In 1984, the addition of projection equipment at the Wheeler Opera House was a major point of contention.
Because of the size of the equipment, the booth encasing it required about a third of the space on the balcony. It was the 1880s clashing with the 1980s. And it resulted in what Gram Slaton, director of the theater, calls “the biggest, ugliest booth possible.”
“They managed — as far as I’m concerned — to totally compromise the look of a beautiful, historic theater,” he said.
Today’s renovation, Slaton said, will erase that compromise.
“We actually will return a lot of the integrity back to the original design of the theater,” Slaton said.
By swapping old projection equipment for a digital system, the kidney-shaped booth from the ’80s will be replaced with something a third of the size, allowing for more leg room on the balcony. It also will add three rows of premium seating.
Slaton said that where the kidney booth stands is “where everyone has always wanted to sit, but the pain of sitting there has kept people from making that their first choice.”
Seats will be removed to increase legroom, but the booth’s removal will allow additional seating. The theater actually will gain a seat, from 503 to 504, because a beam underneath the balcony also is being removed. Originally, four posts supported the balcony. A fifth was added during the 1960s to make the balcony more stable. Through modern engineering, they can stabilize the balcony without the fifth post, which gives enough room for one more seat on the floor. Acoustics, particularly under the balcony, will be greatly improved, Slaton said.
The ribbing of the balcony will be replaced with steel, and very slight adjustments will be made to the bow. But the shape and integrity of the balcony, Slaton said, will remain intact.
“When people come back, I’d be surprised if anyone notices any change to the actual theater other than the ability to sit in the balcony,” he said.
Before the projection equipment was added, there was bench seating. That was replaced in 1984 with individual bucket seats from the 1960s, which were replaced in 2006.
Today’s remodel, which Slaton said is 120 years overdue, is a much bigger, more expensive project, one that will cost $3 million and last three months.
The renovation, Slaton said, sets the theater up for the next 50 years.