During the newly refurbished Joy Theater’s Dec. 29 grand opening, Irma Thomas dedicated a cover of Etta James’ “At Last” to the contractors, owners and workers who toiled for months to remake the crumbling movie house into a live-entertainment venue. “When they nailed that last nail and put in that last chair,” Thomas said, “I’m sure they said, ‘At last!’”
And how. The “at last” moment arrived only minutes before show time, when the Joy’s dressing room was finally painted and stocked with furniture. Between a private, afternoon preview party and that night’s concert, Joy staffers also replaced tables and chairs on the theater’s ground level with rows of seats.
Opening night was an unqualified success. All 658 tickets — 405 removable chairs downstairs, plus 253 permanent seats in the balcony — were sold out in advance. Patrons marveled at the reborn theater, with its black, red and silver décor harkening back to the original, futuristic 1947 design.
Thomas, resplendent in a green Harold Clark evening gown with sparkling blue accents, delivered a typically radiant set of her classics. The sound system was first-rate, loud but clear. Video monitors flanking the stage were almost unnecessary, given the room’s intimacy.
But the Joy’s other two opening-weekend shows did not sell out. Sales for the Soul Rebels Brass Band and Cyril Neville’s Tribe 13 on Dec. 30 were especially soft.
Competing with holiday activities is never easy. “This time of year is a tough time to open,” acknowledged Bill Johnston, the Joy’s talent buyer.
The Joy’s identity is a work in progress. Over the coming months, Johnston and the venue’s four owners must suss out what works and what doesn’t.
Johnston’s decades-long entertainment industry resume includes co-founding legendary concert venue The Warehouse and long-ago management stints with the Neville Brothers and Gino Vannelli. He was set to open his own entertainment venue at 601 Tchoupitoulas St. before Hurricane Katrina scuttled those plans. He subsequently spent four years as the entertainment director at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino.
Johnston anticipates that private events — wedding receptions, dance recitals, touring theatrical productions, corporate parties, etc. — will fill the bulk of the schedule. “We’re getting calls from all around the country to rent the venue for a variety of uses,” he said.
Private events, in which the venue is rented for a set fee, are far less risky than concerts, which require a band be paid a guarantee regardless of ticket sales. Given the economic risks, the Joy “cannot be a place that just books concerts,” Johnston said. “There is no question that it should be a multi-use venue.”
Concerts will remain part of the mix. The Joy presents the “Joint’s Jumpin” New Orleans rhythm and blues revue Friday, Jan. 13; Cowboy Mouth on Saturday, Jan. 14; the Little River Band on Jan. 26; and Percy Sledge on Jan. 28.
That initial slate skews toward an older audience. The plan is eventually to cater to “all age groups, all genres of music,” Johnston said. Seats on the venue’s floor can be removed to accommodate a standing, general-admission audience. At least three promoters have inquired about presenting concerts at the Joy during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
How concerts are priced will partially determine whether they succeed. Tickets for Irma Thomas were $40, but her show was something of a novelty: It was the Joy’s opening night, and she rarely performs in sit-down settings. Her hometown appearances are mostly at festivals and special events. Fans jumped at the chance to see her in a theater.
The $35 ticket price for the Soul Rebels may have been too high, given that fans are accustomed to paying around $10 for the band’s frequent club shows. Tickets for New Year’s Eve with Kermit Ruffins and Big Sam’s Funky Nation started at $75, but included an open bar.
Looking ahead, Cowboy Mouth is $35 and Sledge is $45. The Little River Band is $70. Essentially Australia’s answer to the Eagles, the Little River Band scored its biggest hits — “Lonesome Loser,” “The Night Owls,” “Lady,” “Take it Easy on Me” — in the late 1970s. Most dates on the band’s calendar are at casinos. Sledge, best known for “When a Man Loves a Woman,” is also a casino-circuit veteran.
“These (shows) were available immediately for us to try, so let’s take a shot and see what’s going to work,” Johnston said. “It’s an experiment to see what we can do. I’m going to reach out to everybody and anybody and see what’s out there.”
The Joy probably will welcome several acts Johnston booked at Harrah’s, including the female impersonator revue “Glitz,” which performed at the Joy on Jan. 7. He initially developed the “Joint’s Jumpin” revue, which features Luther Kent and other vocalists, for his planned Tchoupitoulas Street venue. Instead, he staged it at Harrah’s, and now the Joy.
Later this spring, Johnston plans to roll out a tribute to the music of The Warehouse. He has produced a similarly themed CD featuring local guitarists Cranston Clements and Jimmy Robinson.
Down the road, “we may develop one or two other house shows,” he said.
He’s confident that, given the merits of the venue, the Joy will find its place in the local entertainment firmament.
“No one knows what the true identity will be six or eight months from now. It’s going to be interesting to see how people react. Everybody so far has enjoyed the experience.”
Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at kspera@timespicayune or 504.826.3470. Comment and read more at nola.com/music.
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