In the summer of 1931, residents of Santa Fe entered the Lensic Theatre for the first time. The Moorish/Spanish Renaissance structure, hailed at the time as “the wonder theatre of the Southwest,” was host to the likes of Rita Hayworth, Roy Rogers, Ronald Reagan, and Judy Garland. Nearly 70 years later, some of those same residents, now with children and grandchildren, again entered the Lensic for the first time after an extensive renovation and expansion. The vaudeville and motion picture house received a technical and structural facelift, transforming it into the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

“There's such a community connection to the place,” says Peter Chapman, director of marketing for the Lensic. “You have kids coming in who maybe saw their first movie there, or parents and grandparents who remember coming as kids.” In recent years, however, the space began to lose its once brilliant luster. “It was sort of losing popularity, although it was a real landmark in town. People felt very close to it, but it wasn't really getting much business,” says Chapman. At the same time, area performing arts groups were searching for appropriate, available venues. Renovating and expanding the theatre seemed to be the perfect solution.

In 1998, a group of prominent Santa Fe citizens and organizations announced a plan to save the space. Eight area performing arts groups, including the Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe Symphony, Santa Fe Pro Musica, and Santa Fe Concert Association, signed up as primary tenants, and fundraising for the $8.2-million project was soon underway. Major gifts and donations rolled in, propelling the project from the drawing board to reality. Ground was broken in April 2000, and performances in the space began in the spring of 2001.

Project architect Craig Hoopes joined a slew of designers, consultants, engineers, and contractors for the year-long project. The team sought to bring the theatre into the 21st century while restoring its past splendor. “There were 400- and 500-seat theatres that couldn't hold the audiences needed for the diversity of the arts here in Santa Fe,” says Hoopes. “We wanted everyone to come back into the theatre after the renovation and feel like it was still the Lensic, that it hadn't changed. It was a great old movie house, and obviously, we needed to make some changes to make it a performing arts center. But the biggest challenge was trying to make sure that none of the historic fabric was changed or altered in any way.”

To walk into the 820-seat theatre is still to walk into another world. A replica of the original marquee adorns the theatre, leading guests into the richly colored lobby. Glittering chandeliers light murals that were restored by Conrad Schmitt Studios; two new concession stands and a box office complete the lobby. The inside of the theatre has the feel of an open city square. Exotic Moorish architectural elements and stenciled paintings line the sides and balconies, and the ceiling and portions of the walls are painted midnight blue. “The concept of the original design was that it would be like you were sitting out in the desert somewhere,” says Hoopes.

But beyond the restored physical beauty lie major technical and structural changes — an increased stage area, fly space, backstage space, and orchestra pit, along with the addition of state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems.

Space constraints throughout the Lensic proved to be a major challenge for the design team. “We had a very limited site,” says Hoopes. “We had a lot of program that we had to fit into no space at all.” To add more space, the house was raised from 59' to 70'. The added space above the stage allowed for a new catwalk, a front-of-house lighting position, and an enlarged fly area. The new catwalk is unique in that it slants up, says LD Richard Hoyes, of Fisher Dachs. “It peaks so it doesn't block the view of the proscenium arch.”

The back wall of the theatre was also knocked out and extended, which allowed for the addition of dressing rooms, scenery and prop storage, a green room, and office space, as well as an increased stage depth maximum of 60'. These modifications also allowed for an enlarged orchestra pit, which can now hold 40 musicians. Onstage, a Wenger Diva Model orchestra shell, which flies in and folds down for an orchestra ceiling, was also added. In the squeeze for space, 20 seats were lost to accommodate the control room and other technical improvements.

Because the renovated Lensic is a multipurpose hall, lighting consultant Fisher Dachs opted to incorporate a permanent concert lighting system, says Hoyes. The lighting system is primarily an ETC package consisting of a range of Sensor dimmers, Source Four PARs, and Source Four ellipsoidals, plus Altman three- and six-cell ground cyc units, all of which are run by an ETC Obsession II 1,500-channel console. The console provides the Lensic with full tracking backup, a remote focus unit, and a video plug-in for rehearsals.

