New Orleans, LA––Originally built in 1918 and opened for vaudeville in 1921, the 1500-seat RKO Orpheum was converted for use as a movie house soon after. Over the years, the Beaux Arts style theater has gone through several iterations before being shuttered by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The historic venue was purchased in February 2014 and underwent a $13 million, 18-month renovation to both restore and redevelop the theater into a multi-use facility. In September 2015, the theater reopened with a performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a homecoming for the ensemble, which was once based in the theater and had been on a 10-year odyssey around different venues in New Orleans since Katrina.
Significant improvements included an expanded marble-paved lobby, larger seats, eight new bathrooms, six permanent bars and an auditorium floor that can be raised when seating is removed for standing room concerts, parties, weddings, corporate group functions and catered affairs. In addition, the hall was equipped with a modern lighting array, large movie screen and a Martin Audio MLA loudspeaker system designed to reinforce live sound without adversely impacting the theater’s celebrated natural acoustics.
Asked about the main impetus behind the renovation, General Manager Kristin Shannon confirms, “When the owners bought the theater, the Orpheum had been vacant since prior to Katrina, and the intent was to make it into a multi-purpose facility that wouldn’t have to rely solely on concert performances, but also generate revenue streams in between those shows to sustain the theater going forward.
“To that end, we added a kitchen in the basement, which gives us the capability to cater a seated dinner of up to 275 guests on the theater floor,” Kristin continues. “We’ve also created additional space in the basement for entertaining, a smaller dining room space and skyboxes and suites in the top of the gallery to accommodate special groups and events.”
“We have a lot of beautiful spaces throughout the site because one of the inspirations was the architecture of the theater itself. The ornate plaster work, the beautiful lobby spaces and the mezzanine bar, to name a few. So we wanted to make those attractive in their own right.
“The auditorium floor works great, it takes about eleven minutes to raise and lower but a bit longer to take out the seats, which are large and comfortable. The owners also refabricated the existing shell frames to create a new acoustic shell, which worked out wonderfully looks beautiful and sounds amazing. That’s why the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra is returning to what once was their hall, it’s the final piece of the process.”
In addition to pure acoustics that have been compared to New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Orpheum is a prime example of vertical hall construction with steel beams that support the balcony and gallery levels without typical columns that block sightlines. The theater is very narrow and steep to accommodate what was originally a vaudeville theater with no audio system so audience members in the topmost seats could hear what was being said onstage.
According to Kristin, deciding what audio system to install was done in close collaboration with installer Don Drucker of Pyramid Audio Productions. “Don helped us make those decisions with the understanding that in an acoustically sound structure, installing an amplified audio system needed to be done with care and an understanding of all the types of events being held at the Orpheum.”
Detailing Pyramid’s role during the renovation, Don recounts, “we were very involved since the beginning of this project. This theater is a total gem that had been lost for many years, and to see it develop and come back to life has been amazing. It was known for having such great acoustics and that was the first subject that popped up when discussing the design and renovation.
“We looked at several manufacturers who submitted designs for the site, rated those designs, made necessary adjustments and then presented the better proposals to the client. Of all the submissions, Martin Audio required the fewest adjustments and that’s how we came to the decision. We also knew the system had to be of the highest sound quality, very controllable, aesthetically friendly and compatible to the space while the response and articulation had to cover every seat in the house. We didn’t want to upset the hall’s acoustics and felt Martin Audio MLA would have the best fit into the acoustic atmosphere of the theater.”
The sound system starts with 12 MLA Compact hangs per side with 4 DSX subwoofers ground-stacked near the stage which are used for certain rock bands. 30 DD6 dual differential dispersion speakers are deployed under the two sets of balconies and used as front fills at the front edge of the stage that are removed for dance events. Martin Audio C6.8T and C8.1T Ceiling Series speakers are mounted in the lobby areas and bathrooms to achieve a consistent sound throughout. Martin Audio is also used for stage monitoring and power.
Other system components include a Midas Pro 6 console for FOH and a Pro 2 for Monitors, Shure wireless microphones, Telefunken, Shure and Audio-Technica hand-held mics, Radial direct boxes, a Merlin processor, Lenntech for remote control of power and a BSS Blu system for additional midrange control in different areas of the house.
Asked to evaluate the MLA system’s performance, Kristin comments: “The Martin Audio system has been showcased in many different scenarios and has been amazingly strong. So from the opening party to Allen Toussaint’s funeral and concerts by Dwight Yoakam, Wilco and Billy Gibbons who performed with a Cuban percussion section, the system has sounded great. We believe we have the premier facility in the state of Louisiana and an important piece of that is how this building sounds for all of the performances. We’ve been continuously impressed and pleased with the Martin Audio system.
Echoing Kristin’s sentiments, Don adds, “We feel the MLA system has performed to the ultimate spec of what was originally presented to us. It’s fulfilled all of the particular needs of different types of acts in various events and the marketing of attendants in the theater. Obviously, you get different audiences for the Philharmonic, the rock bands, dance troupes and special presentations from a foreign country, and Martin Audio has shone in all of those areas.
“The theater has been set up to show major motion pictures in Surround Sound with different rear speakers installed by another company, and we can easily reconfigure the existing system for those films. In terms of the concerts, FOH Engineers for visiting bands have all used the Martin Audio MLA system and they love it. We haven’t had any issues whatsoever.”
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