The Orpheum is set to open on Aug. 27 (exactly ten years to the day that it was last open) with its first performance to be held on Sept. 17, when the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, or LPO, finally returns to its rightful home and opens what looks to be another wonderful season. And with that concert, New Orleanians will be free to return to the embrace of one of the country’s few remaining vertical hall theaters.
When I was a kid, say 6 or 7, my dad and I went to the Orpheum, located in the Central Business District, to see cartoons. While seeing cartoons on a massive, movie-theater sized screen was fantastic, the real magic was to be found in the soundtrack. While an animated hunter, bunny, duck, and other childhood friends engaged in fanciful hijinks, the LPO provided all accompanying sounds, right down to the pops, bings, and boings. This visit wasn’t my last to the Orpheum, but it was the one that took my heart.
The Orpheum’s renovators went out of their way to uncover and restore every last original, usable detail and feature.
To this day, I still love cartoons and have become closely involved with the LPO. I’m not alone in my affection for a building; just about everyone who grew up in New Orleans has at least one vivid and heartfelt memory of the Orpheum.
The Orpheum’s ability to inspire such genuine love is ultimately what saved the theater.
A Major Restoration
The Orpheum’s $13 million restoration was spearheaded by owners Roland and Mary von Kurnatowski along with Dr. Eric George. After meticulously researching the building’s original features and color scheme from its opening in 1921, Mary set about painting much of the theater’s ornate decorations by hand – including spending two and a half months towering above the floor while working on the ceiling.
Not content with just returning to the original colors, the Orpheum’s renovators went out of their way to uncover and restore every last original, usable detail and feature that had been covered up or damaged in previous renovations. The theater’s original beauty has been complemented with modern touches of style and function to create what promises to be one of the most attractive, versatile, and enjoyable event spaces around.
Don’t think that the Orpheum is going to trade just on looks, because there is so much more. Thanks to some innovative design work, the reborn Orpheum has comforts that the original just couldn’t match, such as restrooms on every floor, six easily accessible bars, a full kitchen, and snack bar. The bar program is being developed by one of my favorite bartenders, T. Cole Newton from 12 Mile Limit. The Orpheum’s food selection from Bella Luna Catering and Chef Horst Pfeifer will start out with upscale theater snacks and charcuterie with hopes to partner up with local chefs for guest appearances in the future.
All this, and we still haven’t gotten to the Orpheum’s coolest features: the movable floor.
Modern Amenities and Modern Use
The theater’s main floor, made of concrete and steel, can transform from traditional orchestra style seating to being completely level with the stage, providing the flexibility to turn the 1500-seat theater into an amazing reception hall or allow it to host a seated dinner for 300. With a movable floor, the projection room, and ample food and beverage service stations, there is little that the Orpheum can’t host.
The Orpheum wants to serve as a happy hour destination, a pop-up restaurant, movie theater, and lecture hall; no matter what you love, the Orpheum will give you plenty of opportunities to love it.
Fortunately for us, the von Kurnatowskis are interested to see just how much this super-structure can do. Future plans go well beyond the expected LPO concerts, big name musical acts, and theater troupes; the Orpheum wants to serve as a happy hour destination, a pop-up restaurant, movie theater, and lecture hall. This means no matter what you love, the Orpheum will give you plenty of opportunities to love it. Even if it is some old cartoons with a classical soundtrack.
The Orpheum’s opening concert is also the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s season opener, Mahler: Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”; Wilco takes the stage on Sept. 28. The Orpheum’s full lineup will be announced on Aug. 17.