Orpheum restores former glory

Sam Ergina, Online Arcade Editor

A New Orleans landmark is back from the dead: the Carnegie Hall of the South has returned.

“As we rebuild the cultural institutions, it gives us great hope for the future,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a private reception celebrating the completion of the Orpheum Theater’s renovation and restoration Aug. 27. 

Constructed in 1918, the Orpheum Theater is a Beaux Arts style building. The theater was for vaudeville shows in 1921. After Hurricane Katrina, the theater was damaged and shut down by the flooding. Since the hurricane, the Orpheum was out of commission until Dr. Eric George of ERG Enterprises purchased it in February 2014, partnered with Tipitina’s founders and owners, Roland Von Kurnatowski and his wife Mary Von Kurnatowski. The three began a project to revive the Orpheum Theater, which finished this August.

“I was in here looking at it,” Roland Von Kurnatowski said. “And what’s kind of interesting about this building is it’s infectious.”

The Orpheum Theater is now old and improved. Classic elements to the building such as the golden elevator and intricately designed terra cotta ceiling — repainted by Mary Von Kurnatowski — that herald back to the regal and classy demeanor of the ‘Roaring ’20s’ have been brought back to their former glory.

Meanwhile, other amenities of the theater were redesigned with additional benefits. There is an adjustable floor and six bars around the theater. New state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems were installed, complementing the natural acoustic quality of the theater and exemplifying a perfect blend of modern technology with old-school architecture.

“Once we decided to make it a multi-purpose facility, I mean there are certain things that you have to have to support that,” Roland Von Kurnatowski said.

The Orpheum is a “vertical hall”-style theater. It’s a design that creates an intimacy between performer and spectator. The second and third levels are extraordinarily close to the stage. This style allows the theater’s space to seat 1500 to 1800 people. The diversity of seating possibilities reflects the diversity of purposes the Orpheum Theater intends to host. This variety was demonstrated at the reception. There were performances by a string quartet, wind instrument quintets and a gospel choir. There was also a presentation on a screen that lowered from the ceiling that thanked all the workers and designers who put work into this achievement.

Before its opening, the theater already released an initial lineup of shows from folk bands to dance company acts. Wilco, Dwight Yoakam, Rickey Smiley, Chick Corea & Béla Fleck and Paul Taylor Modern Dance Company are all confirmed to perform.

The Orpheum Theater’s reopening reflects how New Orleans has grown and changed since the destruction of the hurricane. Its essence distinguishes it from the rest of the world and it lives on stronger than ever. This iconic building is a testament to that.

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