Indiana Avenue looks for revival: Madame Walker Theatre: casts stage veteran to reinvigorate theater

Madame Walker Theatre casts stage veteran to reinvigorate theater

Claude McNeal stands atop the stage of the Madame Walker Theatre, looks up at the result of a well-meaning 1980s renovation, and declares it a disaster.

Sealing off the top of the stage area to outfit the nearly 80-year-old building with an air-conditioning unit is mostly responsible for the 1,000-seat theater’s inability to attract national touring shows, McNeal opines.

Without the open area above, known as fly space, theatrical productions can’t drop hanging scenery down for scene changes. Therein lies a major dilemma for the historic entity struggling to produce meaningful revenue.

McNeal’s recommendation is to move the air-conditioning unit to the roof and dismember its support system.

Those types of suggestions are the reason city art advocates convinced McNeal, 69, to put retirement on hold and offer advice on how to turn a theater fraught with problems into a moneymaker.

The native New Englander and prolific playwright founded American Cabaret Theatre at the Athenaeum in 1990 and retired as its artistic director last year. He is providing consulting services at no charge. Non-payment for services rendered certainly has not curbed his enthusiasm.

“Half the people think this is a hopeless case, but half the people thought the Athenaeum was a hopeless case,” he says from his third-story office inside the theater center. “I simply want to see this work.”

While at ACT, McNeal helped raise $5 million to renovate the facilities in the late 1990s. Early estimates show this project could cost several million dollars. He continues to meet with potential donors to raise $120,000 for an in-depth study of the building.

Besides moving the air-conditioning system, McNeal wants to knock out the rear wall of the four-story structure, which he says already has problems, to provide additional room to accommodate his plans.

Creating extra space to the rear would allow for the stage to be moved back and for balcony dwellers to see the performance better. The front of the stage, which would be twice as large as the current size, would be removed to uncover the orchestra pit. Hosting large shows is impossible without accompanying musicians.

Another critical element to the theater’s success, according to McNeal, is the addition of loading docks and freight elevators to handle production equipment. The theater, outfitted in early-20th-century African decor, was built in the vaudeville era when traveling entertainers performed on small stages with few props.

New dressing rooms and storage space would be added as well. The ballroom that seats 350 people on the fourth floor and the accompanying kitchen would be renovated, and there is even talk about locating a restaurant on the roof.

McNeal estimates the time to get the theater rolling could take three to five years. If all goes well, he thinks it could clear $35,000 a week, a standard figure in the industry. Most of the current performances are by local choruses and swing dance clubs and provide little opportunity for profit. He also wants to create an endowment.

“Because he has 30-plus years in this area and has done this before, he is bringing the experience we don’t have,” theater CEO Cynthia Bates said.

The 22 directors that comprise the board would need to approve the recommendations. Said McNeal: “When I saw the potential, I thought, ‘God, this is really something.'”

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