Friday, May 9, 2014

Historic neighborhood theater reopens

When Dr. Eugene Oppman walked into his optometry practice about a month after Hurricane Katrina had laid waste to his Orleans Avenue building, he knew he couldn’t rebuild the landmark structure — originally built as a movie theater — as a medical clinic.
“The neighborhood across the street was gone. There was no density in this neighborhood anymore,” Oppman said. “And I basically had been through enough.”
To determine the building’s future, he looked to the past.
Before it was the Carver Medical Clinic, the building was the Carver Theater.
Named after pioneering African-American scientist George Washington Carver, the theater opened in a segregated New Orleans in 1950 as a movie house for black New Orleanians. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The movies ended in 1980, and the building was converted into a medical clinic. The dentist, optometrist, pharmacist and general practitioners operating in the building primarily served residents of the Lafitte housing development across the street.
Oppman, an optometrist, began leasing space in the building in 1987. He purchased it in 1991.
“I had been in here with people being hurt and people being sick and people being in pain,” Oppman said. “And I said, ‘You know what? This place is going to be a fun place this time.’ ”
On Wednesday, he delivered.
The Carver Theater reopened to remembrances from long-ago patrons of a time when it cost them just nine cents to see a flick at the theater. The first movies shown in 1950 were “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and “Unknown Island,” preceded by Woody Woodpecker cartoons.
A brass band followed the onstage ribbon-cutting Wednesday with John Boutte’s “Treme Song,” the theme song for the HBO show named after the New Orleans neighborhood that the theater calls home.
Performances continued throughout the day, and the night closed with a showing of “Rocking the Opera House: Dr. John,” a documentary film about the New Orleans musician.
The $11 million renovation required gutting the entire building, which had a wood and sheetrock structure built within the masonry. The 16,000-square-foot theater is largely an open space. Chairs are not fixed in place. Besides a stage, there is little adornment in the auditorium.
Oppman said he doesn’t yet have regular programming planned for the theater, though he envisions it hosting jazz acts, stage plays, recitals, musicals and off-Broadway shows.
“We’re kind of in a transition right now,” he said. “But that’s where we’re going. We’re heading in that direction of regular programming.”
In the short term, the space will be filled through event rentals. Birthday parties, Carnival balls and holiday soirees are all welcome, he said.
“If somebody came in here today and said, ‘I want it for a wedding,’ I’d say, ‘Great,’ ” Oppman said.
The Carver joins a growing list of rejuvenated theaters in the city. The city-owned Mahalia Jackson Theater reopened in 2009, followed by the Joy Theatre in 2011. The Saenger and Civic theaters reopened last year. The Civic had been closed for decades, while the Saenger had not reopened since Katrina. The Orpheum was recently purchased and is due to again become the home of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra when it reopens next year.
Oppman said he intends to spearhead an effort to form a local theater association to support and advance the growing community.

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