The road goes on forever, so the song goes, and on that road there are good venues and not so good venues. Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL, has been considered one of the good ones since it first opened its doors 20 years ago. Writing in these pages last October, touring veteran Rusty Straub cited the venue as one of his favorite road houses in North America. “I've been playing there for many years, and each time I am amazed to find a theatre as plush and perfect as Ruth Eckerd,” he wrote.
Still, every venue has its challenges, and the 2173-seat Ruth Eckerd was no exception. Both touring crews and the house staff noted problems ranging from a small loading dock to inadequate restrooms to a weak sound system to, perhaps most importantly, lack of easy access between the venue's two lobbies. Additionally, management of Ruth Eckerd was keen to improve their educational facilities, long ranked number one in the state of Florida and considered one of the best in the country.
“I knew the building needed freshening up,” says CEO/president Robert Freed-man. “I knew our sound system was outdated; it was outdated when the hall was built. We wanted to improve the ability to get around the building; and those long lines for the restrooms were not the way patrons needed to be served.”
An early feasibility study didn't yield the results the venue had hoped; according to president/CEO Robert Freedman, “that said to me that we really weren't telling the story about what needed to be accomplished because we didn't have a comprehensive plan. We talked about improving restrooms, maybe expanding our education program, but nothing really comprehensive. So we took a year off and did that.”
During that time, Freedman, Jeff Hartzog (who was then technical director and is now director of operations), assistant director Tyson Smith, house electrician Dustin Adams, house audio engineer Bill Camillo, production technician Greg Milton, and the rest of the staff put together what came to be known as The Master Plan, a detailed wish list of sorts detailing all that could be improved within the facility. Architect H. Patterson Fletcher and theatre consultant Robert Lorelli were brought on board to transform these ideas into a workable blueprint, and by 1999 a plan was set in motion. “With that study in hand, which included building a grand concourse, improving the sound system, and the restrooms,” Freedman says, “we went out and started talking to people, and that got people's attention.”
“The biggest sell,” says Lorelli, “was to convince the board that it would cost more to renovate the building than it did to build it. That was difficult. But that community is great; once you convinced them that's what had to be done, there was no gilding the lily. They went out and raised the money.”
Nearly five years and $24 million later, The Master Plan has turned into a reality, and Ruth Eckerd Hall has undergone a major transformation. The Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute, the new educational wing of the facility which opened as the First Phase of the project early last year, features a 182-seat Murray Studio Theatre, three studio classrooms, four private teaching studios, a dance studio and rehearsal space, and an arts resource library. The Studio Theatre features retractable seating from the Folding Bleacher Company, lighting gear from Strand and ETC, and a Colortran 32-channel Encore mixing console. The institute features everything from school performances to pre-professional classes to exploratory classes, as well as a producing division that tours the region.
The second phase of the project was the most ambitious. A new box office was added. A grand concourse, connecting the East and West lobbies, was built underneath the theatre, allowing for the expansion of the lobby, restrooms, concession areas, and private member rooms. This step necessitated the removal of the seats from the theatre and excavation of the space below it; the theatre was dark in the interim.
The theatre itself got new carpeting, upholstery seating and drapes, additional regular seating and additional disabled seating. Interestingly, the hall management asked that the curtain and the seats match exactly. Lorelli called on Roger Claman at Rose Brand to help make it happen. “Ruth Eckerd wanted the color of the seats to match the color of the grand drape, and that would have been difficult to get done with the stock color of seating upholstery fabric,” Claman explains. “They said, ‘Gee, we're using this peacock velour for the main drape, why don't we just use the same stuff. So Bob [Lorelli] and I had a conference call with the velour factory in South Carolina. They put a special coating so it would wear well, since it's typically used for stage drapery.”
Backstage improvements include increased dressing room space, a fully equipped wardrobe room, underground access to understage storage via a new freight elevator, and a loading dock with increased truck capacity from two trucks to four.
For the lighting system, Lorelli specified an all ETC rig consisting of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, Pars, and ParNels, Colortran Farcyc 3 cels, Lycian 1290 XLT and Colortran Colorarc 2000 followspots, and Strand CD80 dimmer racks, and an ETC Obsession II console.
The sound system was a major part of the hall's renovation. “The big thing with the speaker system,” explains house audio engineer Bill Camillo, “was that before it wouldn't handle the shows we wanted to do, so we ended up renting all the time. We needed something powerful enough that would be friendly to road shows. I've been listening over the years to different brands of speakers coming through here, and I ended up picking d&b audiotechnik because it just sounded the best in the room compared to everything else I had heard.”
The audio rig consists primarily of d&b audiotechnik C Series of speakers in a left right center configuration, with d&b Max 12 for monitors, EAW KF650s for side fills, and Tannoy CMS 6 TCSs for permanent front fill, plus BSS Sound Webs for zone control and EQ, BSS FDS-366 Omnidrive Compact Plus for crossover, all run on a Midas Heritage 3000 64-channel console with 56 mono and 8 stereo inputs. SPL Integrated Systems contracted Carlton Audio Services for the PA system and installation; the sound designer is Richard Closs of Acentech.
Another major part of the renovation on the sound front was general connectivity throughout the space. “I didn't have many ways to patch microphones,” says Camillo. “It was a very basic system. So we increased the capability of patching signals around the building by adding in enough inputs a show might require. We put in all new conduit; not one piece of wiring or conduit was re-used from the old system. You might as well have built a new building.”
Though Camillo conceded that some of the old road hogs aren't quite ready to embrace a center cluster, the end result has been very positive. “I'm enjoying myself when I get to mix on it,” he says. “It's effortless. I got to do B.B. King recently, and I finally have a rig that can compete with his guitar amp. My old system was a struggle with that show, because he'd turn the thing up to 10; it's a very live room, and I was a lucky to get a mix up over his guitar amp. It sounded great.”
For Jeff Hertzog, the most gratifying aspect of the renovation is how close it adheres to The Master Plan. “The biggest bonus for me is the fact that we've kept the staff recommendations in the project, and that right now those items are the things that we needed to make our job easier and more efficient for the tours,” he says. “Now I'm seeing the benefits of things like the dressing rooms being more efficient, and the fact that everything is more or less state of the art: high-speed internet in all the rooms, phones, better lighting, ADA accessibility — there's just a lot of things that were part of the initial project that we've kept, and it's just made it so much nicer around here.
“And wardrobe!” he continues. “Oh my gosh, I've got the tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie in here right now and they're going crazy over the wardrobe room. A lot of the staff have been here before, and the dressing rooms used to be literally small little spaces. Now they've got this nice big room with three sets of washers and dryers. They were like, ‘Who thought of this?’ And I said, ‘Welcome to Ruth Eckerd Hall.’”