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East High auditorium renovation provides comfy, soft, quiet seats

The East High Concert band performs their  Holiday Concert in the new refurbished concert hall Thursday. New chairs and woodwork on the ceiling were just two of the renovations that really improved the looks of the new auditorium. (Dec. 2, 2010)
The East High Concert band performs their Holiday Concert in the new refurbished concert hall Thursday. New chairs and woodwork on the ceiling were just two of the renovations that really improved the looks of the new auditorium. (Dec. 2, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

At the start of a recent concert at East High School, band director Dana Hamant directed the crowd to stand.

Then he asked them to sit again. And to listen.

"It was completely quiet," said East High principal Ken Thiessen. "None of the squeaking or slamming.... It's wonderful."

East High's newly renovated auditorium — one of the most long-awaited projects of 2008's $370 million bond issue — is just about complete, just in time for the holiday concert season.

The most noticeable change is row upon row of cushioned, comfortable, quiet new seats — about 1,050 in all — in fitting and fashionable Blue Aces blue. The new seats are wider and set farther apart to provide more leg room and more room in the aisles, allowing the auditorium to be handicapped-accessible.

On the stage is another new addition: a Kawai grand piano donated by Donna Arnold in honor of her late husband, Bob, who died last year. Bob Arnold, a 1948 East High graduate who went on to become a lawyer and school board president, used to play piano on the East High stage.

Donna Arnold plans to attend a vocal concert at the school Monday. When she hears the piano, she said, "I'll just feel a lot of love and happiness, because I loved Bob, and this will bring happiness to others.

"This is a gift to me, too, and I'm so pleased."

Much of East High's $8.1 million share of the bond issue will fund a new fine-arts suite and renovations to the auditorium. Fine-arts supporters said they're happy to finally see their dream of an updated and comfortable auditorium realized.

"It's beautiful. It's fantastic," said Amy Menas, president of East High Friends of Performing Arts, which supports band, orchestra, vocal music and theater programs at the city's oldest high school.

The booster club sold many of the old wooden auditorium seats — which had been bolted to the floor since 1923 — to raise money for fine-arts programs. People from as far away as Oregon and Washington sent proxies to buy seats for them at the sale in May. The club raised more than $12,000.

"We're saving that, because with the bond work and the new auditorium, there will be things we need that aren't covered," Menas said.

The group still has several chairs available, which it is selling in sets of two for $50. Others who want a piece of the historic auditorium but don't have the room or inclination to bolt chairs to their floor can buy pieces of wood taken from the old arm rests for $10 each.

Thiessen, the principal, had one engraved with his name and a picture of the East High tower, and uses it as a desk plate.

"We know there are lots of East High grads out there who might say, 'Yeah, I'd like that little piece of history,' " Thiessen said. "And it's a great way to support the school."

He said anyone interested in seeing the renovations can attend one of two upcoming concerts — a concert choir concert Monday and an orchestra performance Dec. 13.

"We would welcome the entire community to come," he said. "The seats feel very nice, very comfortable. The space and the room make for a very nice experience of enjoying a concert."

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