For over 80 years the Eastman Theatre has been the crown jewel of the cultural scene in Rochester, NY. No expense was spared when inventor George Eastman, of Eastman Kodak fame, funded the building of the 3,094-seat theatre as an opulent silent movie palace in 1922. The theatre is part of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, as well as the principal hall of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. From July through September 2004, $5 million was spent on Phase I of a major renovation designed to improve the concert-going experience in a big way.

Consultants for the project include theatre consultant Joe Mobilia of Fisher Dachs Associates in New York City and acoustician Chris Blair of Akustiks in Norwalk, CT. Ron Stackman, the theatre's stage manager, was involved as well. “There were three main goals in this phase of the renovation,” Stackman points out. “We wanted to improve the acoustics, improve the lighting, and put in new rigging.” As a result, one of the most important elements of the renovation is the new Vortek automated rigging system by Hoffend and Sons. “Hoffend and Sons is based just outside Rochester and has been involved with this theatre for a long time,” notes Stackman, who has been with the theatre for the past 15 years himself.


Hoffend installed a Vortek automated rigging system at the Eastman Theatre with 30 hoist units and a VAC (Vortek Automation Center) that provides sophisticated computerized control for raising and lowering the battens, each of which has intelligent control. The Vortek system replaces the Eastman's old counterweight system and provides automation with built-in safety control.

“We left the ghost of the old T-bar from the counterweight system on the stage house wall,” says Peter Hoffend, president of Hoffend and Sons. “The new Vortek system gives them safety advantages over the old system as well as flexibility and the ability to group up to five pipes together. The system can handle just about every performance aspect they could ever desire.”

One of the advantages of the Vortek system is the ability to load-profile the weight on the battens. “The micro-processor reads the load,” explains Hoffend. “If a batten is snagged or something is hitting the stage too hard, there are E-stops that detect even a five-pound imbalance in the system, so you can't tear a curtain or a piece of scenery.” In addition to the primary VAC station, the software can also be run on a laptop for additional flexibility.

From the audience point of view, the most visible part of the renovation to date is a beautiful new concert shell, designed by Chaintreuil Jensen Stark architects, built by Hoffend and Sons, with scenic finishing by Adirondack Scenic. “We provided the skin for the shell,” says Tom Lloyd, principal of Adirondack Scenic. Early in the project, he stopped by to see the metal frame that Hoffend provided to the theatre. “It was like a giant opera set that needed acoustical treatment,” says Lloyd. “We added columns, arches, and finishes that echo the interiors of the theatre, including the square stone patterns of the walls.” The goal was to carry the architectural gestures of the auditorium onto the stage, while at the same time replace the old shell that was deemed too flat.

Adirondack Scenic worked with the team from Akustiks to add acoustic elements to the concert shell, as well as some minor adjustments to the auditorium. These include a hard coating applied to wall panels made of Zenotherm, a man-made composite material, to make the room more “live.” Honeycomb infills are part of the acoustic treatment on the new shell, which bounces more sound back so that the orchestra sounds better, to itself as well as to the audience.

The shell moves in and out of place via Vortek winches, providing an elegant technical solution of how to move such a large element in the confines of an old building, taking into considerations traffic issues backstage, both on the deck and in the air. “The shell has five components,” explains Stackman. “There are two side walls that track laterally and fly vertically, plus the rear wall that also flies vertically. Two ceiling reflectors tip and fly out. The fact that the shell is on winches means that all its weight is not directly on the deck. This frees the deck up to vibrate more so the bass response in the music has increased. The shell needs as much mass and weight to reflect the sound, yet the acoustical and engineering considerations are based on how much weight the building can take.”

New lighting positions include 60 ETC Source Four® 575W Pars built into the ceiling panels of the concert shell. “The new fixtures help improve the concert lighting for the orchestra,” says Stackman. “The old lighting was yellow and uneven.” There are also new box boom positions and new lighting slots in the ceiling of the auditorium. The theatre bought ETC Sensor® dimmers a few years ago and added another rack of 2kW dimmers as part of this upgrade. An ETC Express 250 console and ETC Source Four ellipsoidals are also part of the new lighting package provided by Applied Audio, the ETC rep in Rochester. “We also changed from three-pin to stage-pin connectors,” Stackman adds. “That makes it easier to handle the needs of outside opera and ballet companies.”

Another improvement is a new Gala Spiralift that has been installed for the forestage area. “This solves the problem we had with the old pit that didn't go all the way down. We used to have to build platforms to roll pianos onto the lift. Now we have one big, flat surface,” says Stackman. The pit can hold up to 75 musicians.


“The goal of the new concert shell was to improve the sound environment for the musicians as well as the sound in the hall,” says Chris Blair, project manager for Akustiks. “In a later phase of the renovation, we will work on room-shaping, with some permanent changes to the seating on the main floor, and changing the room shape to redirect energy toward the center of the room.”

Akustiks worked with the architects to develop the weight of the new concert shell, as well as the parameters needed for the correct diffusion of sound. “We wanted to preserve low frequency energy and didn't want it to get trapped behind the shell,” says Blair. “This is a closed shell, like a closed envelope around the orchestra, which is better in this case because of the large volume of the hall.”

Some of the specific acoustic elements on the shell are a cornice at a height of approximately 12' designed to catch energy and help scatter it back to the orchestra. “There are also various ledges that help create a nice balance,” says Blair. “The shaping of the side walls creates additional lateral energy to reach the center seats.”


Rose Brand created a new stage curtain that measures 42' × 70', maintaining the elegance of the old one. “We replaced a grand old burgundy drape with a fixed Austrian valance with gold trim,” says Roger Claman, who managed this project for Rose Brand. “They wanted to match it closely as possible.” One of the main differences is that the new drape is made of a synthetic velour. “This lasts longer than cotton and is inherently fire retardant (IFR),” Claman explains. “The fibers themselves are not treated so the retardant can't evaporate or fade away. From a distance it looks just as rich. You really can't tell it isn't cotton.”

The idea of a drape with a fixed valance was not unusual in the 1920s when the theatre was built but is out of the ordinary today. “We took pictures and measurements so we could emulate the original as closely as possible,” says Claman, who notes that Rose Brand also provided two large scrims, one black and one white, measuring 39' × 60'.

The ensemble of the work done in Phase I met the initial goals to improve the concert-going experience at the Eastman Theatre. The second phase, now in the planning stages, will make it a truly world-class hall.