Renovated Missouri Theatre offers benefits to regular performing groups

Monday, August 18, 2008 | 8:12 p.m. CDT
Performing Arts in Children’s Education members staged “Aladdin Jr.” in the renovated Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

COLUMBIA - The lobby of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts' lobby is adorned with crimson carpet and wallpaper decorated with golden leaves. Crystal chandeliers bounce light off of large mirrors framed in thick, red draperies embroidered with a large "M." The theater is quiet in the middle of the day and still smells fresh and new. The restoration of the Missouri Theatre was finally complete in late May.

Thirteen groups call the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts their "artistic home," meaning they consider the center their primary stage for production. They are also considered "member groups" at the Missouri Theatre, a concept Executive Director David A. White III created to encourage use of the center. These arts organizations consented to use the building twice or more during a 12-month period. In exchange, they receive a reduced rental rate and other perks not offered to one-time renters.

As part of its revamp, the Missouri Theatre increased space and facilities for its groups. The Columbia Art League now boasts a permanent gallery and two classrooms within the theater. For Diana Moxon, executive director of the Columbia Art League, the potential for increased traffic is the main benefit of the new space.

"We're right there off the lobby of the theater," Moxon said. "People will have the chance to go to the gallery when waiting to go to a show. We'll be able to share audiences."

She has not yet seen an increase in traffic because the gallery is in a "soft opening" phase, but she says she has noticed audience members filtering in during the intermissions of August PACE, Performing Arts in Children's Education, productions.

Moxon also sees the Columbia Art League's permanent residence in the theater as a source of "unending possibility for collaboration" with other member groups. She says she hopes to collaborate with PACE, possibly using the Columbia Art League's new classrooms for stage makeup and theater design classes.

For PACE, everything it needs is right there in the Missouri Theatre. The center now boasts state-of-the-art equipment, "bigger and better" dressing rooms and an ornate stage. PACE performed for the first time in the new theater on Aug. 7. Director Angela Howard said he thought performing on the big stage made the all-kid production of "The King and I" look more professional. The theater is also more spacious than Smithton Middle School, where PACE has performed in the past.

Howard also thinks using the center for the arts will help PACE in terms of advertising, as the theater's facade now features a light-up, scrolling marquee.

"We really believe our success is tied to the Missouri Theatre, but also that the Missouri Theatre's success is tied to ours," Howard said. "Each particular member group brings audiences that wouldn't come otherwise. The member groups are important to the success of the theater. We diversify the audience."

For other events, the theater is "all-inclusive," Howard said. PACE held a fundraiser on Aug. 8, with a "meet the cast" event, catering by the Cherry Street Artisan and a string quartet. Instead of having to find another location, they were able to host the event right there in the Missouri Theatre.

"It has all the amenities," Howard said.

Performances at the Missouri Theatre also help people realize belly dance is a serious art form, said Tamera Shupert Gonzalez, director of Belly Dance United.

"People generally think of belly dance in a restaurant, like a Middle Eastern restaurant," Shupert Gonzalez said. "In North Africa and the Middle East, belly dance is on the big stage, like at the Missouri Theatre. All belly dancers know it's considered a major art form. But here, there are a lot of misconceptions about that. For us to be able to perform at the Missouri Theatre, that helps our art form and elevates it."

Although they have not yet performed in the renovated theater, Shupert Gonzalez said the dancers are excited about the new site. Many of their dancers come from all over Missouri to perform at the Missouri Theatre. The arts center will become Belly Dance United's home venue for professional shows, which require more planning and involve theatrics, acting, story lines and props - elements they often cannot include at cafe shows, Shupert Gonzalez said.

For the Missouri Symphony Society Youth Orchestra, the renovation means they will enjoy the benefits of rehearsing on a stage instead of in a band room. During the restoration, the youth orchestra rehearsed at West Junior High School's band room, said Elaine Johnson, director of art education for the Missouri Theatre.

"They will have the glory of the stage and the curtains and the acoustics will be wonderful for them," Johnson said.

The youth orchestra has been a part of the Missouri Symphony Society early on and, therefore, has always been a part of the theater. Each season, the youth orchestra has about 50 members and allows young musicians to develop their musical skills in a professional training atmosphere, Johnson said.

"The symphony society, their mission is to support classical music in Columbia," said Johnson. "So the youth orchestra is a part of the mission of the symphony society."

The restoration has created an opportunity for youth programs. The Missouri Technical Theater Institute was created to expose kids to the behind the scenes elements of theatrical productions.

The Columbia Civic Orchestra, ranging from 50 to 65 members each season, has performed concerts at the Missouri Theatre for the past 15 years. During the restoration, the orchestra rehearsed at the Missouri United Methodist Church across the street, but now they can rehearse on stage inside the Missouri Theatre again. They will still continue to rehearse at the church as well.

"We consider the theater to be the cultural center of the city arts community," said Bruce Gordon, orchestra manager. "To be performing at the center of the arts community is a privilege."

The renovation adds a much improved atmosphere to the building, Gordon said.

"We're excited about enjoying the beauty of the restoration from the lobby to the auditorium to the backstage facility," he said.

Before the renovation and expansion efforts could begin last July, businesses renting space next to the theater had to relocate. Allen's Flowers, Top 10 Wines, Dawson's Shoe Repair, Bryant's Campus Jewelers, Acorn Books, Universi-T's and Corporate Identi-T's were all displaced. Nonetheless, many of the businesses found relocation to be a positive change.

Dawson's Shoe Repair's previous shop was six or eight feet back from the sidewalk and hidden by a canopy, owner Bob Wood said. People often did not even know it was there, he said.

"I wish I had found this place 30 years ago," Wood said. "It's a blessing in disguise. I wouldn't go back to the old place."

At first, when Dawson's moved to 212 S. Eighth St., Wood saw some decline in business because he had been in his old location for 23 years.

"But now we've been here a year and a half, and people have found us very well," Wood said.

Wood does not have any hard feelings. "I'm tickled to death that I had to move to make it (the theater) so beautiful," Wood said. "Before we moved it was run-down and falling apart, but now it's a piece of art."

Sandra Ferguson, owner of Allen's Flowers, had a similar reaction to relocating. She much prefers the business' new location at 111 S. Ninth St. because it has three times the space, is more visible and closer to Broadway. She said the businesses were not at all blindsided by the nonrenewal of their leases because the theater had been talking about the renovation for about five years.

Bryant's Campus Jewelers also benefited from relocating to 420 E. Broadway. More parking was one of the improvements they saw as a result of the move. "It's helped my business," owner Larry Bryant said. "They were tearing the building down while I was trying to do business."


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