Orpheum Theater renovation underway in hands of new owners

July 25 2014 | Latest News
By Katherine Sayre, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

The Orpheum Theater has played host to silence for nearly a decade.

The 96-year-old space, shuttered since Hurricane Katrina, is the preferred venue for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra because of its pristine acoustics. Going back further in history, it was a stage for vaudeville, then a movie house.

The last time Roland von Kurnatowski remembers attending an event there was the 1960s. He was a kid going to see "PT 109," the biopic about John F. Kennedy's World War II service in the South Pacific.

Fifty years later, a rolled-up movie screen still hangs above the stage, and von Kurnatowski is a new owner of the Orpheum, overseeing a $13 million year-long renovation of the theater.

Even in its state of disrepair, the majesty of the Orpheum persists.

"I can imagine what performing on that stage would feel like with your audience so close," von Kurnatowski said. "Something about it -- it really grabs your attention. It's a confirmation that this is a special place, very deserving and worthy of the effort."

He and his wife, Mary von Kurnatowski, are perhaps best known as the owners of Tipitina's club and founders of Tipitina's Foundation, which supports music culture by supplying instruments and internships to young musicians. They bought the Orpheum for $1.5 million in February with business partner Dr. Eric George.

It was listed for sale last year for the third time since Katrina, after years of failed promises from other developers to rejuvenate the performance hall.

Roland von Kurnatowski drove past the Orpheum a couple of days before Thanksgiving last year and saw the for-sale sign. He recognized the name of a friend, real estate broker Don Randon, and picked up the phone. Three days later, he had written an offer.

"I knew right away it was going to be all about bringing it back to what it was," said Mary von Kurnatowski.

The new owners hope to restore the history while creating a space for multiple uses, from the return of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and other musical performances to movie premieres, private events and fundraisers.

An adjustable floor that can move from sloped to flat, along with removable seats, will give the space flexibility, the owners said. The previously unused basement will be renovated into 15,000 square feet of new space, they said.

In the sweltering hot days before modern air-conditioning, audience members were cooled by a pit of dry ice in the basement. The cold air traveled through vents in the wood floor, pulled upward by fans.

That pit will be turned into a private party space with a kitchen. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and the Tipitina's Foundations will put their offices downstairs.

The project is expected to be finished in the summer of 2015, in time for the orchestra to open its 2015-2016 season in the Orpheum that fall.

"To be able to go home to the theater that was home to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for all of its history up until Katrina is really a significant development for the orchestra," said the group's CEO James William Boyd.

Boyd said the acoustics of the Orpheum have been described as "rivaling Carnegie Hall," and the group is hopeful that its return will attract first-time and returning concert-goers. "We can't wait to get in there," he said.

Also in the works for the theater: new suites with a private bar in the highest seating area, and a new entryway, among other improvements. Existing plaster walls, ceiling and decorations will be preserved and restored to original colors.

The owners hope to see the mission of Tipitina's Foundation extended through the theater, offering another stage for young musicians to experience. Among other programs, the foundation has given $2.7 million worth of musical instruments to schools across Louisiana and opened up music performance to students through an internship led by Donald Harrison.

As the renovation begins, locals' memories of the theater are everywhere.

"When I say I'm working on the Orpheum, almost every single person has shared a personal account or experience in the theater, especially people that have grown up here and have nostalgia for the building," said Kristin Shannon, business development director. She also remembers singing on the stage for a holiday performance.

Bethany Paulsen, Tipitina's Foundation managing director, said her group is still exploring exactly how a partnership with the new Orpheum will work, but it will be a relationship that benefits students and musicians alike.

"Having a venue like this back in New Orleans and adding to that list of venues that we can bring in top performers, that serves the community and Louisiana's music scene, that serves everyone," Paulsen said.

The theater is on the National Register of Historic Places. The owners are pursuing state and federal historic tax credits, according to plans filed with the city.

The Orpheum would be the third of downtown New Orleans' four historic theaters to reopen in recent years. The Joy and Saenger theaters were recently restored, while the Loews State Palace theater remains shut down.