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VOL. 126 | NO. 217 | Monday, November 7, 2011

Orpheum Looks South For Expansion Plans

By JONATHAN DEVIN

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The show must go on even if the stage isn’t big enough, but The Orpheum Theater hopes to change that very soon.

Executive director Pat Halloran has announced plans to buy a Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division parking lot adjacent to the historic theater as the site for its new Performing Arts and Leadership Academy.

“It’s my hope to have it completed in between 24 and 36 months,” Halloran said. “That’s when my tour of duty will probably come to an end at The Orpheum and I’d like to see it done in my tenure.”

Halloran made the announcement alongside MLGW president Jerry Collins at a “Memphis” the musical-themed gala at The Peabody hotel last month.

The three-story building will house The Orpheum’s education department, which annually serves 52,000 students ages 5 to 22 in 19 different programs, all of which have been running at or more than capacity for the last two years.

“Waiting lists have just become a way of life here,” said Alice Roberts, The Orpheum’s vice president of education and community programs, noting that an upcoming master class in January already has 900 people on the waiting list. “And this is normal.”

Students, she said, come from as far away as Corinth, Miss., and Wynne, Ark., to take classes.

Halloran expects the number of students who attend classes in the new building to rise to about 100,000.

“We kept it in the back of our minds, trying to think what we could do to divide the (existing) classes into more program segments,” he said. “We did that for a year and then we started to turn kids away. We couldn’t come up with space for some new classes we intended to put together.”

Currently classes for singing, acting and even dancing have to take place in The Orpheum’s grand lobby, which is carpeted, because no other space is available in the theater while performances are running on stage.

“It’s cool on one level because the lobby is beautiful, but when you’re dancing in the lobby and we’re accepting water deliveries and concessions and vending items are coming in the front door it’s a very interrupted space,” Roberts said.

Halloran said he hired a commercial real estate agent a year ago to begin looking at existing Downtown properties to renovate for the academy, but none were within easy walking distance of the theater, which would cause logistics issues with master classes featuring touring Broadway performers.

“We kept looking at this parking lot right next to the theater,” said Halloran, referring to the 106-space parking lot immediately to the south of The Orpheum.

The lot is owned by MLGW and leased to a management company. The Orpheum does not receive any funds from its use.

Halloran approached Collins with the idea of buying the lot and Collins found support with MLGW’s board of directors.

The land is being appraised for its value and Halloran enlisted the help of architect Tony Bologna, who was The Orpheum’s board chair during the 1983 renovation of the theater, to assess the space needs and uses for the new building. Both reports should be completed before the end of the year and then the project will be put out for bids.

The first floor of the academy will include a black box theater to seat about 450 and a rehearsal hall, both suitable to be used as event space in the evenings. There will also be a large kitchen for events, which Halloran said is sorely needed as The Orpheum has no kitchen.

The second floor will contain numerous small practice rooms and a complex of offices for the four members of the education department and a new phone center for the eight-member box office.

The third floor will remain purposefully empty for future growth. Leadership and citizenship components will also be built into the performing arts classes. A building manager will be hired and other staff will be hired as needs dictate.

MLGW has also pledged to help make the new building as energy efficient as possible, according to Halloran.

“Our ballpark figure, all-in, with the cost of the land and the construction and the sophisticated sound and lighting equipment is somewhere around $8.5 million,” said Halloran.

Fundraising has already begun with The Orpheum board designating $1 million from its endowment and contributing another $700,000 as individuals.

Halloran expects the bidding process to take four to five months and another 12 to 15 for construction.

“It’s my dream to conclude my 35 years here with this beautiful building,” Halloran said. “There’s no doubt that it’s going to happen and it’s going to be phenomenal.”

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