Saturday, August 9, 2014

New Life for the Orpheum Theatre

I was seven years old when I paid my first admission to the Orpheum Theatre. The beauty of the space took my breath away. I was fascinated by the luxurious velvets and silks; the ornate gold leaf trim around the proscenium and up to the ceiling surrounding the huge chandeliers.  It was a most impressive sight, for sure. (Click on any image to embiggen.)

I was there to see the re-issued Disney animated film, Fantasia (first released in 1940). I was with my sisters and a few neighborhood kids, as I recall.  Most
everyone in our little group became physically ill, some having to throw up, because of the animation.  Not me! I sat in that huge space and drank every bit of the film in. The theatre had a state-of-the-art sound system, too, and the film was presented in the original stereo format.  I was blown away - by the film and the theatre.
Four years later I was actually on the stage performing in a live radio broadcast of a locally produced show. (Television was coming soon.) It was during this visit for rehearsals and then broadcast, that I learned some of the history of the old place. It had been known as the RKO Orpheum from it’s early days as a vaudeville theatre, and the backstage areas still held the trappings of those years.  Dressing rooms with light bulb sockets surrounding the mirrors where makeup was applied.  Special passages and stage works were everywhere.  

With the best acoustics of any venue in the city, it became the home of the
Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.  It was a first-run movie palace for years before the  disarray, disintegration of the downtown area. In later years, it hosted theatrical events and concerts before Katrina shut it down for the past decade.

But, the grande dame is getting a facelift, thanks to new owners with a vision, cash and imagination to see it happen. From
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 of 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
High water mark from Katrina on exit doors.
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.

I had a similar experience when I was given a tour of the then-closed Beacon Theatre in NYC. That too, is a memory that will live with me forever. 

There are two things I dreamed of owning all my life; one was a theatre where I could show the films I wanted and stage the shows no one else would; and the second would be a radio station.

Having studied film at NYU, worked in theatre and radio since I was 10, I think I could have done some good and brought obscure movies the attention that I think they deserve. A radio station without a format would be a real dream come true for many people I know.  Every 3 or 4 hour segment would be devoted to a different genre jockeyed by an expert in that specific genre.  Where there was spill-over of genres, there could be open mike and call-ins. We had a similar (though much pared down) version of this at the last station I worked in NJ.  Ah, the roads I didn’t take….

Suddenly I have an ear worm. Let Sondheim take us from this nostalgic place.
One has regrets Which one forgets And as the years go on The road you didn’t take Hardly comes to mind Does it? 
The door you didn’t try Where could it have led? The choice you didn’t make Never was defined Was it?
No.  It wasn’t. Still, it does my heart good to see the old Orpheum brought back to life with a grand future ahead. Maybe I’ll get to see her once more in all her rejuvenated grandeur.  May it be so.

And so it goes.


  1. looks like a splendid palace; may it be restored to glory.

    our city just let the last movie palace be torn down for a 8-theater movie tavern. ugh.

    so I am just learning all this about you. what films would you show? silents? comedies from the 30s (laurel and hardy)? foreign films? dish please!

    1. All these years later I haven't held on to individual films or plays, but yes, all that you mention and then some. So many films thought lost have been found and, thanks to the AFI & Lucas and Spielberg, are being, have been restored. That's our collective filmography and we're missing out on some wonderful history.

  2. I love original Vaudeville venues. It warms my heart when they are saved. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Fearsome: let's face it, these palaces were built to make the average person feel like they were wealthy, somebody, and worthy of the beauty of the place. And they were.

  3. I love when these old movie and show palaces are restored and not just knocked down in the name of :::ack::: progress.

    1. Bob: we are so short-sighted in this country is boggles the mind. Two other grand palaces have been restored, or in the process, in NOLA. The Saenger opened it's facelifted doors just this year, and the Joy is soon to follow. Part of the overall plan to rejuvenate the Canal Street area and so away with the drug scene. Hey! It worked for Times Square, in Gotham.

    2. damn auto correct: it was supposed to read "and do away". Thank you and good night.

  4. I think every city as a grand old dame theater and story like this one. They are sad tales, indeed.

    1. Spo: It's especially sad when the idea of restoration loses out to the wrecking ball. These buildings can never be replaced.


Your comments are welcome if they are positive and/or helpful.
If they are simply a tirade or opinionated bullshit, they will be removed, so don't waste your time, or mine.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...