Interviews and images: OKC's Civic Center Music Hall to undergo major renovations
A version of this story appears in Thursday's The Oklahoman and was co-written with Steve Lackmeyer.
Taking the stage
Civic Center's historic Freede Little Theatre to get full remodel
Donald Jordan was directing Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre's 2007 production of "Moonlight and Magnolias" when the ceiling caved in - literally.
"We had heavy rainstorms and we came in for the Sunday matinee, and a whole hunk of the ceiling had fallen on the light board in the balcony. Fortunately - because I worry - we always covered everything every night in plastic. But we had to uncover everything and get the water off of everything and dry off the board. We started the performance 45 minutes late, and we weren't sure when we started it if the light board was going to have the cues in it or if we'd have to actually just bring all the lights up ... and do the stage play like that," recalled Jordan, the founding artistic director of the professional theater known as CityRep.
"I had to go out and make a speech to the audience and explain to them what happened: 'The ceiling actually fell in on us and we're fixing the light board. So, everybody talk amongst yourselves; go and get another drink.'"
Over the past 20 years, no one has produced more shows in the Civic Center Music Hall's historic Freede Little Theatre than Jordan and his CityRep team. At about 285 seats, it is the Civic Center's mid-sized house, between the almost 2,500-seat main stage, the Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Center Theatre, and the 90-seat black box basement house, CitySpace Theatre.
"It's architecturally lovely. It's a real cross between the Art Deco of the '20s with repeated lines and the rounded lines of the '30s and Art Moderne with the kind of sea scallops," Jordan said. "But 1937 was a very long time ago ... There's a lot of very temporary solutions we've used in there that have been temporary for 20 years."
Originally envisioned as part of the original 1993 Metropolitan Area Projects but ultimately left out, the Freede Little Theatre's time has finally come. The historic house, along with the Civic Center's main lobby, is due to be renovated in the coming year with $9.4 million in bond funding approved by Oklahoma City voters in 2017.
The project is set to be presented Thursday to the Downtown Design Review Committee, which is overseen by the city's planning department and is tasked with deciding whether new construction and facade renovations are appropriate for downtown. The Civic Center also is a historic building, which opened in 1937 as the Municipal Auditorium.
Barring any unforeseen snags, final plans are slated to be approved in early 2021, with construction to start around summer. Completion is anticipated in fall 2022.
"Construction is probably going to be every bit of 18 months to two years," said Elizabeth Gray, executive director of the Civic Center Foundation, which operates the city-owned building.
"The Freede, that's going to be pretty close to a complete gut. ... But when I say 'main lobby,' that means basically everything that you see when you walk into the building: the main lobby, which is the terrazzo floor area, the atrium lobby, which is kind of where the red carpet starts, north and south lobbies on that same level, and kind of all those common areas in between."
Creating a better traffic flow, providing better food and beverage options and making the building more secure are among the goals of the lobby renovation.
"The overall patron flow of the main lobby in the atrium area is really discombobulated," Gray said, that the main theater will continue to host shows during the lobby revamp.
"Patrons end up just packing and packing into that atrium area, and then once you're in there, you've got about 14 conflicting lines. You've got a merch line going one way, you've got about three different concession lines intersecting, you've got that upper orchestra staircase line that forms, you've got a line forming for photo opportunities coming off the elevator area. It's just all over the place, and there's restroom lines bisecting all of those. So, it's just a really complicated highway of people."
The concession area will be shifted and more than double its points of service, the coffee shop will be replaced with an often-requested family restroom, and the current conference room will be replaced with a commercial kitchen.
"We're going to be able to serve fresher food options: Charcuterie boards, paninis, salads, just a little more higher level of food services vs. the movie theater candy and chips that we currently do," Gray said. "It is important for us to have the coffee service available going forward at all the food and beverage locations so you don't have to specifically go to the quote-unquote coffee shop to get your latte and then you have to stand in a separate line to get your glass of wine."
The large round will call pod in the lobby will be demolished and the box office moved to the northeast corner.
"We actually won't have to unlock the entire building to service patrons that want to walk up and buy a ticket. They'll be able to be serviced in between the very exterior doors and the interior wooden set of doors. So, that helps because we have a significant security flaw right now in the current operations because once you get into that main lobby ... you can just wander the building," Gray said.
A new security screening system, meanwhile, will change how people access the building with entry points being reduced to just one set of doors to the atrium.
“It’s an advanced screening like they have at Frontier City,” said John Semtner, architect and principal with FSB. “They can do 2,000 people an hour with no more waving a wand on everyone who walks through the door.”
When he walked through the Freede Little Theatre for the first time, had to wear a hard hat and there were bulldozers in the building. But in the Freede, there was just plastic covering the seats.
The multi-year renovation of the Civic Center - which started in December 1998 and was finished in September 2001 - was part of the original MAPs and orginally was supposed to include the Freede. It wasn't included on future MAPS ballots, and no funding for the renovation ever became available.
"The MAPS 1 budget for the project in total ran over, so that particular scope of the project had to be cut, which was really disheartening, I think, to all back then," Gray said. "So, it's finally happening, which we're super proud of because we always wanted to make that happen just to honor, obviously, the historical nature of the theater but also the promises made back in the day."
Originally known as the Little Theatre, the theater housed the production facilities for Oklahoma's first television station, WKY-TV, back in the 1940s. It was renamed in the 1990s in honor of donor Jose Freede.
Freede died earlier this month at age 93, so she won't get to see it finally renovated, which Gray called "a very unfortunate sequence of timing."
"We're going to keep the acoustical integrity of the theater as much as possible because that's actually one thing that is designed really well currently. But it needs all-new seating, it needs a different seating layout, it needs alterations made to the stage and the proscenium, the fly system, the electrical conduit, the electrical wiring, the lighting, the structure of it. You name it, it's all pretty outdated," Gray said.
A two-story expanse Couch Drive will provide the Freede Little Theatre its own independent entrance, box office and additional dressing rooms.
"We are recapturing the balcony seating, which is going to be really exciting. As long as I can remember - I think at least for the past 20, 30 years - the balcony has not been sat," Gray said.
While the Freede is home to CityRep as well as Painted Sky Opera Company, she said she believes even more groups will be able to use it once it's renovated.
"We want to get alternative dance in there, modern dance, jazz, speakers series. We have talked to the other large resident groups, and they are all interested in doing some VIP performances in there given the new design that they've seen. I think it will just be a lot more versatile, and it'll be a really great capacity for a wide variety of events," she said.
After putting on more than 50 plays, musicals and concerts in the space in the past 19 years, Jordan said he is excited to see the long-awaited revamp finally happen.
"I thought they were going to do this in the first year or two that we produced. As theater has evolved and theater technology, every year of producing in the Freede became harder because the technology that was expired when we started 20 years ago was expired plus 20 years of further use. Everything just has a useful life and (almost) none of it was modernized or renovated," he said.
"It's very intimate and it does really have lovely acoustics ... but the fly system is still a sandbag system. ... It's like riding a horse to work every day. It's technology from 100 years ago."