As the legend goes, the offbeat composer Peter Schickele, during his residencies in Aspen in the 1960s, would do flips off the balcony of the Wheeler Opera House. (This would not be the oddest thing Schickele would do here; he also spent his time crafting his even more offbeat alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach.)
Visitors to the Wheeler balcony these days might be similarly inclined to leap in the air (though actually jumping off is not encouraged). The latest renovation of the 1880s-era theater focused on the balcony and its legendarily cramped seating. When the Wheeler reopens with tonight’s concert by Burt Bacharach, those sitting upstairs will see a dramatic increase in legroom.
“Anyone over 4 feet tall will be much more comfortable in their seats,” said Gram Slaton, the Wheeler’s executive director.
Doing flips off the balcony also will become more difficult. The safety-upgrade portion of the renovation included the installation of railings at the bottom of the aisles and a flattening-out of the aisles so they were not so steep.
The balcony now features three rows of premium seats — “the best view of the stage, the best sound, the most comfort,” Slaton said — and a digital cinema projection system. Because the new projection booth is smaller than the old one, which accommodated film, there was no loss in the number of seats.
Additional upgrades include an expansion of the women’s bathroom facilities, decorative lighting and an upgrade of the sound technology.
The project cost between $2.3 million and $2.5 million, according to Slaton, which he noted was significantly under budget. The renovation, which closed the Wheeler, was completed in 110 days.
Slaton said another smaller renovation, focused on restrooms, backstage rooms and the box-office lobby, has been proposed for 2015. That would follow an extensive renovation of the building, including the downstairs offices, in 2011.
“But we’re running out of ways to improve the place short of expanding into the Wheeler parcel next door,” Slaton said.