Performance anxiety 

After four years of taking abuse from Orlando Sentinel publisher Martin Anderson, Bob Carr was prepared to change his mind. One of Orlando's more popular mayors, Carr had endured a very public debate with Anderson over the placement of a 3,200-seat classical music hall. Carr wanted to build the hall in Loch Haven Park, outside of downtown, where land was cheap. Anderson, a wealthy political gadfly, wanted the hall built downtown, arguing it would attract new hotels and department stores. "They say you can't beat City Hall," Anderson wrote during the music hall debate. "But we can put a burr under their saddle."

In late 1966, Carr suddenly announced he'd decided to build the music hall downtown, next to the Orlando Public Library on Central Avenue between Magnolia and Rosalind avenues. But on the day the City Council was supposed to approve the site, Carr fell ill. Less than a week later, he died of a heart attack. The music hall was never built. Instead, the city spent the money budgeted for it, $1.6 million, on remodeling the Municipal Auditorium, which reopened as the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in 1978.

The idea for a hall dedicated solely for the performance of symphonic music never disappeared, especially a music hall that would augment downtown development. Mayor Glenda Hood formally resurrected the idea in 1994 to much excitement, debate and criticism. Members of the mayor's administration referred to building a 1,800-seat downtown performing arts center as "the dream" and it showed in their effort to produce it. They recruited the University of Central Florida to share in the cost, and the university agreed to relocate 250 theater students and faculty to the center. The city considered re-aligning and building a walkway over South Street in order to buy two acres of land from a nearby church. After calling the center by two other names, project leaders finally settled on Florida Center for the Arts and Education. They planned to include shops and restaurants on what they pictured as a sprawling campus, bordered by Orange Avenue, Rosalind Avenue, South Street and Anderson Street.

The city incorporated a non-profit organization that hired a team of reputable consultants and a world-renowned architect, Moshe Safdie. The design Safdie created, though somewhat derivative of his work in Vancouver and Salt Lake City, was nonetheless a testament to his reputation for creative use of curves and simple geometric patterns. Safdie designed a campus of round, glass-covered buildings given effect by a sweeping, two-story arch reminiscent of the ancient Roman aqueduct.

If Safdie's impressive design was too good to be true, in some ways it was. The dream came with a price tag of $130 to $260 million -- money that depended heavily upon fundraising in a city with no history of significant financial art philanthropy. Analysts estimated that the private sector needed to contribute $44 million to the project; donor contributions lingered around $3 million throughout the late 1990s. Last year the center's non-profit organization disbanded and handed the entire project, including fundraising and development, to UCF. The university, in turn, formally abandoned the Safdie design and hired a new team of architects and a contractor that university officials were familiar with.

According to Peter Newman, UCF's facilities planning director, the change was due in part because of budget realities. The city decided it was too expensive to realign South Street and buy two acres of property from the First United Methodist Church that were needed to complete the nine-acre site. Safdie could not have downsized his project, Newman says, on the smaller campus. "You'd have to rework the entire design," he says. "Any design is predicated on the metes and bounds of the site. When that changes, the whole complexion of the project changes."

Those working on the center realized that the design change was a necessary sacrifice for a development that was supposed to have broken ground two years ago. "We're all disappointed," says Richard Pilbrow, chairman of Theatre Projects Consultants, which inventoried the number and types of rooms the center will need. "It was a very bold scheme. Perhaps a little too bold. How does one put that politely? It was rather rich -- rich in what it would cost and rich in the amount of area it required."

Newman says that by the first of the year, university administrators will have a clearer picture of the new design's timetable and cost. By then, the center's new architectural team of Orlando-based Farmer Baker Barrios and Dallas-based HKS, Inc. will have produced conceptual drawings. Farmer Baker Barrios and HKS have already teamed together to design a building near City Hall: the 16-story granite Lincoln Plaza office building on the corner of South Street and Orange Avenue. Their design, while workmanlike and competent, is certainly not in Safdie's league.

