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Orpheum Theatre’s $30 million campaign aims for full, modern renovation

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, at 9:17 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 21, 2014, at 6:59 a.m.

The Orpheum Theatre has launched a $30 million campaign to renovate the historic facility and turn it into a modern-day performing arts center.

The campaign is based on a feasibility study by Webb Management Services of New York, which found that the 1,200-seat theater built in 1922 in downtown Wichita plays a significant and unique role in the community and can help support the performing arts in Wichita.

Architects have created a master plan calling for a six-phase project that would restore, renovate and expand the Orpheum, including an addition on the north side of the theater. The existing historic entrance and marquee on the northeast corner of First Street and Broadway would be retained.

Work would begin in 2016 and be completed by 2017, said Jennifer Wright, the Orpheum’s president.

“It’s pretty ambitious, we acknowledge that,” she said, “but we think the end result will truly be a tremendous benefit for everyone in the community.”

The first phase – a $500,000 project to repair plaster and painting and add new lighting, carpet and wood trim in the back of the lobby – could be done without closing the theater, but future phases would require it to close for up to a year, Wright said.

The second phase would include buying the office building adjoining the theater to expand the lobby, while a $4.5 million third phase would include the renovation of the interior into a new lobby with concessions, a bar and additional restrooms.

The fourth phase, costing $9 million, would completely gut the theater to re-slope the floor, which is steep and difficult for wheelchair users, Wright said. The auditorium floor and seating, as well as balcony seating, would be replaced in this phase. Work also would be done on the second-floor lobby and balcony ceiling, as well as wall plaster and painting in the auditorium. The orchestra pit would be expanded, and a new audio/visual system, lighting, wood trim and carpeting would be installed.

Work during this phase could close the theater from eight months to a year, Wright said.

A fifth phase, costing $2.4 million, would upgrade the stage floor, rigging, cables, fire curtain and draperies.

A final $15 million phase on the north side would expand the stage space, and add storage and office space, dressing rooms, stair towers, elevators, a new lobby, a loading dock and a small 200-seat studio theater for rehearsals, private parties, VIP events and other uses.

“It would really open up a whole new world of what we could do,” Wright said.

The theater would retain its 1922 look while evolving into a modern performing arts center, she said.

“The restoration is first and foremost,” Wright said, “but we have a grand vision for this theater.”

The theater’s board decided to pursue the project about 2 1/2 years ago, Wright said. The feasibility study was completed in April. When that was done, the Orpheum began negotiations with the management company SMG to book its shows. SMG, the same Philadelphia-based company that manages Intrust Bank Arena for Sedgwick County, has been working with the Orpheum since September.

Wright said that now was the time to announce the renovation because the public and the city of Wichita are assessing the needs of the performing arts in Wichita as part of discussions about Century II. The Orpheum’s plans also support and further the city’s downtown master plan, she said.

“Obviously, the Orpheum will never replace the needs and what goes on at Century II. But it should be viewed as a supplement and an additional space that is extremely viable,” Wright said.

John D’Angelo, the city’s Century II manager, said he is excited about the Orpheum’s renovation plans. The two downtown venues have different demographics and would have different types of performances, he said, so he doesn’t see the Orpheum as a competitor. Century II seats about 2,200 in Concert Hall.

“I just see it has having another venue for the performing arts, which is a great place,” D’Angelo said. “I’m sure there will always be a certain level of competitiveness between us and any performance hall, but we don’t look at them as competitors. We look at them as another choice in the market.”

The feasibility study by Webb Management Services found that construction work on the Orpheum would have a one-time economic impact of $55 million in new sales. There would be ongoing annual impacts from new operations and audience spending in the county of $3.7 million in sales, $1.1 million in earnings, and 36 new jobs, the study found.

The study also recommended that the Orpheum make space for other arts groups and further develop its arts education programming and curriculum.

The education component would help fill a need in the community because arts education funding in the public schools has been cut dramatically, Wright said. It also would help sustain the theater, because there is a significant amount of arts education funding available, she said.

“There are lots of companies and individuals that would like to financially support arts education, and if it’s benefiting children in our community, it’s a win-win,” Wright said.

A survey by Webb Management Services found that 91 percent of Orpheum customers supported renovating the theater, and 55 percent said they would contribute to the project financially. The survey gathered more than 700 responses.

Wright said the Orpheum has started building a coalition to raise money for the project. It hopes to raise it all privately, but is open to approaching the city and county, she said.

The Orpheum last year hosted 115 events. Wright said the renovation could increase that number to more than 200.

“I would like to see this theater busy all the time, a constant hub of activity day and night, and that’s what it can be,” she said.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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