$24.3 million Pantages renovation to close historic Tacoma theater for 18 months

Broadway Center CEO David Fisher with Pantages Theater in the background in downtown Tacoma in February.
Broadway Center CEO David Fisher with Pantages Theater in the background in downtown Tacoma in February. Staff photographer

A $24.3 million plan to restore Tacoma’s historic Pantages Theater, including exterior work and seismic upgrades, is slated to begin next year and eventually close the theater for 18 months.

“The Pantages is a wedding-cake-beautiful kind of building,” said Michael Sullivan of Artifacts, the historic preservation consultants for the project. “But it’s gotten tarnished over the years. We need to bring it back.”

The Broadway Center, which manages the city-owned theaters, will spearhead the project, which will be paid for with $16.7 million in city, state and other government or private funding, and $7.5 million from donors.

Center officials announced the start of their latest renovation phase Thursday.

The center aims to strike a balance between historic preservation of the downtown theater and modern needs for safety and sustainability, executive director David Fischer said.

Renovation to the exterior of the building will include cleaning its white terra cotta surface, replacing windows in the upper office levels and repairing seals on the tuckpointing.

“The overall glossiness will be a big change,” Sullivan said. “The building’s like a car that hasn’t had a car wash in 10 years.”

The exterior work will begin in spring 2016 and last about six months. Seismic reinforcements will close the much-used theater from May 2018 to September 2019.

The cost of the seismic reinforcements — the project’s biggest single expense at $10 million — has more than doubled since the original plan was first presented to the City Council in January 2014.

But the work is needed to bring the theater up to current code, Fischer said.

“We need to meet code requirements and protect the people using our buildings,” he said. “We’re aiming for 100 percent safety of people” in an earthquake.

Other interior renovations will include new seating, historically informed restoration of plaster and paintwork, and new lighting.

The theater’s box seats — added during a restoration in the 1980s — will be reconfigured to avoid the current spine twisting needed to view the stage.

A center aisle — part of the original design but removed in the 1980s — will be restored and the old projection booth downsized, allowing for narrower rows and 180 more seats.

The extra capacity will help the Broadway Center become more competitive in the shows it can book. The theater also will also get a new ADA-friendly drop-off zone and mini-plaza outside.

One change welcome to musical artists and patrons will be improvements to the hall’s acoustics, including removing some carpet, installing seats that reflect rather than absorb sound and creating a custom-designed shell for the stage.

Another improvement might be an electronic amplification-enhancement system that would overcome the theater’s unforgiving acoustics, which muffle sound and weaken the tonal warmth of music.

“The Pantages has an extremely crisp, bright and clear sound, but obviously it’s very dry as to resonance,” said Andy Buelow, executive director of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra will work with the Broadway Center on the modifications and contribute money toward the improvements, Buelow said.

To complete the interior renovations, the Pantages will close for 18 months, affecting the Broadway Center’s presentations and those of five of the seven Tacoma-based resident arts organizations that use the theaters regularly.

Fischer said it is too soon to tell whether the closure will affect the center’s income, which in 2013-14 totaled $4.9 million, of which $2.7 was revenue from programs.

Like the five resident groups — the Tacoma Symphony, Tacoma Opera, Tacoma City Ballet, Tacoma Concert Band and Tacoma Youth Symphony Association — the center will have to use other venues for the 2018-19 season.

The Puget Sound Revels and Northwest Sinfonietta use only the Rialto Theater.

The campaign budget has $500,000 built in to cover costs of changing venues for the resident arts groups and the center’s programs. Another $700,000 is in the regular budget to cover other contingencies.

Finding those new homes will not be an easy task for some of the resident groups, which have diverse needs such as good acoustics, backstage space, set facilities, weekly rehearsal rooms or space for large audiences.

The two other downtown theaters — the Rialto and Theatre on the Square — seat far fewer people and have smaller stages or minimal facility for sets and drops. They’ll also be in high demand.

The Tacoma Armory on South 11th Street is farther away and while large, has little permanent seating, no stage and few restrooms.

A recent Broadway Center plan to add extra seating and facilities has been shelved, so the center will continue to use the building for events that don’t need extra seating.

Other venue possibilities suggested by Fischer include the Hotel Murano, the Tacoma Dome and the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center, plus more outdoor concerts.

“It’s challenging, but it’s an opportunity to try things you wouldn’t normally try,” said Buelow, who’s dealt with venue closures with other groups in his career.

He sees the orchestra using a combination of new venues such as Chapel Hill Presbyterian in Gig Harbor, and more frequent performances in the Rialto with different repertoire.

“The benefit is that the Broadway Center is very aware of the hardship, and is committed to covering the coordination of the move and any added expense of new venues,” Buelow said. “That’s huge.”

For groups with more specialized needs, such as Tacoma City Ballet, the closure is more dramatic.

“We won’t have anywhere to do ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” ballet director Erin Ceragioli said. “It’s a big show and won’t fit into any other venue. We’ll have to go out of the city. … Anything big we do, like ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Snow Queen,’ will also have to (leave).”

Unlike a symphony or concert band, a large ballet or opera show needs a large stage with extensive “fly” and wing space, machinery to move sets in and out, storage and dressing room space, an orchestra pit and the capacity for a large audience.

Ceragioli is thinking of moving “The Nutcracker,” Tacoma’s biggest production of that show, to the new Federal Way Performing Arts & Conference Center, slated to open during that same season.

The upcoming renovations continue investments in the Pantages made over the past decade.

Those have included a renovated lobby and additional restrooms, as well as work on the street loading area and remodeled dressing rooms.

The theater also removed two pillars that ran from the basement through the stage to the upper levels and caused trouble for sight lines and sets.

Part of the $10 million the City Council approved in February for the project was used to remove the pillars. Some will go to the exterior and interior restoration.

Other money for the project will come from state heritage capital funds, tax credits and state grants.

The campaign to raise $7 million from private sources will see a “quiet” start in early 2016, followed by an official launch after the exterior renovations are completed next fall.

In addition to work on the Pantages, other items covered by the $24.3 million budget will include an improved lobby for Theatre on the Square, which will showcase the nonprofit women’s storytelling startup WILLO, in exchange for its partnership in fundraising.

The project also includes a $2.5 million endowment fund, to be used to support programming and education and to keep ticket prices down, Fischer said. The amount is down from the original $12 million endowment planned in 2013.

The Broadway Center’s initial proposal called for restoring not only the Pantages but also the nearby Rialto Theater, as well as building an outdoor stage in Theater Park and modifying the adjoining Jones Building and Theatre on the Square.

Those plans since have been reduced.

Work on the Rialto Theater and a possible 2,000-seat theater in the park will have to wait until after the Pantages project is completed in 2020 and there’s more money, Fischer said.

“We felt we had to take those in smaller, bite-size pieces,” he said. While the seismic safety of the Rialto is “fantastic,” initial plans for the theater did include a bigger lobby, ADA improvements and an elevator, new seating, plaster and masonry work, and an enhanced stage.

“It’s all about funding and what we feel confident to achieve,” Fischer said.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568