 1,200-capacity Civic, the city’s oldest theater, reopened following a $10 million renovation a few months later.
“Each property is probably going to tailor itself a little bit differently,” said Fox, the developer. “I would love to have a big Broadway show. That might be the Saenger’s exclusive thing. Honestly, I just have to see how that will work out.”
The co-founders of the Tipitina’s Foundation, Roland von Kurnatowski and Eric George, purchased the long-closed Orpheum in February with the aim of making it the home of the LPO once again. The beaux arts-style theater hosted silent films and vaudeville acts in the 1920s and became the city’s symphony hall in the 1980s.
“We feel like we have a little bit of a different approach as how to utilize the Orpheum,” said von Kurnatowski, who bought Tipitina’s in 1996. “We think that’s good, because each of these facilities is going to find its niche, and that’s what we think makes the whole package so interesting. If each one serves its niche successfully, and in totality, then you do have a resurgence of the New Orleans theater district.”
Five years after the city-owned Mahalia Jackson reopened following a $23 million renovation, the city now is in the process of rehabbing the blighted Municipal Auditorium. Built in 1929 with the capacity to house about 11,000 patrons, the facility has been closed since taking on 5 feet of water during Katrina. City officials hope to have the work completed by late 2015.
Wowed by the potential
Despite years of neglect, Fox said, the Loew’s State is in good condition structurally, and he was wowed by its potential the first time he walked in. “I want to bring it back to its original glory,” he said during a recent tour of the facility.
Work on the building is slated to focus first on revamping about 50,000 square feet of what he sees as potential retail space, more than half of which is on the ground level.
“I’m kind of basing my ideas off the Saenger,” Fox said. “It’s a very different theater, but they did the level of restoration that I’m looking to do.” He wants to present some concerts but anticipates that the space will primarily host special events, films, plays and the ballet.
As theater managers look to distinguish their facility from the competition, their success may hinge on who makes a strong push for each segment of the market, particularly lucrative special events — business that all of the theaters will certainly work to land.
“You’ve got all these different levels of theaters, and in theory, in a couple of years, they’re all going to have these different capacities to put on different shows and events,” said Adler, who worked at the House of Blues and Tipitina’s before becoming operations manager at the Civic.
In the past, as new theaters or clubs popped up, their operators would adopt a wait-and-see attitude but in the end often find little impact to their bottom lines.
Some of the theaters may opt out of hosting live rock music, for example, reducing competition for those shows.
Adler and others in the industry anticipate that existing relationships with booking agents will play a big role.
“There’s always a fear about fighting for the pie. Republic comes along, then Howlin’ Wolf reopens down the street, and then d.b.a., and it seems like I think there’s going to be enough to go around as far as who decides where to go,” Adler said, rattling off night clubs that opened in the area in recent years. “It really comes down to who is involved, who you have at the helm buying your talent and the booking agent for each establishment. There’s going to be certain venues who are going to want to do only seated shows or only do things that aren’t going to possibly jeopardize the state of the venue, in the sense that they would have a rougher crowd.”
Bryan Bailey, who owns the Civic with two partners, said that in the years after Katrina, “a lot of shows and types of shows started just not touring through New Orleans because they realized the space wasn’t here for them.”
The Civic, he said, fills the gap between the smaller House of Blues and Tipitina’s on one hand and the bigger theaters like the Saenger on the other. “We sort of fill a niche that doesn’t currently exist in that size market,” he said.
A wild card?
A decade from now, Bailey believes, the emergence of the Loew’s State may be a wild card.
“It will be interesting to see what position they take on the live music front to try to compete, because they probably will start competing with both the Orpheum and the Saenger in a different way,” he said.
The Joy Theatre, which underwent a $5 million renovation, has seating for about 660 people or can handle a standing crowd of 1,200. So far, it has presented films during the city’s annual film festival as well as a few late-night shows during the Jazz and Heritage Festival and the 2012 red-carpet premiere of the Louisiana-shot “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Still, a quick look at its schedule shows just a single concert slated: Dr. John and the Nite Trippers on Sept. 20.
“It’s definitely taking a little time, but people are starting to pick up and notice with these concerts that are being held in here, that we are a multipurpose theater and not just a movie theater,” said one of the theater’s managers, Andrew Portwood.
David Skinner, general manager of the Saenger, said renovations to the facility were done to “return the building to its original grandeur of 1927, along with today’s technological, electronic and customer convenience improvements.”
“That is behind-the-scenes kind of stuff that people won’t see,” he said. “They just realize now that when they come in the building, it’s more comfortable and patron-friendly maybe than what they remember.”
With the Saenger hosting a steady lineup of big-name performances as part of the Broadway in New Orleans series, Skinner isn’t too worried over the potential new competition.
“You have to look at it this way: You have to really crank the clock back,” he said. “Let’s suppose you go back 10 years ago. With the exception of the Civic, all of those theaters were operating then. You had Loew’s, you had the Orpheum, you had Mahalia and you had the Saenger, and 10 years ago, they were all operating to a certain level of success.”
He added: “It’s kind of like having a number of department stores in the city. Each venue finds its own niche, and what it’s best at presenting, and that’s, of course, tempered by the size of the venue.”
Wide range of sizes
In fact, having a bevy of venues with a range of sizes may help local booking agents attract more national touring groups, said Marco Perez, general manager of the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena, which can seat about 10,000 people.
“You’ve got to have the right capacity, the right fit, the right size for the demand of any particular artist,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a competition thing. It’s more of a size thing. It’s more of a tour thing.”
Somewhat muddying the waters, Perez said, is a recent drop in the number of groups hitting the road “in the abundance as they used to be.”
“That’s a different change in the landscape that we don’t necessarily like,” he said.
Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the concert industry, believes that most major cities of New Orleans’ size can support at least two theaters at the opposite ends of size spectrum, between 1,200 and 2,500 seats.
“Because New Orleans is such a music-oriented town and there is so much tourism, it likely could support more than the average market,” he said.
Each of the theaters, once restored, will have its own appeal.
“Artists like to play historical theaters because generally the acoustics in them are very good,” Bongiovanni said. “If they’re nicely restored, they really are beautiful places to play.”
Reviving a neighborhood
Reopening of so many refurbished theaters will also breathe new life back to a mostly rundown section of the Central Business District, said John Stubbs, director of Tulane University’s master of preservation studies program in its Architecture School.
Stubbs noted a similar revival that occurred in Boston’s historic theater district, a neighborhood where several old movie houses have been revived in recent years, with historic façades and structures now lining the cityscape.
“These are beloved major movie theaters that had really fallen by the wayside and several on the same strip in downtown Boston,” he said. “They helped not only restore that amenity to the city, but it helped restore the whole district.”
Likewise, Kurt Weigel, head of New Orleans’ Downtown Development District, said the collection of theaters will have “a tremendous impact” on the district, triggering a lift to nearby property values and retail sales.
“When a theater like that is dark, it casts a pall over any street for blocks and blocks. Just having those theaters active, having the lights on, creates a lot of positive energy,” he said.
While Weigel believes there will be enough business for each of the theaters, he said it will take some cooperation among the operators to ensure they’re not aiming for the same market share.
“There’s going to be some overlap, no question, but as long as we pay attention and make sure they’re not going head to head and depending on the same shows and visitors, I think we’re going to be fine,” he said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.