Brett Batterson, the new CEO of the Orpheum, got his first taste of the pitfalls of running a century-old theater before he had even officially started the job.
During a performance by Tony Bennett last December, a major blackout hit downtown. "I was new," said Batterson, who didn't officially take over for retired long-time CEO Pat Halloran until January. "I was standing in the lobby thinking, 'Man, there's no lights in here!' The emergency generator was from 1982. So we're replacing that."
Batterson said the new, state-of-the-art generator is the least glamorous of a program of improvements underway at the historic theater.
"We have four major projects going on right now. We're renovating the administrative offices, which is a total gutting job; painting the auditorium and the lobbies; replacing the emergency generator, which is nothing exciting, but it is necessary for safety; and then we're going to start renovating the washrooms in the fall. ... The renovation phase we're in right now began last year, when they removed two rows of seats down on the floor and widened the leg room."
This is the third major renovation the Orpheum has undergone in the last 30 years, said Facilities Director Richard Reinach. Before the theater's 1983 rebirth, "the building was in really deplorable condition. The ceiling was coming down, the roof was crumbling, the seats were trashed and broken. The paint was peeling, plaster falling. The carpet was nasty."
The first renovation re-poured the concrete floors and replaced peeling wallpaper with vinyl paper that still hangs in the auditorium. In 1998, the back wall of the theater was pushed back about 25 feet to create more backstage space.
This time around, the Orpheum brought back Conrad Schmitt Studios, a Wisconsin firm specializing in historic restoration of churches and concert halls that had been involved in the last two renovations, to repaint the ornate detailing in the auditorium.
Now that the scaffolding has come down, the improvements are dramatic. Subtle red highlights call attention to the painstaking detail the original artisans put into the construction of the vaudeville palace in 1928.
"They reapplied all of the gold leaf and applied some silver leaf in more areas to make things pop out more," Reinach said. "Specifically, people might notice that the lion's head is now silver, so you can see it a lot better."
Upstairs in the theater's offices, which once held the headquarters of Malco Theaters, the differences are dramatic.
"The office renovation is something that most people will never see," Batterson said. "I don't think they've been touched since 1928. People kept adding new rabbit's nests to try and get more office space, and they painted the walls, but by and large, they were just horrible. There were stains on the carpet that made you think they were attached to body outlines. ... There were offices so small you couldn't open the door without hitting a desk."
The new office spaces were designed by the Crump Firm. Workmen peeled back layers of plaster, wood, and sheetrock, digging down to the brick bones, where they uncovered a pristine vintage Coca-Cola sign that had been painted onto the wall of a neighboring drug store.
Reinach says it is a major working space improvement. "A lot of the rooms have glass walls. The architect's idea was to bring a lot more natural light into the offices," he said.
Plans are in motion to spruce up the lobby next, followed by a major overhaul of the restrooms. "We're going to be adding more facilities in 2017," Reinach said. "That's been one of our biggest complaints — the waiting lines to use the facilities at intermissions. ... The women are going to be very thankful."
Beyond the improvements to the physical facilities, Batterson said he is looking forward to enhancing the Orpheum's presence in the community with new entertainment and educational programming.
"We've got to expand our program to reach audiences we haven't reached before," he said. "We want the Orpheum to feel like home to everybody, not just the typical Broadway audience."