Besides budget constraints, UCF is up against a February 2003 timetable or the project might lose $15 million allocated to it by the Florida Legislature in 2000. Newman, however, says that administrators will send the Legislature a letter outlining how much progress the project has made. Newman believes the Legislature will be sympathetic about the delays. "This is not an ordinary job," he says.

By the time the Center finally hosts a concert, in 2006 or beyond, the hope is that downtown Orlando will have a mature arts district to complement it. For the past several years, Orlando government has been shaping a downtown arts district that is still struggling to become a reality. In the past 12 months, two theaters and a city-subsidized art gallery opened. The city also has helped two theater troupes move into a 100-seat theater in the otherwise vacant Church Street Exchange.

That effort is the kind that many grassroots theater organizations want the city to continue. They fear that a performing art center will overshadow efforts to help struggling theater groups. It's these smaller groups that often determine the health of a cultural community. "People forget that Broadway has many 100-seat theaters that produce fantastic shows that end up touring the world," says Tod Kimbro, a local playwright and founding member of Impacte! Productions, a for-profit theater company expected to fold this summer because of financial concerns. "Orlando can make its own name by creating a new Broadway."

The theater community is also looking forward to the reopening of the Civic Theatres in Loch Haven Park, which, in spite of Martin Anderson's protests, became Orlando's cultural center in the early 1970s when the Orlando Museum of Art and the Civic were built. The demise of the Civic two years ago was a blow to the theater community. For years, the Civic, a massive complex of three theaters under one roof, allowed amateur and professional thespians to perform shows year-round, many of them for children who were bused to the complex from schools across the area.

While attendance was generally high, fundraising efforts flagged and by January 2000, the nonprofit organization was facing $350,000 of debt. The theater closed six months later, but there was excitement when a partnership with UCF was announced that would put the complex to use as an additional anchor for the university's theater programs.

A new Civic board, headed by attorney Pat Christiansen, in conjunction with the UCF theater program, has quietly been working to reopen the complex. A contractor has been hired to install metal platforms in the workshop areas as a fire-prevention measure. The work is in preparation for $1.6 million in renovations, mainly replacing air conditioner parts, installing a new fire-alarm system and other non-cosmetic improvements. The Civic's Tupperware Theater, a black box seating 93 people, is expected to be the first of the three theaters to open. According to Christiansen, the Civic has already collected $1.3 million toward the remodeling job, which has no announced completion date. Contributions for the Civic, through United Arts of Central Florida, were encouraging. Though still small, they tripled in the past year.

With so much theater in the wings, and the Florida Center for Arts and Education still on the horizon, some of the age-old concerns continue to linger. True to its agrarian roots, Central Florida is naturally suspicious of big-ticket public-works projects. Cultural shows are often slow to find an audience. Critics of art subsidies typically point to the disbanding of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in 1993 or the continued financial bailout of the Orlando Science Center as reasons for caution. Orlando residents have been critical of the city's $26 million commitment to the Center for the Arts and Education, associating the project more with Mayor Hood's ego than with a burgeoning art scene. Even recently, City Hall observers have referred to the Center as the "Taj MaHood."

The criticism doesn't end with the center, however. Watchers of the art community remain skeptical of designating a Downtown Arts District when Loch Haven Park already serves as a cultural center. Road signs erected along I-4 even advertise the park as home to Orlando's "cultural attractions," which include the art museum, the science center, the Civic, the city-owned Mennello Museum of American Folk Art and the UCF-Shakespeare Festival, which recently opened one new and one renovated theater in its expansive Loch Haven building. Taken from this perspective, identifying and promoting a downtown district located a mile away from Loch Haven Park is schizophrenic. Helping one of them, in theory, hurts the other in the same way that building a performing arts center might detract from grassroots theater companies. There are, after all, only so many patrons.

