Renovations at Keith-Albee include new seats, improvements to backstage areas | Features/Entertainment

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HUNTINGTON – Sitting in the front row of the historic Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center under the Spanish atmospheric sky is always a special feeling.

But when Leslie Jones hits the stage Wednesday. Sept. 20, to kick off the 81st season of the Marshall Artists Series, the first row will literally be the best seats in the house.

Barring any unforeseen emergencies, the plan is for Darren Diamond’s Diamond Furniture Restoration in Russell, Kentucky, to have the first row of 32 seats completely restored and back in their proper places as the Keith-Albee Foundation’s “Take A Seat Under the Stars” program is now underway.

Row by row, the 2,200 seats are being completely restored, including fabric matching the original seats from when the Thomas Lamb-theater was first opened in 1928, Shaleena Ross, who worked in ticketing at the Marshall Artists Series for five years and who is now working at the Keith-Albee full-time, said the ongoing “Take a Seat Under the Stars” campaign, which will ultimately cost $2.6 million, is just one of the renovations the Foundation is working on inside the landmark theater.

The Keith-Albee Foundation has – in its 10 years of owning the Keith-Albee – completed more than $1 million in renovations including new roofs, a sign repair and, most recently, installing a new HVAC system for the theater. However, the current projects, such as the seat campaign are much more noticeable and tailor-made for the community to jump on board and help sponsor, Ross said.

“There have been some really good projects that have happened, like the new roofs and the HVAC system. They are great, but they are not very visual,” she said. “The visual is the painting and re-doing seats. That is the thing that people who maybe haven’t been in here for 10 years will walk in and be like, ‘Oh, you have done this,’ or ‘Oh you have done that.'”

Fixing the pit and stage front

To see some of the other work at the theater this summer one only has to look directly in front of the first row as building managers Junior Ross and Gary Cooper have repainted the floor, the orchestra pit’s wooden floor, as well as restored the wood framing and footlights along the front of the stage.

The orchestra pit spruce-up will have some immediate impact as the Artists Series has two rows (42 seats) in the pit for prime general admission seats reserved for Marshall students only for Wednesday’s show which features national act comedian Leslie Jones, a star of “Saturday Night Live” as well as other TV and films such as “Ghostbusters.” Those seats are first-come, first-serve.

“The last time they did seats so close like this was for Blue Man Group (November 2013),” Shaleena Ross said. “You can have that option or do tables or you can do a live orchestra, so this has to be movable.

“Junior and Gary pulled the entire top of the stage off, and it had pulled away, and there was so damage underneath. So they secured everything, and we had a company that came in and (did) custom wood to match, and they painted the floor, painted the backsplash and the steps,” Ross said of the new stage front.

Other new improvements being made to the Keith-Albee are behind the curtain, and even under the stage.

To stage left is a waiting room where the stars wait to go on stage. That room was being painted green with a white trim this past week.

“For the last few years it has been more of a just a walk-through room, and we want to bring it back to that original theater feel where they had like a siting room to an old house,” Shaleena Ross said. “We have new carpet, chairs and artwork going up. We tried to re-create it to look like it would have looked originally when it was built.”

In the backstage area, which had been painted what had become a dirty white, painters have put new coats of Galliant Gold and Rockwood Dark Red paint, similar to the paint being used in other parts of the theater.

“There was no record of what the original paint color was, but when we started to paint back here we thought, ‘Why not use the same color of paint that we are using to restore the front, in the back?’ That makes it a lot easier,” Shaleena Ross said. “The white was too bright, and it was getting beat up. This was the golden palace so why not have that same color scheme and feeling backstage.”

Shaleena Ross said they worked with Sherwin Williams’ Kate Flatley to help them pick the paint schemes for the theater.

“Had it not been for her guidance we would have not known what we were getting into because we had paints with so many different consistencies on the wall,” Shaleena Ross said. “She recommended what we needed for what we have.”

The basement, or the main stage corridor, is filled with rooms, many of them dressing rooms down long hallways of what was gray walls that looked more Stephen King movie than grand movie palace.

That area is also under renovation with those long hallways being painted in that classic golden hue, as well as the massive trap room (which has trap doors that lead underneath the stage).

That room, which also leads out to the house and the orchestra pit, runs the length of the stage. It is a multi-purpose room used for catering and meet-and-greets, and it even houses extra members of the orchestra if they are too big to fit in the pit.

While that room is up for painting next, the Keith-Albee caretakers are also making priorities to restore some of the rooms that were shut off and not being used.

“It was a movie theater for so long, and these backstage areas would just be shut off. So now we are recovering them a room at a time. Junior and Gary will go in a room and look around and see what we need to fix it,” Shaleena Ross said.

Two interesting rooms being recovered is a room that was once used for laundry. They hope to paint and patch that room (which has a plaster ceiling that needs fixed), and add a washer and dryer for the performing companies (especially the Broadway and large ballet company tours) to use, since they often need such facilities as they stay on the road.

They also uncovered a small bathroom with all original fixtures that still works but that had been shut off for decades. That room is being restored for all of about $200, Junior Ross said.

