The newly renovated Joy Theater is once again a cultural hot spot. // © 2012 Michael Palumbo
Opera, vaudeville and, later, movie theaters were a vital part of New Orleans’ cultural scene for decades. Many of these grand entertainment venues fronted Canal Street and surrounding areas, comprising what many people now refer to as the city’s Theater District.
Unfortunately, many of those old theaters experienced excessive damage during Hurricane Katrina, and getting them operational again has been expensive and time-consuming.
The first to make a comeback was the Joy Theater at 1200 Canal Street, which originally opened in 1947 as The Universal House, a studio distribution theater.
“That’s why you find these theater districts so close together,” said Sandie McNamara, spokesperson for the Joy. “The theaters were really studio distribution points.”
The Joy Theater was shuttered in 2004 when urban movie theaters stole its downtown audience. Katrina later blew off its roof, resulting in interior water damage. Last year, a group of four local businessmen purchased the property and not only renovated the space, but reconfigured it for a variety of uses. The new Joy Theater, brightly painted with a vibrant new neon sign, opened at the very end of last year.
“It’s definitely more varied now,” McNamara said. “They made the building very flexible.”
The 10,000-square-foot venue hosts public concerts, lectures, film screenings and church services, as well as private functions. Former President Bill Clinton spoke to graduates of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans there, and the film premiere of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was also held at the Joy.
For private events, the newly configured theater features a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, a built-in stage, on-site dressing rooms and more. Balcony seating has been retained and offers 250 permanent seats. The entire venue is able to accommodate 900 guests.
Across Canal Street, the larger Saenger Theatre continues its $51 million restoration. The Saenger opened in the 1920s, offering a Mighty Morgan organ, an orchestra pit and, as many New Orleans residents remember, a dreamy, starlit ceiling. The Saenger spent most of its years as a movie theater but, recently, it hosted a program of traveling New York shows called Broadway Across America until Hurricane Katrina flooded the building.
The Saenger’s restoration is more involved because it’s owned by the city, McNamara explained. Plus the newly restored building will be enlarged in the back, enveloping a city street to accommodate a larger stage, fly space and back-of-the-house dressing rooms. Concession areas and bars will be upgraded, and all of the mechanical features will be replaced.
The theater is expected to be finished by June 2013. Like the Joy, it will be open for a variety of uses, including traveling Broadway shows, concerts, lectures and community events.