Tuesday, August 31, 1999

Emery fix-up in the wings

Team works to bring 1911 gem into the 21st century

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Robert Howes, chairman of the theater operations committee, looks down from the Emery Theatre balcony.
(Enquirer file photo)
| ZOOM |
        A team of experts aims to bring the historic Emery Theatre into the 21st century.

        Three consultants — a theater expert, an acoustician and an organ consultant — are preparing recommendations for the remake of the Over-the-Rhine theater that the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski once compared to Carnegie Hall. Foremost will be preserving the fine acoustics and historic status while bringing the venue up to current standards.

        “It needs to be brought into the 20th and 21st century as far as accommodations for patrons and performers,” says theater consultant Steven Friedlander, vice president of Auerbach & Associates.

        His San Francisco and New York-based firm, which worked on the $88.5 million makeover of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, is joined in the Emery project by the renowned acoustical firm Kirkegaard & Associates of Chicago and organ expert David Weingartner of Dayton, Ohio.

        The cost of rehabbing the space will depend upon this team's recommendations to the theater operations committee, chaired by Robert Howes, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra violist.

        “We will evaluate them, then make a final recommendation to the Emery Center Board, as to what should be done,” Mr. Howes says.

        The tab is now estimated at $13 million to $15 million, says Stuart Fabe, executive director for the Emery Center Corp.

        “The hall has to meet the needs of opera, symphony, chamber, jazz, popular productions, shows — it's truly a multipurpose venue,” says acoustician Carl P. Giegold, associate senior consultant with Kirkegaard. “That introduces technical and acoustical challenges that we will consider carefully as we develop a design.”

        The challenge, Mr. Friedlander says, will be “to get all the technical equipment needed for theatrical and classical music performance into the box.”

        The team is looking at ways to increase the amount of open stage area and to improve the loading efficiency to the stage. A symphony or chamber music performance would need an acoustical shell, one that could be removed quickly to set up an opera performance the next day. Opera needs include improved backstage areas and an enlarged orchestra pit.

        They are also looking at ways to improve sight lines from the audience to the stage, and to provide the best listening experience from all seats. For example, the space directly under the balconies, traditionally an acoustically poor environment, may have to be altered. The consultants say they also will make suggestions about lobby space and stair access to the balconies.

        “We're not necessarily restricting ourselves to the current arrangement of seats,” Mr. Friedlander says.

        Kirkegaard, the acoustical consultant for Cincinnati's Aronoff Center and the recent renovation of Chicago's Orchestra Hall, has visited the Emery to analyze the sound. For instance, because good resonance is necessary for any hall presenting live music, Mr. Giegold measured the reverberation time by popping big red balloons.

        The acoustician's initial impression is that the listening experience could be “intimate” and “quite plush.”

        “If carried out successfully, there will be a sense of excitement, a sense of involvement and envelopment that the audience will feel,” he says.

        Another part of the mix will be determining how to accommodate the Emery's historic Wurlitzer pipe organ, which was saved from the old RKO Albee Theater. It is cared for by the Ohio Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society.

        The organ, now on a fixed platform, will be made movable, Mr. Weingartner says. It will be stored under the stage when not in use. The organ pipes, now housed in onstage chambers, will be moved the sides of the proscenium. @subhed:Only midsized theater @body:A critical part of the process will be “to see how the Emery fits into the performing arts landscape in Cincinnati,” Mr. Friedlander says. With proposed seating after the renovation at 1,700, the Emery would be the city's only midsized theater, filling a longstanding gap among performing venues.

        Several arts groups have expressed an interest in using the theater, including Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.

        In July, trustees at the University of Cincinnati, which owns the site, agreed to negotiate a lease with the supporters of the Emery Theatre, thus allowing the project to move forward. The plan includes conversion of the former College of Applied Science building next door to market-rate housing, expected to cost $9.6 million.

        The group has raised $2.23 million and will announce the public part of its capital campaign next month.

        The Emery Theatre, built in 1911, started as an auditorium for the Ohio Mechanics Institute, which later became the Ohio College of Applied Science. That college merged with the University of Cincinnati in 1969.

        For 24 years, it was the home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1912-36).

        Behind the crumbling plaster, peeling paint and disrepair “there is a beautiful hall and a wonderful listening experience that can be developed in this building,” Mr. Giegold says.

        Mr. Friedlander agrees. “I've been in a lot of theaters that have been closed down and fallen into disrepair. I'm always pleasantly surprised at how much can be done to bring them back,” he says.


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