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. Mosteveryone 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 theLouisiana 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 NOLA.com:
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
about John F. Kennedy's World War II service in the South Pacific.
High water mark from Katrina on exit doors.
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
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.