Midtown Raleigh News

Repairs proposed for Raleigh’s aging Memorial Auditorium

By the time “Les Miserables” wrapped up its February run at Memorial Auditorium, more than 19,000 people had jammed through the doors for a string of sold-out shows that generated $1.47 million in gross ticket sales.

It was a smashing week for the grand old theater, which has welcomed audiences since 1932. But fans of the Broadway classic may have noticed signs of aging as they made their way into the hall.

The carpeting is worn and frayed in many spots. Some seats sport dings and scratches. And the bathrooms suffer from scuff marks and water damage.

The venue, part of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, has not seen a major renovation since 1998, just before “Phantom of the Opera” played for the first time.

That may soon change. Last week, in a preview of his upcoming budget proposal, City Manager Russell Allen said he plans to propose borrowing money for an initial round of repairs and refurbishments at the center.

The timing stands out in a budget season expected to focus mostly on difficult cuts – in areas from employee benefits to road-building projects – as Raleigh slowly recovers from the recession.

After years of putting off maintenance, the city can no longer leave Memorial Auditorium in its present condition, Allen said.

“If people see worn seats and scratched walls, it’s just not a first-class experience,” Allen said in an interview. “And many of our customers pay for first-class experiences.”

Needs top $500k

Much of the work involves basics such as carpeting and furniture. Also at the top of the list: replacing a sputtering HVAC system that struggles to keep audiences cool in the hot summer months.

The immediate needs could easily reach $500,000, said Russell Denton, the venue’s maintenance supervisor. With budget preparations ongoing, Allen has not specified an amount.

There are more specialized items, too. Venue managers and performance groups that use the hall want to update the sound and mechanical systems. The N.C. Symphony would like acoustical panels on its home stage in Meymandi Concert Hall to improve the sound quality and let musicians hear each other while on stage.

Long-term, the city plans to work with consultants to reconfigure the layout of 2,250-seat Memorial Auditorium to allow for more seats. Reaching the 3,000-seat threshold is considered a key to attracting upper-tier acts.

Despite a $10 million renovation in 1990 and additional improvements since then, Memorial, one of four halls in the Progress Energy Center, has irregular acoustics and problematic sight lines, depending on where you sit.

The hall has struggled to compete with the more modern Durham Performing Arts Center, which nabs top Broadway shows thanks to its ties to Nederlander, one of the world’s largest entertainment venue operators.

Raleigh can counter Nederlander’s power with its relationship with entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel Communications and its Live Nation concert booking, as well as relationships with Broadway Series South.

Raleigh’s Broadway series has also joined forces with one-time competitor N.C. Theatre, which produces its own Broadway-style musicals.

More shows, growing needs

On a walk through the complex last week, Jim Lavery pointed out a trail of trouble spots. Lavery is general manager of the performing arts center.

Glass skylights need to be replaced on the roof. The mostly barren outdoor plaza, where two trees were toppled a year ago by the April tornadoes, needs lighting and landscaping touch-ups.

The worn carpeting, in place since the 1980s, ranks among the most obvious needs. “For 25 years of traffic, it’s not bad,” Lavery said.

In December, the center welcomed 120,000 people for an annual rush of Christmas-themed events such as the “Nutcracker” and a Broadway touring production of “A Christmas Story.”

A show called “Myth Busters,” based on an Emmy-nominated Discovery television series, visited in March for an afternoon of experiments, video and audience participation.

“Promoters are coming back into the market and doing some smaller shows, testing the waters and seeing what works,” Lavery said.

As crowds file into the 80-year-old venue for the eclectic lineup, Allen said temporary fixes are no longer sufficient.

“At some point, it costs you more to maintain it than it would to replace it,” Allen said. “That’s not a good position to be in.”