The Civic, said to be New Orleans oldest theater, set to reopen

The Civic, New Orleans’ oldest theater, is scheduled to reopen by year’s end, at the conclusion of a thoughtful nine-month renovation. Like a buried gem, the ornate Beaux-Arts playhouse has lay hidden in a cluster of Central Business District buildings, unused for more than 20 years.

On Wednesday, during a preview tour of the 106-year-old theater, workmen were busy installing a huge marble bar beneath the first balcony and otherwise preparing the aged grande dame for her return to the spotlight. Onlookers cheered and clinked Champagne glasses when the switch was thrown, lighting the new retro-chic Civic sign on O’Keefe Avenue at dusk.

According to historian Jack Stewart, who was on hand for the Wednesday’s tour, the doors of the elegant playhouse opened in 1906 with a live theatrical extravaganza dedicated to the life of Texas hero Sam Houston. Sometime later in its history, Stewart said, the theater was billed as the largest cinema in the world – when most movie theaters were tiny nickelodeon-style showplaces. It also served as a vaudeville house and a site for political rallies.

Sometime in the 1940s, the Baronne Street attraction became a burlesque club called The Star. But legitimate theater soon returned to the stage, along with opera, and foreign films. In 1950, the name of the theater was changed to the Civic. The highlight of the era, from Stewart’s point of view, was a lavish production of “Man of La Mancha,” starring Jose Ferrer, which included an enormous windmill. It seemed impossible, Stewart said, that the giant working prop could fit in the smallish theater.

The Civic, New Orleans’ oldest theater, under renovation The Civic Theater, built in 1906, is the oldest playhouse in New Orleans. Watch as historian Jack Stewart and General Manager Gail Varuso describe the past and future of the long-lost gem that is now in the final stages of restoration.

In the late 1970s, the old playhouse was reincarnated once again as the Civic disco. But sometime in the 1980s, the mirror ball was retired and the old theater entered an extended hibernation. Luckily, Steward said, the Civic had been built in the wake of several 19th-century theater conflagrations and was a fireproof structure. Fire claimed a 1903 theater on Elysian Fields Avenue just a few years ago, Stewart said.

Architect Steve Dumez of Eskew+Dumez+Ripple architects, the firm handling the Civic renovation, said that the condition of the long unused theater was “pretty rough.” The roof had to be replaced at the start of the project; not just the waterproof skin, but the entire concrete shell. And the basement had to be drained of 4 feet of residual water. The stage was rotten in areas, Dumez said, and the balconies needed rebuilding. Much of the decorative plasterwork that lends the Civic its antique air had survived the decades, but had to be cleaned of peeling paint and restored.

According to Stewart, that huge Art Deco lamp in the center of the ceiling was a gift to the theater management sixty-some years ago courtesy of Seymour Weiss, principal co-owner of the Roosevelt Hotel and confidant of Huey P. Long. The lamp was an orphan from a 1940s renovation of the hotel, Steward said. It had been refurbished and re-hung the day before the Civic tour.

Reversing the effect of time wasn’t the only challenge, Dumez said. The old theater lacked adequate restroom space and bars. Seating beneath the first balcony was sacrificed to expand the bathrooms. The new non-historical additions are clad in floor to ceiling mirrors, rendering the renovation more-or-less invisible from the theater. Dumez said that the designers had no desire to produce imitation historical features. Instead, the bars – one on each balcony – and other contemporary touches were rendered in a clean modern style that can’t be mistaken. Even the choice of paint will play a subtle part in distinguishing the new from the old. The restored antique plaster, Dumez said, will have velvety white finish. Passages of new construction will be painted in a more reflective white.

Civic general manager Gail Varuso pointed out that some of the most important changes to the old playhouse are behind the scenes. In addition to the installation of state of the art theater mechanics, the Civic has been equipped with three greenrooms — complete with private baths – an important amenity when trying to lure contemporary shows.

For plays and most performances, Varuso said, the Civic will seat 700. But when the flexible floor is employed, the space can expand to handle a standing room audience of 1,100. That versatility of the audience capacity will greatly expand the possible variety of entertainment uses, she said.

Historically speaking, one of the biggest changes to the Civic is the entrance. Generations entered the theater from the Baronne Street side, passing through an open-air arcade before entering the lobby. Though the old familiar Civic sign still hangs outside the arcade, the buildings flanking the entrance have been converted to condominiums making the traditional theater entrance unavailable. So, theater-goers will now make their way to the Civic lobby from the side through an alleyway off of O’Keefe Avenue. Bryan Bailey, one of the partners in the Civic renovation said that he’s been told that in the era of segregation, the side door had been the entrance for African-American patrons.

Bailey declined to say how much he and his partners Brian Gibbs of Gibbs Construction Company and The Solomon Group (the entertainment management company that temporarily headed Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in 2009-2010) spent on the renovations. But, he said, it was made possible by a mix of tax credits available to the project from the state and federal government. Most crucial, he said, was the State of Louisiana Live Infrastructure Tax Credit meant to help re-establish live performance venues. That program provides 25 percent of the cost of the project in fully refundable tax credits, he said.

“Which basically means for every dollar you spend, you get 25 cents back, which is a huge credit,” he said. “And that covers everything in the building.”

State and federal tax credits granted to the restoration of the historic building also were key to completing the project, Bailey said. Plus, there were other small tax credits in play, he said. A September 2011 story on the New Orleans CityBusiness website reported that Gibbs had filed for a $2 million permit for the construction project.

Bailey said that the newly renovated space will fill a need in the New Orleans live entertainment scene. It will accommodate shows too small for the 2,100 seat Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts or the 2,700-seat Saenger, when its post-Katrina renovations are complete, he said. The Civic will also be able to host shows too big for smaller houses. Le Petit Theatre seats 365.

In addition, Bailey said, the Civic will be the most “advanced theater technologically” and, owing to its restored historic interior, “aesthetically one of the most exciting.”

By: Doug MacCash