It’s been an eclectic evolution for the imposing Greek Revival structure at 619 Carondelet St. in the Central Business District. First a Methodist church, then a Masonic headquarters and lately a concert venue, and now it is set for yet another permutation — as perhaps the only place in New Orleans to catch dinner and a circus.
When the $8 million renovation underway at the 162-year-old Scottish Rite Temple is complete next year, its new owners plan to offer four-course dinners to go with a three-hour circus show, a pairing that’s long been popular at European venues.
It’s another bet on a neighborhood that has seen a surge of investment in the past few years, turning a whole swath of the downtown area into what sometimes appears to be one big construction zone.
Starting in November, the interactive dinner show, to be called Nolaluna, is expected to feature an international ensemble of circus artists, singers, musicians, variety acts and comedians.
There will be one show a night, with three new performances unveiled each year, said Stanley Morris, 59, a co-producer and managing partner on the project.
After spending years working with a similar outfit called Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco, Morris believes the time is right for the concept to flourish in New Orleans.
He cites shifting demographics in the CBD and the advent of the South Market District, a $200 million mixed-use development that spans four blocks, as reasons to think the area is primed for a new brand of upscale entertainment.
That changing tide “absolutely was a key influence for us ending up in that location,” Morris said.
He added: “If you told me even seven or eight years ago that downtown would be the hottest neighborhood for trying to find a place to live, I would’ve said, ‘That’s just crazy talk.’ But you look at it today. That is where people are flocking. They want to be downtown.”
In San Francisco, Teatro ZinZanni was one of the few circus dinner theaters in the country, and probably the best-known, before it was forced to close in 2011.
For some longtime New Orleanians, the idea of a dinner theater may bring memories of the Beverly Dinner Playhouse, which drew Hollywood stars to the local stage before it burned down in the early 1980s.
The Carondelet Street temple was built in 1853 as the First Methodist Church. The Freemasons of New Orleans bought it in 1905. Developer Craig Boes purchased the building last year for $3.25 million.
Its main theater will have table space for 300 people, Morris said. The venue also will have a separate ground-level bar with its own entertainment and restaurant focusing on Italian fare.
Dinner and the show will cost about $125, Morris said, with a choice of meal options.
“We really love how the building was laid out,” he said about the temple, which he has signed a deal to lease for 34 years.
During a performance, theatergoers will be dining as the entertainment is happening, providing a unique experience in an intimate setting, Morris said. All told, it takes about 125 people to pull it off, including performers and dining crew.
“The entire evening is presented with a loose narrative that intermingles the entertainment and the dining aspects,” he said.
In New Orleans, Morris expects the show will draw tourists as well as locals. He said it could be a special — and different — kind of night out for a couple in their early 20s or an interesting experience for out-of-town guests looking for something unusual to do.
It’s a challenging business, he said.
“You’re serving people in a high-end, world-class setting, who love food and service, and you’re serving them that meal for 300 people at one time,” he said. “They feel like they’re in a white-tablecloth restaurant, and you’re doing it when there’s all kinds of music and theatrics.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.