COLUMBIA — It looks like a lavish skeleton. Instead of seats, there are scaffolds, and construction workers take the place of patrons. The air is thick with the smells of paint and plaster powder. Tinny, adult contemporary music streams from an unseen radio; “Killing Me Softly” echoes through the mostly bare lobby covered in construction dust.
Just 76 days before the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts is scheduled to reopen after a nearly yearlong, $10 million renovation excursion, it doesn’t exactly look finished.
But as David White, executive director of the theater, guides members of the Mid-Missouri Tourism Council through the work-in-progress Monday afternoon, he assures them that renovations and restorations will be done on time.
At the north end of the building, where Allen’s Flowers once did business, the shell of a retail location that will open up into the theater foyer is nearly empty. At the south end, the future home of the Columbia Art League is just as bare. “Bravo Bistro,” where the Cherry Street Artisan will vend goodies during performances, is little more than a framework of metal rods. Those rods also frame two restrooms — one of which, White said, will be the largest women’s restroom in Columbia.
An elevator shaft literally leads outside, letting light stream into the building, sweetening the stale construction smell with a little fresh air. A concrete ceiling spanning the whole front area of the theater looks naked and cold.
But enter the heart of the theater and you’ll quickly realize where visible progress has been made. Pushing aside a rolling scaffold, White laughs.
“Two minutes from now,” he says, “you’re going to be blown away.”
The group comes to the main stairway, where a mural of theater faces that has greeted patrons since 1979 remains. Here, it’s a story of out with the old and in with the older. The mural will be replaced by a 24-feet-by-9-feet mirror, creating an illusion of larger crowds and a heightened sense of grandeur,
“Twenty of us will look like 40, and we’ll say ‘Wow, look at all those people,’” White says. “Then you’ll realize ‘Oh, it’s me,’ and you’ll start checking out your hair.”
As for in with the older: Original blue handrails with gold accents line the main staircase; they were rescued after being covered by plaster for years.
A few minutes later, the tour group ventures into the main theater. There’s silence, punctuated by a handful of whispers. The view of the place in its entirety is obstructed by a labyrinth of scaffolds and construction equipment. But one thing’s clear: The old theater is back.
It looks like something straight out of French Versailles. Lush colors adorn panels on the walls, which glisten with gold paint and silver trims. Overhead, intricate moldings of fruits and vegetables — pineapples, cobs of corn, pomegranates, grape clusters and tomatoes — painted in rich gold are laced across the ceiling. A paint scheme of okra-green, burgundy and silver enhances the dramatic gold. Beneath the luminous ceiling, yet to be installed, wheat grass-colored seats will cushion theater-goers as they settle back for the show.
From those seats will be a view of two dramatic organ lofts, crowned with muses painted silver. Faux box seats line the theater’s sides. They’ll soon be accented with silver curtains, and lamps will be used to change their color. “We’ll be able to go to purple, or green, or whatever the mood dictates,” White says.
One feature, an original fire curtain with a rather curious decoration, stands out on the main stage. In ornate text, the word “Asbestos” adorns the curtain. It’s a hand-painted vintage piece from the theater’s opening in 1928. Encased in fabric, 3 inches of asbestos are used to prevent the potential spread of a fire within the theater. The curtain was once part of a pre-show ritual: When the band played, the main curtain rose and, as the fire curtain behind it appeared, the audience applauded — all praise to the glory of the ornate, then-high-tech safety shield.
“Everyone would applaud,” White says. “We’re safe — the wonder material!”
“We won’t be lifting up and down this2-ton curtain,” he adds later.
The asbestos curtain raises a few eyebrows among the tour group, but jaws drop after a trip up several tiers of scaffolding. Up and up and up. The group mutters about knees giving out and how it might be better not to look down.
Ninety feet above the theater floor, the group arrives on a large plywood platform. It is hot and musty, as if all of the heat from months of construction has drifted to the ceiling like steam in a pot. But one look up and any urge to complain vanishes.
Above is a grand dome — White calls it the atmospheric dome — encircled by exquisite gold crown molding that is anchored by four jewel-toned ovals. Ruby, sapphire, emerald and amethyst. It’s grand, a slice of European drama in the middle of Missouri.
The color of the dome graduates from sky blue at the edges to deeper, twilight-blue at the center, where a molded “sun” awaits an 1,800-pound chandelier. Changing colored lights will illuminate the dome during performances.
So much still has to be done in the old theater, but so much has been done. And if you close your eyes, you can envision the building’s past and imagine its future. “It’s going to be here for you,” White says after the tour, “and your children, and your children’s children.”