The ETC Net2 ethernet system, which allows scrollers or moving lights to be easily added, is also a key part of the system. “I think it's probably the most sophisticated system in the city. It will be able to handle a large variety of performances,” says Hoyes. The system also provides extra power for touring shows. “There's a 400A company switch. Also, with the ethernet nodes, they can tie into the existing system and use both their system and the existing system to control it.”

Acoustical consultant Purcell, Noppe & Associates also sought to make the renovated Lensic a versatile space that would serve a variety of functions. “A system was necessary in order to meet the goals established by all of the potential users,” says acoustical consultant Roger Noppe. “In order to work properly for a symphony, we needed more reverberation than could be generated within the cubic volume of the hall, so it had to be done electronically or not accomplished.” To meet the diverse needs of the theatre, a system created by Acoustical Control Systems (ACS), a Dutch/Canadian firm, was chosen. The cutting-edge equipment was researched at Delft University in the Netherlands. “It is the first major theatre, at least on the West Coast, that I'm aware of that incorporates the system,” Noppe adds.

The ACS system uses Sennheiser ME65/K6P hypercardiod microphones, ACS amplifiers, and EAW ACS12, LS432, and UB12Se loudspeakers. But it does not amplify sound; it creates surfaces in the hall that reflect sound waves. “In the ACS system, early reflections are radiated by loudspeakers built into the first third of the hall, closest to the stage, divided over the side walls beside and above the proscenium opening,” Arthur van Maurik, systems designer and marketing and sales manager of ACS, explained in a recent article. “Reverberation loudspeakers are mounted throughout the depth of the hall, using the ceiling, rear, and side walls to radiate sound energy.” For the Lensic, 18 unidirectional microphones are suspended above the proscenium, and each covers a specific stage area. “The signals from each of these microphones are fed to the ACS Matrix and patented processor modules, filtered and delayed, and then distributed to every loudspeaker in the hall. Varying the processor matrix coefficients optimizes the hall for different types of performances,” writes van Maurik.

The system is unique in that it allows the acoustic environment of a room to be completely changed with the touch of a button. “There's very little that needs to be done. The only thing you have to do is push the button for the type of environment that the conductor or the person in charge of the production wants to have,” says Noppe “It's automatic — you don't run it like you do the rest of the sound system. There's nobody at a mixer panel to do it. It's all pre-adjusted and you just select the type of environment you want and go from there.”

Referring to the quality of sound, Noppe says, “The experienced listener will be amazed that the hall sounds so large. That's exactly what we're trying to do. It is, I'm sure, going to be one of the first of a whole bunch of these kinds of facilities that will be constructed.”

The rest of the audio package includes EAW MQ1394 high- and mid-frequency enclosures and MQ1312 low-frequency enclosures for the main cluster, ACS 12s for surround, and SB528-LT subwoofers set in the walls. Other equipment includes a range of Sennheiser wired and wireless mics, a Sennheiser assisted listening system, a Clear-Com partyline intercom system, QSC, PLX, and CX Series amps, Crown USM-810 matrix mixers, Yamaha SPX-990 digital multi-effects processors, a Soundcraft K2 32-channel FOH mixing board, Audio-Technica AT-853A choir mics, and floor boxes from Altman, FSR, and Pacific Control.

To complete the Lensic's technical facelift, ProTech installed all new rigging equipment. The package includes standard counterweight rigging equipment, along with a fire curtain, draperies, pit filler, and trap room filler. Bentley provided new carpeting, and Series One International provided the theatre seating.

One year and many physical and technical updates later, the Lensic Performing Arts Center opened as planned. The eight founding organizations, along with other regional, community, and public school groups now perform regularly at the Lensic to large crowds. “I was just putting some numbers together, and in the first month, we had 24,123 people come into the theatre to see a show,” says Chapman.

“People are so thrilled with the space that there are more and more things coming there, whether they be community or professional performing arts or touring or whatever,” says Hoopes. “So, it has in a very short time become very much a major feature for downtown again.”

Photo: Grant Taylor/Lensic Performing Arts Center