“Now that we are bringing it back to a full performance arts center you have to re-uncover these rooms and talk about what you want to do with these rooms. You don’t need the same rooms you did in 1928, but you also need to keep the historical integrity of the building,” Shaleena Ross said. “And to make sure you are not destroying anything that is a part of history, but how can you re-use it for today. That is what we are discovering is that you have to modernize, but you also have to keep those original elements. We want to create a new future for the building and to make sure that when you come to a show here not only if you are in the audience but if you are coming to perform you have a great experience.”

Continuing the ‘Take A Seats Under The Stars’ campaign

Shaleena Ross said the first part of the seat campaign took the longest amount of time since they had to wait for the original fabric to come in. Andrew Myers Interior Design (Andrew Myers and A.J. Stovitz) worked for six or seven months and went through about 30 manufacturers to find the best companies to re-create the original carpet and upholstery. Once the order was placed, it took another few months for the custom fabric to be made and ready to be used.

“The floor and the chairs is part of the seat campaign. We ordered the fabric, and we have enough to do every seat in the theater, plus the additional furniture that has been in storage backstage that needs to be upholstered,” Shaleena Ross said. “We ordered it in one big batch, and when it comes in we can take the seats out a lot more regularly. It has taken about 3 1/2 months for the fabric to come in.”

As far as funding, in February, the campaign, which kicked off in late December 2016, got a $250,000 grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History with matching funds from the Keith-Albee Foundation for a $500,000 boost. That was added to the more than $100,000 the Foundation had raised since the campaign began in December.

Junior Ross said some folks have asked why they just didn’t buy new modern seats, but because of the slope of the theater, each seat is unique and that made restoration a cheaper option.

“Each seat has to go right back where it was before because of the slope of the floor,” Junior Ross said.

The Foundation has a good start on the seat campaign with large donations from Brick Street Insurance, St. Mary’s Medical Center and Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Geoffrey Sheils, president of First Sentry Bank and a co-chairman of the restoration committee, announced at the campaign kick-off in December that the first 75 seats in the middle of the balcony will be dedicated to the memory of the 75 Marshall football players, coaches and community members who died in the Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.

That said there are still plenty of seats that need sponsored. The “Take a Seat” investment levels are: Maestro ($1,500) for row B to row O on the orchestra level and loge boxes, Director ($1,250) for the remaining orchestra level seats, and Conductor ($1,000) for all regular balcony seats behind the loge. Donors will get the name of their choice – whether a patron, company or person being memorialized – on their chair.

On deck at the Keith-Albee

Here’s a look at the upcoming events at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center:

n Leslie Jones at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20: The Marshall Artists Series teams with Marshall Student Activities to present a night of comedy with “Saturday Night Live” and “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones. Jones is also sponsored by Intercultural Affairs at Marshall University. Ticket prices are $64.11 and $42.28.

n The Fall International Film Festival will take place Sept. 21-24 at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center. Featured films include “Frantz” (France/Germany), “Atomic Homefront” (USA), “Their Finest” (UK), “The Salesman” (Iran), “Land of Mine” (Denmark) and “Fire at Sea” (Italy). The Marshall Artists Series partners with HBO Documentaries and Morgan Spurlock’s wife, Sarah, to screen “Atomic Homefront,” a new (not yet seen on TV) documentary about nuclear waste dumping near St. Louis. This film is a case study of how citizens are confronting state and federal agencies for the truth about the extent of the contamination and are fighting to keep their families safe. Tickets are $10 per film.

n Presented by St. Mary’s Medical Center and HIMG, iconic singer/songwriters Stephen Stills and Judy Collins will bring their classic songs to Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2. The opening act will be Kreg Viesselman. Ticket prices are $97.87, $76.04 and $54.21.

n Rising country artist Maren Morris brings her Hero Tour to the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12. CMA New Artist of the Year winner, Morris, whose music bridges the gap between country, classic rock and hip-hop-influenced pop, has enjoyed success both as a songwriter and as a performer. She has written songs for artists including Tim McGraw and Kelly Clarkson. Her album “Hero” hit No. 1 on the charts and she was nominated for several Grammy Awards this year. Ticket prices are $28.50 and $23.50.

n “Kinky Boots” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26: “Kinky Boots” is a huge-hearted, high-heeled Broadway hit thanks to a wealth of songs by Grammy- and Tony Award-winning pop icon Cyndi Lauper. Inspired by true events, “Kinky Boots” takes a rollicking path from a gentlemen’s shoe factory in Northampton to the glamorous catwalks of Milan. Ticket prices are $97.87, $81.50, $70.58 and $64.04.

n Comedian John Mulaney at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1: The funny man brings his new tour, “Kid Gorgeous,” to Huntington. Presented by Marshall University Student Activities. Ticket prices are $65.13 and $43.30.

n Brickstreet Insurance presents veteran singer/songwriters Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6. Tickets are $97.87, $76.04 and $65.13.

n The Broadway musical “A Night With Janis Joplin” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14: “A Night with Janis Joplin” is a musical journey celebrating Joplin and her biggest musical influences – icons like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Odetta, Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, who inspired one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest legends. Ticket prices are $97.87, $81.50, $70.58 and $64.04.

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