Jewel of Treme ready to take center stage in community
8th May 2014 · 0 Comments
By Kelly Parker
Before New Orleans native Phyllis Montana- LeBlanc was featured in the (HBO’s) “When the Levees Broke” or the series “Tremé,” many of her first movie memories took place at the Carver Theater.
“My sisters, friends and neighborhood kids started going to the Carver Theater when I was about eight years old up to about 12 or 13 (yrs. old),” she recalls. “My mom would take us there, until we were able to go on our own; always on Saturdays or Sundays. I think the best for me was when we were able to go on our own with our friends; giggling at the boys who looked at us and even, perhaps a quick kiss. Holding hands with a ‘boyfriend’ pretty much made the event of watching a movie a fun time in our lives-pure innocence.”
The Carver will open its doors to past patrons and likely a new generation; for the first time since 2005 in honor of International Jazz Day to celebrate 16 years of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. The public is invited to the Carver Theater’s official ribbon-cutting ceremony and International Jazz Day celebration at 2101 Orleans Ave. on April 30, beginning at 10:30 am.
“I am so excited we finally get a chance to draw the curtains with our first performance,” said Dr. Eugene Oppman, owner of the Carver Theater.
Dino Marshall, the theater’s general manager, said the importance of the moment cannot be underestimated. “The Carver is a real part of New Orleans history. Not like the forced festivals or world famous brass bands that are only one year old. On our opening night is a panel consisting of Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Vernel Bagneris and others will speak live about the importance of the Carver Theater and its little-known history. Those who made history, know history and will speak it on April 30. This panel follows a Smithsonian film, ‘Rockin’ the Opera House’ starring Dr John, John Cleary, Allen Toussaint. The director of that film will also be on hand.”
Local African-American historians are ecstatic, Marshall explained: “The Carver Theater is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places as having ‘exceptional significance’ because its construction in 1950, as a watershed in the development of first-rate, state-of-the-art theaters for Blacks in New Orleans.”
The Carver closed as a movie theater back in 1980 and shortly thereafter became a housing office operation and a medical clinic. Having sustained damage from six feet of water during hurricane Katrina, the medical clinic was permanently closed. Fortunately, building modification for the clinic was wood frame and drywall, confined to the interior and was able to be removed completely. The exterior architectural details have been preserved, including the display windows which once held grandiose movie posters with images of the stars of that time.
“In its heyday, the Carver Theater was a magnificent building serving a cultural function of bringing the African-American community together,” Marshall said. “Irma Thomas was discovered here. Dr John remembers learning music from the great Afro-American artists who would come from the big downtown shows and jam here. Vernel Bagneris has written a play about this very subject which we hope to bring to life later this year.”
“It has been a long process,” Oppman says, “but one in which we wanted to present a first-class facility that would compare favorably to any other live entertainment venue in the area. We brought in some of the best construction engineers and designers who specialize in theater construction projects to guide our path, along with individuals who understood complex financing in urban communities. I believe that we have achieved our goal of delivering nothing but the best and what better time than to re-open on International Jazz Day.”
Along with the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a screening of the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary by Lawrence Cumbo, “Rockin’ the Opera House: Dr. John” takes place and will include a celebrity panel discussion about the Carver Theater featuring Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Vernel Bagneris, James Andrews and Clarke Peters.
The International Jazz Day at the Carver Theater mid-day concert takes place in partnership with the Kidd Jordan Institute of Jazz, 504 Magazine, Cutting Edge CE, New Orleans Musicians Clinic and WWOZ 90.7 FM.
The full day celebrates the re-opening of the Carver Theater’s $8 million restoration of (what was during the 1950s) hailed as “America’s finest theater exclusively for colored patrons.” The venue, known for its signature bright red marquee, has been re-designed as a live performance entertainment venue primarily focusing on jazz, musicals, stage plays, recitals, and off-Broadway shows. The fully renovated 16,000-square-foot theater, seats 500 guests and over 800 (standing) performances and special events. It also features new state-of-the-art lighting and the Meyer Sound system; an extraordinary breakthrough in sound technology which provides an optimal acoustical experience.
This technology also allows the Carver to serve as a prime venue for live audio and video recordings by the music, film, and entertainment industry. The theater will also serve as an excellent location for music conferences, film festivals and screenings, and other arts related events.
International Jazz Day at the Carver Theater organizer Vincent Sylvain who played a major role in cultivating the concept and overseeing the construction states, “This project offers so many possibilities, while primarily a music venue, it should serve to help spur economic development in this underserved community as well as restore pride to this once vibrant corridor in the historic Tremé neighborhood. This ‘exclusively Negro’ theater from the Jim Crow era played an important role in providing a place where human dignity was the order of the day in the lives of Black folks attending this facility for entertainment and social events.”
“The Carver will provide a space for so many in the performing arts to commercially display that talent; that is something that has long been lacking in our community. The ability to do live recording and streaming is what will set us apart from other venues,” music consultant Eric Cager adds.
Built in 1950 and recognized on the National Register of Historical Places, the Carver Theater carries important historical significance as one of the first state-of-the-art theater for Blacks in New Orleans. Noted historian Rene Brunet remarked that the Carver was the “best ‘colored’ theater in New Orleans and perhaps the entire South … as good as or better than any white Theater in town.”
Stella Chase Reese, daughter of Edgar “Dooky” and Leah Chase agrees.
“That was the theater,” she says. You didn’t have to worry about sitting upstairs (as) the other races were sitting downstairs. We walked right in through the front door and sat downstairs. We are truly excited about the Carver Theater reopening.”
Reese believes the sense of community the Carver can bring is just as important as the venue playing catalyst from a business standpoint.
“It means a lot to us; this (neighborhood) is home,” she adds. “It brings back so many memories. When we were growing up, my father would take us on Tuesday evening to the Carver; that was our family theater night.”
For ticket information on opening and upcoming events, visit www.carvertheater.org.
Christopher Tidmore contributed to this story.
This article originally published in the April 28, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.