TheaTour!: The Empire Garden Restaurant

If you’re like me, old, repurposed theaters both thrill and dismay you. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see something familiar in a surprising light (how will they use that mezzanine?!); on the other, it’s always a bit sad to see the breeding grounds of art turned into a deli or a shoe store.

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That melancholic mixture—half smile, half tear—arrives full bore at the Empire Garden Restaurant in Boston. Known in legitimacy as the Globe Theater or as Loew’s Globe Theater, the EGR successfully retains much of its theatrical charm, making a hell of a backdrop for dim sum. Still… it makes a hell of a backdrop for dim sum. Enough said.

Dipping under its deep red marquee, a small, uneventful lobby takes you to a TV-studded, classical stairway.

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

Another lobby waits at the top…

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

… and snif snif—you’re in dim sum land!

Make sure to mind the carts as you enter the gorgeous seating area. (Apparently the panels in the proscenium open up to reveal another dining area, opened for weddings and such.)

Empire Garden Restaurant, Globe Theater, Boston, Chinatown, theatre architecture, converted theater old theater

After ordering, run on up to that proscenium and take in the plaster.

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Just don’t think too hard about the strange collision of Eastern and Western art behind you!

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The entire restaurant, the owner explained to me, sits one floor level above what would’ve been the orchestra section. (As if the stairs weren’t enough of a giveaway, the proscenium’s legs tell the original story: They’re almost comically short.)

But that original ground level grants no hint of its glitzy, lavish past. Today, it’s an Asian foods market.

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So: Yes, it’s cool to have your lunch in such gilded splendor. Who doesn’t want a little cherub watching as you eat pork dumplings?

But it’s also a bit sacrilegious, isn’t it? Knawing your way around a temple of theater?

Forgive us, Bacchus, as we slurp and chew.

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Detroit House

1.

“Can we take a look at the old theater?”

My friend and I were in downtown Detroit and had ventured into the lobby of something called the Michigan building. Visitors to town, we were unsure what kind of cajoling would be needed to let us into the crumbling theater that we’d heard was hidden inside.

“$20,” said the guard.

“Really?” Too high.

“$10.”

More like it—

“$5”

Sold—

“Just messing with y’all. It’s free—take the elevator the third floor, go right, then through the exit sign.”

2.

I’d read about this place on the Detroit blogs, blogs that sported cool urban-explorer names like “Faded Detroit,” and “detroitfunk.” These sites specialize in what’s become known as “ruin porn,” wistful photography that glorifies deterioration and degeneration. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, especially when it comes to theaters, so upon learning of this faded palace, I knew I had to make a visit.

The blogs had laid out the basics: Once a palatial, 4,000-seat house featuring the likes of the Marx Brothers, John Philip Sousa and Bob Hope, the Michigan had barely skirted demolition in the late ‘70s, but was converted into a garage when workers in the office building it’s in whined about inadequate parking. The result was a faint echo of the former glory, but some of the old magic, I heard, could still be found.

3.

As directed, my friend and I headed up, went right, made our way down some steps, through another door, and—

“Ahhhhhh—!!!!!!!”

There she was! A brick and plaster cavern, a frozen Rococo tent, the most absurd and fantastical parking lot known to man. The walls rippled Mars brown and red, grey and cement, faded gold and seasick green.

Heaven, in other words.

Navigating the 15-odd cars in hibernation, we found a spot in the center of the shell and pieced together what we could of the theater’s history. Three levels of parking had been installed at some point—we were on the top floor—so that explained our proximity to the glorious ceiling. Glancing up, we could see the gorgeously spoiled plasterwork almost intimately—a glyph here, a fleur-de-lis there.

We turned around, taking in the back of the house. There stood the stub of what must’ve been the balcony. There were the old corridors leading patrons to their seats. And there was what used to be the rooftop of the lobby.

The curve of the ceiling directed our eyes forward, to the proscenium. The concrete floors had cut off both of its legs, but the rounded top sat mostly undisturbed.

Beyond it lay the gap of the stage itself, a vast maw untouched by the parking lot, if not by the elements.

The water dripped and the sun shone through and flanks of rust and mold continued their slow crusade and I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful. Why? Decay creates a mystical regret that makes us (or me, at least) feel curious and humbled and part of the Bigger Picture, no less guarded from the steady, wearying forces of time than the buildings around us. It’s like looking at the stars and feeling small and big at the same time, and knowing that The Answer, the simple answer, is right there, embedded in something physical just beyond your touch.

4.

Detroiters, of course, are starved for this kind of transcendence. We all know how the city has turned into a brittle chrysalis, how the jobs and the factories and the prosperity have vanished, how the public trust has gone sour. How plywood fills the windows of downtown office buildings. How traffic lights, if they work at all, blink the same eternal pulse: red black red black redblackredblack. How homes lost to foreclosure sprout trees like so many nursery gardens.

This is the roiling landscape Lisa D’Amour chose for her Pulizer Prize finalist of a play, Detroit, seen earlier this fall at Playwrights Horizons.