Brenda Robinson became the city's first art czar two years ago. Robinson, who has worked for the city for 19 years, officially became involved in the arts in the mid-1990s when Hood appointed her as an "executive on loan" to the performing arts center steering committee. Robinson denies this, but in many ways, the center was more Robinson's project than the mayor's. Robinson traveled, among other places, to New Jersey, Boston, New York, Dallas, Houston, Miami and London to learn about performing art centers. She counts 26 centers in all in which she traversed cat walks, checked site lines or toured back stage. (Public money wasn't spent on the trips, Robinson says; to date she says the center has cost the dissolved non-profit corporation about $500,000. Most of that, $300,000, was spent on Safdie's salary.) Robinson's ninth-floor office, which overlooks the center for the arts site on the east side of City Hall, was arranged to become the center's war room, complete with a conference table and extra phone jacks.

As the director of the city's office of arts and cultural affairs, it is Robinson's job to oversee the development of the art's district, in conjunction with the Downtown Arts District Commission. Earlier this year, Robinson and her one assistant put together the art auction that sold the giant plastic lizards seen around town. While some giggled that the lizards were goofy and derivative of art programs in other cities -- and the number of lizards displayed around town fell well short of the original goal -- the auction still netted about $240,000 to be spent on the arts district. Robinson is planning a similar art project later this year that will feature sculptures of all mediums, and which will also be auctioned.

Robinson justifies the decision to form a downtown arts district, in addition to the Loch Haven's facilities, by saying there is a place for each. "The Downtown Arts District and Loch Haven Park are two wholly different environments," she says. "Loch Haven has no restaurants, no shops. It is a wonderful outdoor park setting. Downtown is different. It has shops and restaurants, a strong work force and a lot of people live there. Art enhances that experience. It gives people who live and work here another option."

The city would like to connect Loch Haven, the arts district and the envisioned Florida Center for Arts and Education (which actually anchors the southeast end of the arts district) by extending the free Lymmo bus system that circulates around downtown.

The city also would like to extend the arts district beyond its current boundaries, which stretch to Garland and Rosalind avenues and Washington and Anderson streets. But before that can happen, the city will help concentrate cultural facilities inside the existing, smaller district boundary. The mayor recently announced she will ask the City Council to allocate $1 million to the arts this budget cycle. Half the amount will subsidize rents for theaters, galleries and studios in the arts district. Robinson will use the other half to raise money to buy a building so artists will have a permanent home, which serves two purposes: It gives the public a single location to identify as an artist area, and it allows artists to share resources. "What we have seen across the country is that the arts will help create a business district in a depressed downtown," Robinson says. "Then the arts are forced out once the district becomes wealthy. The arts need a permanent presence in downtown."

The debate over building a performing art center has largely been a back-and-forth, he said/she said kind of thing. Neither side -- critics nor advocates -- has won the debate, and the project has moved forward uneasily. A Connecticut consulting firm completed a needs assessment in 1996. But it was largely discouraging, indicating that the Broadway Series was the most active performing arts organization in Orlando. Yet the Broadway Series, which books as many as 40 performances of traveling shows that pass through the Carr Performing Arts Centre each year, will not have access to the new center. Its home will remain at the 2,400-seat Carr.

Even so, the justification to build a performing arts center seems legitimate. The Carr was built in 1926 as a general-use auditorium. It has hosted everything from dog shows to military dances to Mayor Hood's high-school graduation. Its design, a kind of fan shaped box, doesn't provide the best acoustics for symphonic music.

William Becker, the director of the Orlando Centroplex, is familiar with complaints about the Carr. "Everybody bitches," he says. "The quality of entertainment supersedes the quality of the venue. Is it perfect? No. But everybody wants something different. The symphony doesn't want amplified sound. Some Broadway shows want amplified sound. This is an auditorium. It's not an orchestral hall. They are different things."

But city leaders argue that building a symphonic hall has less to do with sound quality than it does other intangibles associated with the Carr. Parking is a problem, especially on nights when the Magic play in the next-door T.D. Waterhouse Centre. More importantly, the Carr hosts more than 280 rehearsals and performances a year, most of which are crammed into the busy November-to-May cultural schedule.

"You're trying to fit three tons into a two-ton truck," Becker says. "That's not an art analogy but it is what it is. We turn away business every day."

