Manufacturing delays mean you’ll have to wait until November to see the new carpets ― and their new colors ― in the Morris Performing Arts Center.
But this week, as the theater reopens after three months of renovations, you’ll sit in slightly wider seats, now with cupholders. It’s an upgrade from seats that had been there since 2000 and, in some cases, since the 1960s.
“We want the theater to feel like the day it opened,” Aaron Perri, executive director of South Bend’s Venues, Parks and Arts, said.
These are some of the most visible upgrades to the 100-year-old Morris in Phase I of the Morris 100 Campaign, also known as "The Neverending Encore." There’s more to come. The façade would expand, growing the lobby, event space and parking. The front plaza would be revamped. Fundraising is rolling along to stoke these projects in a total $30 million campaign, which includes dollars for more access and equity in the arts and an endowment for maintenance.
It follows from the basic facelift that the Morris gained when Ella L. Morris bought and saved the former Palace Theater from demolition in 1959, giving it to the city, as well as the much deeper renovations when the city closed the Morris from 1998 to 2000.
From cupholders to greater diversity:A parking garage and new seats planned for Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend
As it reopens this week, you may perch on bistro furniture at the far back of the first floor, once the worst views in the house, now on three elevated platforms with food and beverage service. They have room for up to 40 people, Perri said.
Overall, the roominess caused total seating to drop to 2,410, down from 2,564. But, Perri said, “that doesn’t take us out of the running for any shows.” And he noted that the theater typically reaches sell-out capacity just two to three times a year.
The Italian Renaissance ornamental plaster work on the walls and ceilings remains the same, though chips and scrapes have been repaired, all of it along lower areas.
Restoration painter Karen Kagarise said she tried to match the paint as it now exists, having faded a bit since about 100 different colors were restored 22 years ago.
As you step through the front doors, metal-detecting pillars will automatically scan you and your goods ― able to differentiate weapons from keys and phones ― without the slowdown of security lines.
Thousands of bulbs have been replaced inside and outside to create an all-LED lighting. Perri said that has meant six months of studies and testing to get just the right warmth and tone of light. Some ballasts had to be replaced to accept the new LED bulbs, and at least a few fixtures were still flickering a few weeks ago as contractors kept tweaking them.
Outside, new upcast lights illuminate the front windows.
Until now, carpets, drapes and seats had all been maroon. But that color palate is changing.
When the city did the last major renovations in 2000, it consulted members of the public, including Tribune readers, to match the original interior designs, according to Denise Zigler, who retired as the Morris’s director of booking and events in 2018. Back then, the city found a woman who could recall and describe the burgundy floral patterns in the original carpeting.
Now, Perri said, new custom-made carpets will come in varying shades of blue, based on where it appears in the Morris, with abstract patterns and chunks of maroon, like what you’d see in a hotel.
The carpet manufacturer is running almost two months behind. Perri said that's a disappointment because this weekend marks the opening celebrations, but it won’t stop any shows.
Likewise, the new seats are all dark blue. And many of the drapes are navy blue ― the only exception to that are the stage curtains, keeping the traditional maroon, as well as drapes on the front windows. For both, that matches a Tribune story in 1922 that described the building as it opened, with stage and window curtains that were “handsome crimson velour with heavy gold fringe.”
“We think navy was a predominant color,” Perri said of the city’s current research, adding that officials wanted the improvements to be noticeable.
“We wanted the theater to have an upgraded look but respect the historical character,” he said.
What isn’t so obvious, perhaps, is the dark gray concrete beneath the first floor’s seating, replacing the original 100-year-old brownish concrete that had deteriorated. Your feet only touch it beneath the seating areas once the carpet is down, not in the aisles.
Since the balcony’s concrete was in good enough condition to keep, Perri said, it was simply painted gray.
And there’s a new roof ― an energy-saving white color rather than the black one installed 22 years ago, he said ― along with new heating and air conditioning systems and plumbing.
Out of the $8.5 million project, $7 million is consumed in lighting and mechanicals, he said.
Public-private partnership:Morris Performing Arts Center receives $1 million donation as 100th anniversary approaches
One part of Phase I will have to wait until funding allows: a new box office. Bids came in too high, Perri said. The new box office would have four ticket windows on the building’s exterior and one inside, situated near the administration offices. This would eliminate people coming into the building without a security check, he said.
The current box office would be cleared out to offer more lobby space.
It doesn’t surprise Zigler that the Morris needs more work now. Even after the major renovations 22 years ago that included new seats, a roof and mechanicals, she said, concrete was deteriorating below the seating. She’d seen the Morris before and afterward, while she volunteered as an usher in her teens and, later, while she worked there from 1996 to 2018, starting as event coordinator.
Among other things, the renovations that closed the Morris from 1998 to 2000 made the stage 1.5 times deeper and 25% taller. Before then, she said, “‘The Lion King’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ ― none of those could have fit on the old stage. Everything (in shows) got bigger and better.”
That equated to shows with bigger and longer runs. It also grew the attendance, consistently putting the Morris in the Pollstar Top 100 list of theaters of its size, based on their ticket sales.
Before 1998, the theater’s interior had all been painted gray.
“We used to joke," Zigler said, "they had a sale on battleship gray.”
So the city hired an architect to study the colors of paint underneath. Artists then went to work recreating the artful patterns on the ornamental plaster work. Zigler said it was fun to watch painters restore, for example, the marble pattern on parts of the railing in the second-floor lobby.
Phase II of the Morris 100 projects, which city officials hope to begin in 2023, would add a nearly four-story building between the Morris and the LaSalle Hotel, turning a parking lot into an extension of the Morris with more lobby space and multiple uses, fronting a parking garage for 300 to 350 cars. It would be named the Raclin Murphy Encore Center, thanks to a leading $5 million gift from the local family.
The current lobby would open up to the new lobby, where all of the concessions and much larger restrooms would be located to save patrons time at intermission. There also would be gender-neutral bathrooms, a lactation room and a sensory deprivation room for those who get overstimulated because of conditions such as autism.
Curiously, when the theater was built in 1922, it had a play room with toys and sand piles where mothers could leave their children under the care of a “competent nurse,” according to Tribune archives. Also, “retiring rooms for women” were off of the main lobby and mezzanine level with “competent maids.”
The new lobby could also be used for small performances or events. It would have an airy second floor with a small balcony.
A bar and classroom space is in the works for the basement level.
Phase III would totally remake the Jon Hunt Plaza. New fountains would flank an improved space for outdoor performances. Better than today, Perri said, they'd line up with the doors to the Morris, all dressed up for a new century.
Contact staff writer Joseph Dits at 574-235-6158 or email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend sees major renovations