Walking around the Michigan Theater it was impossible not to think of D’Amour’s play, a play that culminates in the destruction of a house. Taking in the Michigan’s slow demise, I wondered, are its remains so different from the charred beams and joists of D’Amour’s play?

Not really, if only for the delightful happenstance that theaters are often referred to as, well, houses. I love this: What word could be more appropriate for spaces that soothe and rattle, welcome and surprise, nurture and madden?

So there we stood, my friend and I, in a crumbling Detroit house, acting as its small, temporary family.

Of course, a family turns a house into something else entirely.

A home.

There might only have been two of us, but in that moment, we filled the Michigan. She was a full house. A full home.

TheaTour!: The Victoria Theatre

Making small talk with local theater crews can be tough going, but one question always seems to get a shutmouthed gang chattering: “Any ghost stories here worth knowing about?” Crew guys (and the occasional girl) become positively babbly when given the chance to tell a choice bit about a phantom producer, composer, or director.

Or, every so often, a performer. Even if most of the crew’s stories don’t concern actors, I love to imagine bits of their ghostly essence left behind, some magic sparks floating by that my castmates and I just might be able to breathe in and use onstage.

Those actor-ghost-sparks were of an especially starry caliber at Dayton, Ohio’s Victoria Theatre. Heavyweights like Carol Channing and Faye Dunaway once graced the stage, one of the oldest continuously run in the US. Backstage posters (above) hint at some of the stars of past, and make for fun pre-show perusal.


But beyond the posters, the celebrity meter gets even higher. Victoria alumni also include the likes of Edwin Forrest, Harry Houdini, Al Joson, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice, and many others. This view…


… was their view. This rake…

… is what Carol Channing herself saw as she descended that staircase, singing, “Hello, Dolly!” Do these actors’ ghosts peer down on their performer-descendents from these ornate boxes?

Or are they backstage, gleefully moving props or whispering encouragement?

Ask a stagehand. He’ll know.

TheaTour!: The Byham Theatre

I’ve visited enough theaters over the course of this tour to notice a common historical narrative. (In case you’re just joining us, I’m on the road with the kid’s musical If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.) For virtually every vintage house we’ve played, the story has gone something like this:

  1. The theatre is built as an early 20th century Vaudeville house.
  2. With the post-Depression decline of Vaudeville and the rise of film, the theater starts showing movies, and eventually (for some) X-rated movies.
  3. As it enters the 1970’s, the theater starts to decay.
  4. By the mid to late 80’s, it’s in the crosshairs of the wrecking ball.
  5. BUT! A local arts group or wealthy philanthropist steps in, saves the space, and kick starts an extensive renovation.
  6. Live acts return! Woohoo!

With minor variations, this is the story of Altoona, PA’s Mishler Theatre, Frederick, MA’s Weinberg Center, Petersburg WV’s Smoot Theatre, and surely countless other houses across the country. It’s also the story of Pittsburgh PA’s Byham Theatre, the latest stop on my tour. Built in 1904, the Byham is like many a great Vaudeville house: It’s neo-Classical, swarming with cherubs, and lathered in luxurious red velvet.

But as steps number one through five (above) reveal, a more complicated (and interesting) history is just beneath the surface. For one, somewhere in the Byham’s decaying period, the theater’s boxes were removed from either side of the stage. In the photo below, note the wide, empty stretches next to the proscenium—that’s where those boxes used to perch.

Backstage, pairs of archways hint at this history. Now used for storage, they were originally used as the entryways to the seats of the rich and notable.

What’s more, a haunting staircase stage right leads to the crumbling, vacant shells hidden from the audience by that plaster. (Those spaces are stacked on top of the leftover archways.)

But not all the history has been covered up. A nice fresco decorates the swath of ceiling just above the proscenium. If the nymphs seem a little manly, that’s because female models were unavailable thanks to the Victorianism of the day. (Another possibly apocryphal story goes that the nymphs were originally painted as men, but thinking them too fey, patrons demanded a sex change.)

Beyond the house is a lovely lobby. One of the first things you notice is that many of the ornate lighting fixtures prominently display their bulbs. Turns out electric lighting was a novelty back at the turn of the (other) century, and bulbs were flaunted rather than masked.

Before adopting its present moniker (adopted in 1995), the Byham was known as the Fulton, and earlier, the Gayety. The proof in this mosaic, unearthed during a renovation, greets theatergoers in the theater’s entryway.

Though it first opened on Halloween night and seats 1,313, the Byham is anything but unlucky. That it’s survived steps one through four is testament to Pittsburgh and, y’know, the power of art.

TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions here reflected.

All photos by theater-words.com.

TheaTour!: The Smoot Theatre

Just off the shore of the Ohio River in Petersburg, West Virginia sits the beautiful Smoot Theatre, where I made a recent stop with my touring compatriots. (You may remember that I’m part of a traveling kid’s show—read more here and here.) The Smoot impressed us all with its classy historicity.

