From backstage to marquee, Paramount Theatre remakes itself

Theater opening symbol of Downtown Cedar Rapids' rebirth

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After the flood of water came the flood of red tape.

“I think the documentation on this project would be multiple feet high in terms of sheets of paper,” said Jim Hoffman of Cedar Rapids.

He's the chairman of the city-appointed stakeholder committee tasked with making “hundreds” of critical decisions for the reopening of the Paramount Theatre on everything from the number of seats to the color of paint.

He credits experts at OPN Architects and Ryan Companies with wading through the FEMA red tape, as well as Martinez & Johnson of Washington, D.C., historic theater architects who helped navigate the historic preservation approvals coming through the Department of the Interior and state pipelines.

“That was a huge piece, since federal and state historic tax credits are paying for a big, big chunk” of the renovations, Hoffman said.

Bradd Brown, the principal in charge of OPN’s renovation role, takes it all in stride.

“For a project that was as complex and had as many players as anything I’ve been involved in, knock on wood, it’s been a terrific project to be part of,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there weren’t surprises in a restoration like that, or hurdles along the way, but we just had a really great team of people.”

With crews working nearly around the clock — from the post-flood mucking to the final brush strokes — literally millions of hours and millions of dollars have been poured into the Paramount Theatre's comeback.

It's been a collaborative, Herculean effort involving the stakeholder/decision-makers, local architects, designers, contractors and laborers, as well as historic restoration artists. They've toiled on-site and in workshops from Reno, Nev., and Chicago for the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ's inner and outer components to St. Louis for spiffing up the chandeliers illuminating the Hall of Mirrors.

Among the pleasant surprises were original chandelier crystals made in the former Czechoslovakia, found in a forgotten crate stowed in the basement before the flood. A scrap of the original carpet, placed under a cable to protect a wood joist in the attic, was the key to finding historically accurate floor coverings.

It’s a treasure hunt no one dreamed of embarking upon, until the floodwaters of June 2008 receded, bringing workers in Hazmat suits to clean the 1928 building and “put it to sleep” while critical decisions were made and the red tape began unrolling.

After assembling a core team, the first order of business was determining the number of seats to put back, as floodwaters covered the main floor, ruining the upholstery. More comfortable seating consistently topped the wish list in patron polls before and after the flood.

On the gently sloping main floor, designers were able to add a couple inches in width and distance between rows, to add more leg room. The loge and balcony rows are tiered, so while leg room couldn’t be adjusted, seats are now wider in the loge and remain the same in the upper balconies.

The adjustments reduced the hall’s seating capacity from 1,930 to 1,700.

But that won’t affect the Paramount’s bottom line in a “significant in any way," said Robert Massey, chief executive officer of Orchestra Iowa.

“The important thing to know — the Paramount Theatre, at 1,700 seats, doesn’t lose any acts that it would have had at 1,900 seats. The real line in the sand comes when you’re about 2,200 to 2,400 seats, which the hall was never meant to (hold).

“There’s a sweet spot, there’s a natural spot in the hall with acoustics and feel for the crowd,” he said. “I think we’re right-sizing the hall. It’s a natural fit for the hall.

"There may be some big-name shows that sell out a little faster.”

A dry run with the symphony was slated for last night, to check out the acoustics and make any necessary adjustments before the Nov. 3 gala with Harry Connick Jr.

Among the upgrades are a new, wooden orchestra shell behind the performers and a height-adjustable panel in front of the stage, designed to reflect sound into the auditorium. Made of wood often used in violins, it’s similar to the shell at Prairie High School’s new auditorium and at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Perhaps an even bigger reverberation will be felt through the downtown district and beyond, as patrons seek dining options before shows, as well as other restaurants, nightclubs, bars and other entertainment afterward. Not to mention floral deliveries for friends and relatives appearing onstage, printing of programs and brochures, costumes, show workers needed backstage and out front — and myriad other ways a performing arts venue generates related business and builds a radiating core.

“We know that in order for us to be a top economic growth region, we have to really focus on and pay attention to a strong central business district,” said Dee Baird, president and CEO of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “Strong communities have thriving central business districts."

Many felt downtown Cedar Rapids was just hitting its stride before the Floods of 2008, she said.

“We had a lot of momentum — not only from the number of jobs and the quality of jobs, but also strong amenities — restaurants and cultural venues,” she said.

“It was a pretty devastating period when our largest business park in Cedar Rapids was devastated by a flood. The cultural gems, along with all the businesses that took the hit, put the community and the region in a really tough situation in terms of having that venue for all of those things to happen, with jobs and quality of life impacted so greatly,” she said.

“We’ve all been celebrating the small steps of forward progress. … Those of us working on a lot of these large projects, or supporting them or advancing them, saw the fact that the 2012 timeline was going to be a lot of cranes and a lot ribbon cutting. That will really be complete by 2013,” Baird added.

“In some ways, the beginning of this year is the time in which we really feel like we can see we’re back. The next 18 to 24 months is going to feel like we really are back, and better than before.”

Read more: Paramount’s grand reopening celebrates recovery from flood   

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