Back in the day when Hollywood studios made “pictures,” they also owned their own theatres to show them. This was the case of the historic Joy Theatre, which was opened in 1947 by Universal Studios in New Orleans, but the venue had fallen into a sad state of disrepair after Hurricane Katrina. “We came into something that was falling down, but it was iconic,” says architect Kenneth Gowland of Metrostudio, who spearheaded the renovation. “
People in NOLA really related to it; everyone had a story about the Joy Theatre,” Gowland notes. “Everyone saw movies there from the Gone With The Wind premiere to Jaws. In the ‘40s, people went to the movie theatre once or twice a week. It was like everyone’s living room and one of the few buildings down here that was air-conditioned.” The theatre had been closed for a few years when Katrina hit in 2005, and part the roof blew off. “This was definitely one for the books,” explains Gowland. “The original theatre had a rake that went below grade. That area was flooded from a few inches to a few feet of water, never pumped out after Katrina, plus rainwater had been coming in through the ceiling for six years. We had to use a boat to navigate when we first visited the theatre in the summer of 2011.” On an extremely fast track, the building was gutted and redesigned as a 1,000-seat performing arts center that opened in December 2011. “We only had five months to design and build,” says Gowland, noting that the Joy had been built as a single screen movie theatre: no stage, stage house, rigging, or infrastructure for technical systems. “We had to build a new steel balcony, which is much steeper, on top of the old one to re-rake the sightlines to see the stage, and we added a VIP bar area on the balcony level,” he adds. “It is really a neat place how it worked out.” The Joy is now used for theatrical performances, as well as live music—both local and national talent—with an open floor on the orchestra level for theatre seating or an alternative configuration with tables and chairs for a banquet.
To maintain the historic look of the exterior, the marquee retained its classic design with the original neon lighting replicated, while encapsulated LED tubes now illuminate the underneath. “The horizontal portion of the marquee was rebuilt,” Gowland points out. “The vertical blade signs are replicas, recreated to match the original exactly. We even researched the original wiring to uncover the original light animation pattern. The colors on the neon tubing were also researched and replicated to match the original.” Brightway Signs was the fabricator. Inside is a different story. The theatre is a high-tech and flexible as possible. “Theatre consultant Robert Lorelli was instrumental in helping us understand what the limitations of the building were and work on the performance systems,” notes Gowland. “He also did initial work on the lighting and rigging concepts.” Lorelli’s concepts were implemented and installed by Mainstage Theatrical Supply, while PSX Worldwide Audiovisual Technologies provided the audio/video gear.
Acoustics were a challenge for Siebein Associates, who were confronted with a steel roof and a lot of masonry and concrete as they collaborated with a team of pros—All Star Electric, the electrical contractors, MCC Group on mechanical engineering, and McDonnel Group, the general contractor for the project—to transform the Joy from a derelict building to a new center for live performance. “The main challenge was to provide an acoustical environment and sound system design that enhances the qualities of high energy jazz and rock music,” says Gary W. Siebein (FASA, FAIA), senior principal consultant at Siebein Associates. “The narrow space, relatively low ceiling height, and deep balcony presented challenges to achieve uniform coverage for amplified sounds without activating potential acoustical defects such as excessive reverberation and echoes under the economic constraints of the project.” For the acousticians, the solution was to design a flexible sound system that provides clear amplified sounds that uniformly cover the entire upper and lower seating areas. “We strategically designed a practical and efficient system of frequency-balanced, sound-absorbent materials of varying surface finishes and thicknesses that optimize the acoustics of the room for multiple performance types,” adds Siebein. “Special concern was given to reducing ‘boominess’ from subwoofers using strategically placed low-frequency sound absorbers.”
“For the video system, they wanted to have high-quality I-Mag for live events, so we installed left and right 13.41' diagonal Draper screens, with three Digital Projection Titan Quad 1080P 3D projectors hanging on the balcony rail,” says Vigueira, indicating that he loves the support provided by Digital Projection. “We have used them in a lot of large theatre installations. They are small, quite bright projectors that run with four lamps instead of one, so you can lose one, and the show can still go on.” In this case, the projectors hang in the open on the rail and are not too hot or noisy for their size. There is also a center screen, a 27' diagonal Draper, that evokes the theatre’s history. The main floor measures 66'x56', with a ceiling height of 33'5". The flexible capacity on the main floor comprises 450 theatre seats, 514 for a reception, or 150 for a banquet, plus 253 fixed seats in the balcony. The stage measures 36'6" x 22'6" deep and sits 4' off the floor, with a proscenium opening of 31' wide x 23' high. “We also have a small live video production desk and robotic cameras or handheld cameras for a live video mix, or digital signage playback on displays in the lobby and bar area, with one 70" LCD Sharp monitor in the lobby and four 40" LCD Sharp displays over the bar,” adds Vigueira. “The venue staff can promote upcoming events, private parties, corporate logos, etc. The monitors also show old photos and old movie posters. The room was designed as a multipurpose room—flexible but not compromised.”
The lighting system was designed to accommodate primarily LED fixtures and automated luminaires as the house rig, with the thought that the use of LEDs used would reduce the overall energy and heat load, thus require less air-conditioning. A 400A disconnect is available to power additional lighting equipment. Fixtures range from ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, with Philips Strand Lighting Light Pack dimmers mounted to yokes, ETC Selador Vivid-R 21" two-cell LED fixtures for cyclorama lighting, 36 ETC Selador Desire 60 Vivid-R LED fixtures for area coverage, Elation Professional ELAR108 PAR LED fixtures for special coverage, two Inner Circle Krypton Blinder fixtures, as well as a number of Elation Flat LED truss warmers, Martin Professional MAC 301 LED moving wash lights, MAC 450 Entours, and Strong Lighting Canto 2000FF followspots with stands and color boomerangs. Control is via a High End Systems Road Hog console with monitors.
Sandie MacNamara, who handles marketing for the Joy, notes that the movie theatre had closed in 2004 due to too much competition from the duplexes in the suburbs. “This is an interesting project on many levels,” she says. “It has a huge emotional impact for New Orleans folks. It is truly a multipurpose venue today. In 1947, it was all about the movies; today we can do anything from a dinner party to a live band, even burlesque, drag shows, comedy—a little bit of everything—gospel show, film festival. Anything is possible. New Orleans now a major film production town—a nice fit for an old movie theatre that can now play a leading role in the future of NOLA.”