One of the first things you’ll notice in the Smoot is the intensity of the mezzanine’s rake. It’s quite steep, so much so that a local theater op told me “people always get dizzy up there.” Good thing, then, that there’s a unique, wooden railing bordering the lower edge of the level. Also worth noting are the colors of the seats. It’s hard to make it out in my shoddy iPhone photos, but those in the mezzanine and the front of the orchestra are red, while those to the rear of the orchestra are blue. Kooky but fun, huh?


See what I mean about  the rake? Watch your step, indeed!

The stage has remained untouched since the Smoot opened in 1926, and (unlike most decks) is unpainted. Interestingly, it’s made out of two different materials: hardwood is farther downstage, while softer wood is upstage. Why? It’s easier to secure sets to the softer wood.


Like most Vaudeville houses that saw fortunes decline in the years following the depression, a movie studio (Warner Bros. in this case) bought the theater and turned it into a film house. Though the theater has now returned to legitimacy (after a close encounter with demolition in 1989), the beautiful, antique projectors still point to the stage from a booth at the rear of the mezzanine.


As a movie palace, the Smoot made use of the Vitaphone, a contraption that heralded the end of silent film and the birth of the “talkies.” (The Vitaphone, as any theater geek knows, is a key plot point in Kaufman and Hart’s classic Once in a Lifetime: “He first turned down the Vitaphone!” Anyone?) In a great move, the folks at the Smoot recently repainted this “sensational” advertisement:

Backstage are some nice relics…

…and the dressing rooms (separated by the original brick—no plaster, thank you very much!) are wonderfully romantic.

All in all, she’s a beaut, so much so that all of us onstage felt like we were on Broadway—the space somehow elevates you, makes you feel like what you’re doing matters.

Good stuff all around.

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TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, does not endorse the opinions here reflected.

All photos by theater-words.com.

TheaTour!: The Weinberg Center

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie continues its grand parade through the Eastern US and Midwest, and recently played the beautiful, historic Weinberg Center in Frederick, Maryland. (Check out Mouse/Cookie‘s first stop here.) Elegantly preserved and maintained, Frederick is a plumb of a town, all brick townhouses and human-sized scale, and its local chez du theatre, The Weinberg Center, matches this aesthetic perfectly.

The Weinberg’s façade is classic and inviting, and welcomes patrons into a passageway that opens up into a spacious lobby and house. It’s the kind of “bottleneck” construction many New York theater builders used on expensive 42nd Street, where a small marquis and entryway would lead to a theater actually situated on 41st or 43rd Street. (The American Airlines and New Amsterdam Theaters are good examples of this.)

Inside, 1,500 seats are split between a vast orchestra and a smaller mezzanine; simple yet pretty murals line the walls. Playing the space, you’re struck by the “shoebox” nature of its architecture: it’s much longer than it is wide.

The stage door is appropriately Rent-tastic, and makes for appropriately ego-inflating coming and going.

When the building first opened in 1926 (it was then called the Tivoli Theater), the Frederick Daily News announced, “Frederick may indeed feel proud of her handsome new theatre… The erection of such a beautiful amusement house is in itself a tribute to the community. It demonstrates in a most outstanding way the faith that a great theatrical organization has in the future of our city.” (Source.)

That faith, it seems, has been borne out.

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(This writeup, by the way, does not represent the opinions of TheatreWorksUSA, the producer of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.)

All photos by theater-words.

At Liberty to Eat Wings

The Liberty Theater, pre (2009) and post (2011) -op

It was 2003 when British director Deborah Warner first heard of the plans to “renovate” the decaying Liberty Theater on 42nd Street. That gloriously decrepit space––which had played crepuscular host to Warner’s 1996 presentation of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”––was to be converted (…wait for it…) into a Cipriani restaurant. Oh joy! At the time, Warner told the Grey Lady, “This is a potential scandal. You [New Yorkers] are very bad. Your lack of preservation is outrageous. You will kick yourself in 10 years. We need these theaters for our souls.”

Well, it’s almost been a decade, so let the kicking begin. While the 2003 deal with Cipriani didn’t work out (thank God––it would’ve castrated the theater of its balconies), that most illustrious of restaurant chains, BBQ, has just opened its doors in this former Broadway house. I recently paid a visit to this newly-opened architectural “improvement” and snapped a few pictures. Compare the new, chipper decor with the eerie beauty I was lucky enough to see (and photograph) in 2009.

 

[Read more...]

Fading Palace

Brian Stokes Mitchell has written,

A theatre is a living thing.
It is born, it breathes, it eats, it communicates.
It grows old
And like all things in our universe,
It eventually dies.*

To prove this point, here are three gorgeous theaters I recently encountered on the West Coast. Each is at a different stage in its march toward death, and each sits caught between faded past and hopeful future.

1. It was the “crossroads of the world,” and now it’s a hangout for the vagrants of San Francisco’s Tenderloin area. The “Key Klub” seems to decay before one’s very eyes — and that’s part of its haunting appeal. [Read more...]

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