The Historic Pantages Theatre of Tacoma preserves its architectural past with a new sound system
The Pantages Theatre of Tacoma is one of the cultural crown jewels of Washington State. Greek immigrant-turned-impresario Alexander Pantages opened it in January 1918, with a little assistance from his mistress and business partner in the Gold Rush era, “Klondike Kate” Rockwell. Sparing no expense, it was decorated in the style that came to be known as Pantages Greek by Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca, whose inspiration was Marie Antoinette's little pied-à-terre, the Palace of Versailles. The Pantages hosted vaudeville acts for eight years until it was sold to RKO, which changed the bill to feature films and its name to the Orpheum. Like theatres across the country, it hung on through thick and thin but declined with the rest of Tacoma's historic downtown through the 1960s. In 1975, a coalition formed to save the classic 1,169-seat theatre and its smaller neighbor, the Rialto. The Orpheum managed to play the original Star Wars (1977) for three years, and by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, it was ready for its closeup.
That year, the Orpheum underwent major remodeling. Its proscenium was widened and its structure reinforced, and new acoustical treatment was added. Reclaiming its birthright, the venue reopened as the Pantages in 1983, and along with the Rialto, it is today part of the refurbished downtown's Broadway Center for the Performing Arts. The Pantages houses the Tacoma Opera, the Tacoma City Ballet, the Tacoma Philharmonic, and other cultural institutions in the City of Destiny.
What the Pantages lacked was a sound system commensurate with its aspirations, as it broadened its reach to touring artists and other visiting shows and institutions from across the US. Last fall, in preparation for its 90th anniversary next year, its celebrated lobby was restored to its 1918 period glory and doubled in size. About a month later, in October 2006, as it welcomed a production of Sophisticated Ladies and a performance by folk singer Joan Baez, the Pantages had Federal Way, WA-based Point Source Inc. install a Meyer Sound system to replace its old and faltering set of powered, stand-mounted speakers.
Pantages technical director Scott Painter says the system is built around the self-powered M'elodie, an ultracompact, high-power curvilinear array loudspeaker. Four UPM-1P ultracompact, wide-coverage loudspeakers that are mounted on brackets beneath the lip of the stage are used for front-fill, while a pair of 600-HP compact, high-power subwoofers cover low frequencies.
“We lost our center cluster last year; the hanging points were deemed unsafe,” Painter recalls of the former system. “We used stacks and racks and tried to get through. I spent quite a lot of time shopping new systems and finding what people had available. We finally decided on the Meyer [system] due to its reputation. The M'elodie is designed for this type of house. We're just over 1,000 seats, and the visual impact of the system — we have an eight-speaker array on each side — is very low. With all of this French plasterwork, the last thing you want to see is a big chunk of speakers hanging. We can split the arrays in half, groundstacking four on either side of the proscenium and flying the other four just off the top of it. The M'elodie is small enough that the four on top are covered by the valances, and the floor stack is covered by the borders. They're practically invisible. We looked at another system that had speaker clusters twice as big.”
“Aesthetics were a big concern,” says Point Source owner Curt Hare. The venue is relatively wide and shallow, with only 80' from the proscenium to the back wall. “The Pantages wanted to make sure that the enclosures and arrays weren't too big to be an issue for the opera and symphony. Fine arts people don't want to see the PA.” The hanging arrays are whisked from view by chain motors when not in use.
Hare says Point Source “made extensive use of Meyer's MAAP Online software to demonstrate the system in the meeting and proposals that led up to the system install. The M'elodie had the type of horizontal coverage required and delivered a lot of SPL in a small, lightweight, and compact package. They could only fly off of one point because of the way the proscenium is built. “The flexibility of the rigging and the suspension bar being able to give you different pickup points for different angles were key,” Hare says. “And the whole system is run at 208V, rather than 120V, to maximize the power efficiency of the venue.”
The company made other audio enhancements. “We also did a cardioid subwoofer design to place the subs underneath the stage in platforms on the orchestra pit. This cardioid subwoofer system, with two 600-HP subs, was devised to avoid having to place them in the house on the floor at extreme left and right of the stage, as the coverage wasn't very smooth. Since they don't use subs when the orchestra pit is occupied, we chose to put them on removable platforms that go away when the pit cover is struck. But all of the cable and power is left in place to facilitate a quick changeover.”
Quick changes are essential at a venue like the Pantages, where Meyer Sound's Galileo loudspeaker-management system is now in use. “We can go from a high-fidelity array position to a hidden array position in less than half an hour,” says Painter.
The system was prepped for installation this past September and October. Hare says John Monitto, Meyer Sound's technical support person from its headquarters in Berkeley, CA, was involved on the actual installation day and did some system tuning with SIM 3. Painter says the key challenge was provided by the building itself. “The biggest problem was getting the hanging points. We have a suspended plaster ceiling, and this being a historically landmarked city building, I had to be very careful of its integrity. I ended up just drilling two holes in the plaster, which wasn't too bad. Fortunately, in the 1980s remodel, they put in some architectural concrete in the proscenium, so I could just tie in with that.”
Painter says that the Meyer Sound system, which is more heard than seen, fits in well with the freshly revitalized Pantages. “I'm very pleased with the outcome,” he says. “We bring different groups in and have had no complaints about the system. Joan Baez was so happy with the way her sold-out concert went that she literally danced off the stage and shook my hand to thank me for a good show.”
The author blogs about entertainment at Between Productions at www.robertcashill.blogspot.com.