Exciting things are happening at 651 Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada, where the former New Yorker Theatre has been gutted, rebuilt, and renamed the Panasonic Theatre. Even more exciting is that the new theatre has been created expressly for Blue Man Group, who will bring their zany antics to Toronto in June, settling in for an open-ended run. Funding for the project came from Clear Channel Entertainment (a reported $15 million Canadian) and Panasonic Canada, who contributed handsomely for the naming rights. A high-tech lobby will be equipped with over a quarter of a million dollars in state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment from Panasonic, including its latest 65" high-definition plasma TV.
Built in 1911, the building was originally a private residence, then converted to a movie theatre, the Embassy, in 1934. It has also been called the Astor, the Festival, and the Showcase in its various incarnations as a movie house. In 1993, it became The New Yorker and was used as a legit theatre. The design team for the transformation to the Panasonic Theatre includes architect Gary Martinez of Washington DC's Martinez and Johnson, Michael DiBlasi of Schuler Shook theatre consultants in Minneapolis, acoustician Russ Todd of Akustiks in Norwalk, CT, and Toronto-based architects Young + Wright. The theatre is currently under construction (Vanbots Construction is heading up the building team).
“We were trying to achieve a high-tech look that responds to the visual intensity of a show that spills out into the audience,” says Martinez. The initial plan was just to add a balcony, but the theatre was more deteriorated than the architects expected. “There was more demolition than we thought, but certain interior elements were saved and put back in to keep the integrity of the original design,” Martinez adds.
“The whole idea was finding a suitable home for Blue Man Group,” says DiBlasi. “A simple renovation became a more significant project in order to get the infrastructure in there to support their production needs for a long run.” DiBlasi points out that the theatre is located on a street that is “gritty” in a trendy way, and a perfect location for Blue Man Group to call home. “The area is more like Greenwich Village than the Upper East Side,” he notes. “As a result it's a perfect theatre for design elements that are somewhat industrial, like exposed ceilings, rather than hidden in gold leaf.”
While the walls of the theatre were demolished, the front façade was left unchanged. The new lobby has a contemporary look, with architectural lighting by Schuler Shook that includes programmable Color Kinetics iColor® accent tubes (while these fixtures are capable of full color mixing, chances are they will be tuned to blue for the time being). A small, permanent lighting control system will be installed for house, work, and lobby lighting.
Since the theatrical lighting, audio, and projection systems will be brought in as part of the Blue Man production, the main goal was to provide a road house with significant infrastructure for these systems as well as data and power distribution via cable racks and sleeves that run throughout. “Steel rigging beams have been installed to support both portable and permanent rigging,” says DiBlasi. “There are also pin rails for spot lines.”
A catwalk system wraps around the entire venue, with a technical mezzanine located front of house. “The catwalks are exposed,” DiBlasi explains. “They allow access to production equipment as well as rigging and lighting positions. “Lighting trusses will be brought in by Blue Man Group for their production lighting,” adds DiBlasi. “We have four exposed box boom positions, integrated with the room design in the house. They are located just below the wrapping catwalk system.” Company switches to support lighting, audio, video and rigging are distributed in critical locations.
An all new concrete and steel structure was inserted into the chasm of the original building to support not only the new roof and anticipated rigging loads, but to facilitate a new balcony. The theatre now has 665 seats, with improved sightlines. The seats themselves are Quattro series by Hussey Seating in Maine, and have a contemporary look with black upholstery with graphite stanchions, fitting in nicely with the dark space. “The focus is more on the production,” says DiBlasi, who points out that with the special needs of Blue Man Group in mind, the theatre has some unusual touches.
“There are UV fluorescent lights in the dressing rooms so they can check their make-up for the UV effects,” he notes. “There is also a storage area for the perishables they use in the show.” Not to mention a large trench drain and various resistant finishes in the theatre that can withstand the need to hose down the stage and clean up paint, various fluids, and other messy products used during the show.
To create an appropriate acoustical environment for Blue Man Group, the new walls of the theatre are made of grout-filled masonary. “This adds mass to the construction, and keeps sound from going in and out,” says Todd. “Blue Man Group is highly amplified. They need a well-controlled environment, without too much resonance to keep low frequencies from bouncing around the room.” To meet this goal, absorptive acoustic material was placed behind the interior perforated metal walls of the theatre.
The shape of the room — a simple shoebox — made it easier to control the acoustics. “There was nothing problematic such as a fan-shaped room or curved walls,” notes Todd. “The acoustics are fixed and tailored for Blue Man Group,” he adds. As the sound system is part of Blue Man Group's install, the permanent infrastructure includes just communication systems, ranging from a Clear-Com intercom system to custom-designed front and back of house program monitor and paging systems, designed by Akustiks.
For the architects, this project provided an unusual opportunity to work in close concert with the end user. “We were able to modulate the design of the house and provide a nice intimate feel for the show,” says Martinez. And the fact that Blue Man Group expects a very long run influenced the essence of the theatre. “A long run opens up the door to making the venue more specific to the show,” notes DiBlasi. “The theatre and the show will bring excitement and energy to the street.” Yonge Street may never be the same!