With such crowded conditions, local tenants become limited in the types of performances they can offer. The Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra would like to produce rush-hour concerts but can't get dates at the Carr. "We're completely hampered in our ability to come up with new products," says David Schillhammer, the Philharmonic's executive director.

Whether the congestion means the city should assist UCF in building a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art music hall will continue to be debated. But there is a sense that if a performing arts center is built, an audience will find it. It's not just the hype. It's the expectation of great performances based on what the exterior of the center looks like. "I think a beautiful building will always sound better than an ugly one," says Ronald McKay, an acoustician who has worked on a number of music halls in Western states as well as the MuppetVision ride at Disney/MGM. "I hate to admit it because I'm an acoustician. But people are more visually-oriented than aurally-oriented. That's important to keep in mind."

It also is logical to assume that the center will help revitalize downtown, which is experiencing a building boom aided, in part, by city subsidies to hoteliers, restaurateurs and luxury apartment owners. Denver, Charlotte, Tampa and Cincinnati are among cities where performing art centers were credited with bolstering downtown revitalization. The Lincoln Center helped turn around New York's Upper West Side 35 years ago.

"[Centers] assist in building up downtown life," says Richard Pilbrow, the theater consultant. "But they don't work on their own. You can't build in a derelict part of town. You need critical mass added to the mix."

Downtown theaters are already helping achieve that critical mass. After renting space from Rollins College, the Civic and the Shakespeare festival, the Mad Cow Theater found what it hopes will become a permanent home in November on the second floor of the Rogers Building, one of Orlando's oldest buildings at the corner of Magnolia and Pine streets. Because the Rogers is a multi-use building, Mad Cow's box office and lobby sit in a downstairs art gallery. Concessions are provided by an adjacent coffee shop. Mad Cow rearranges their 75-seat theater into theater-in-the-round, thrust or examination-style seating. Last weekend's shows of the Mad Cow cabaret "I'd Give It All for You ... An Evening of Love Songs" were sold out. "People are coming to downtown Orlando who haven't been here in years," says Mitzi Maxwell, the troupe's general manager. "They call us and ask, 'What do we do? How do we get there?' Being here and watching all this, it's a wonderful thing to be part of. And I'd be the first one to tell you if it wasn't a wonderful thing."

Several blocks to the west, at the edge of the Parramore neighborhood, the Temenos Ensemble Theater has created a buzz with its production of "Joe's NYC Bar," a carryover success from the 2001 Orlando International Fringe Festival. The play has caught the attention of Bank of America, Hughes Supply and other corporate sponsors who have invested in the downtrodden neighborhood. The sponsorship is especially refreshing given that "Joe's NYC Bar" is not mainstream fare. It is experimental theater with adult situations in which the audience sits in a makeshift East Village bar, complete with live music, and is allowed to speak with the actors as the play develops. (Sample audience participation question: "Which cartoon character would you like to fuck?")

"We need a new kind of theater because we are an interactive society," says Christian Kelty, the 33-year-old New York native who wrote "Joe's NYC Bar." The play has been so successful that Kelty has retained an agent to take it national.

Temenos is constructing a 150-seat theater in an adjacent building that will house the children's performance venue for this year's Fringe Festival, which returns to makeshift stages downtown for 10 days starting this week. (Now in its 11th year, the Fringe Festival was the impetus behind calls for a year-round theater district downtown.) "This is going to be the best damn space in the Fringe," Kelty says. "I hope I'm not being too prideful in saying that." After the Fringe, Temenos will lease the theater for a share in the door receipts. "We have an opportunity to make cool theater, to make a change in our neighborhood and downtown," Kelty says. "That's nice."

It's easy to be swept up in Kelty's enthusiasm. Indeed, city leaders hope it's infectious as more theater companies move into the arts district. Brenda Robinson talks openly about becoming the best art community in the country. "We have to shoot for the stars," she says. But you don't have to ask her how quickly those sweet dreams begin to fade. There's a constant reminder in the Moshe Safdie coffee-table book Robinson keeps in her office.


More by William Dean Hinton


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