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Walker Theatre plans $10M revamp: Expanded space to lure larger productions

November 13, 2006

Madame Walker Theatre Center will unveil an ambitious $10 million expansion plan this week that includes knocking out the north side of the historic building and extending it into a neighboring parking lot.

The project would increase the size of the one-time vaudeville theater's stage and add room for props and costumes. Officials hope it also helps them lure larger productions to fill its nearly 1,000 seats.

"This will have a long-term impact on the viability of the theater to really make it the crown jewel of the center," said Executive Director Cynthia Bates.

Other local theater professionals said the changes are needed.

"They desperately need more space," said Elise Kushigian, executive director of the 2,200-seat Clowes Memorial Hall at Butler University.

But she said even an expanded Walker Theatre may be too small for some major productions- including the one on top of Bates' wish list, "The Color Purple."

And the project faces other challenges as well, not the least of which is an aggressive timetable that calls for raising most of the funds by spring and finishing construction in time to celebrate the building's 80th anniversary in December 2007.

Bates remains optimistic nonetheless.

"That shouldn't be too hard," she said.

The four-story, 48,000-square-foot building at the corner of Indiana Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Street houses the theater, a ballroom and several offices rented to notfor-profits and a handful of small, blackowned firms. It also houses the Madam C.J. Walker Museum, which honors the woman who built an Indianapolis grooming-products empire in the early 1900s.

When she had it built in 1927, Walker envisioned the center's becoming a networking center, a hub for black-owned businesses, and a forum for the arts. In many ways, it has stayed true to those purposes.

But it's been a long road from there to here. By the1950s, the center was beginning to struggle with vacancies, and the building was closed in the mid-1960s.

It reopened in 1988 to try again.

Financial struggles

These days, the theater hosts professional touring productions that feature black artists or themes. But the Walker was built for vaudeville, with a small stage and little room for intricate scenery.

Over the years, theater leaders addressed that by closing off the orchestra pit to extend donations, and the rest is earned by renting out the ballroom and offices.

Not content to keep losing money, the center brought in former American Cabaret Theatre Artistic Director Claude McNeal as a consultant in early 2006. McNeal helped develop a to-do list of projects to improve the theater. With his recommendations in hand, leaders hope to make the theater profitable.

Changes

In February, the center purchased the building just north of it-632 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., which used to be the home of Willis Mortuary. Bates declined to disclose the purchase price.

Plans call for the Walker Center addition to occupy space now taken up by a parking lot between the two buildings, adding depth the stage. Still, dressing room space remains limited, and costumes and props must be loaded and unloaded via a single door at street level and then hauled upstairs to get to the stage.

Even the space above the stage is cramped, with air-conditioning units occupying the area other theaters would use to hang background scenery.

Such constraints mean the Walker can accommodate only small shows, usually musical or dance groups, or one- or two-person plays-productions that sometimes struggle to fill the theater's 935 seats. Bates said attendance ranges from 50 percent to 75 percent of capacity.

As a result, the theater is losing money, she said, eating up at least half the center's annual $1.3 million operating budget. About half of its revenue comes from grants and to the stage while also expanding the dressing rooms and storage. A loading dock also is planned.

The air-conditioning units above the stage would be moved, freeing up that space, and the original orchestra pit would be uncovered and restored. Because the stage would be moved back, Bates said it would be possible to add 30 to 40 seats at the front of the theater.

A garage behind the former mortuary would be torn down to make way for additional parking. The building itself might be razed or could house a relocated Madam Walker Museum. If the museum moves, its space will become a welcome center for the Indiana Avenue Cultural District.

Officials also want to restore street-level windows that were bricked over and bring back canopies that would harken back to the original look of the building.

To make all the changes, the group needs to raise $10 million, but could do the work in phases.

Bates said she already has begun talking to larger donors to line up commitments, but doesn't have firm pledges. She also has talked with banks about financing the project once donations are lined up. The public phase of fund raising will kick off Nov. 18 at a dinner in the building's ballroom.

Typically, not-for-profits line up the big donors before going public with a capital campaign, said Kris W. Kindelsperger, a senior executive at Johnson Grossnickle and Associates, a Greenwood-based fund-raising consulting firm.

"If you can add to the [capital fund-raising] announcement that some portion of the journey is already completed, that's what gets people to believe in the whole project," he said.

To tackle the expansion plans, the theater would close after hosting a piano competition in April and unveil the renovated facility in December 2007 to coincide with the building's 80-year anniversary.

Bigger, better shows

Bates hopes the changes increase the likelihood of landing higher-profile productions, such as "The Color Purple," which begins touring next spring after a successful run on Broadway.

More space also could mean more chances to produce plays in-house, such as this year's "Dream Girls," a musical about a black singing group in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Madame Walker and Scottish Rite Performing Arts Center joined forces to stage that local production.

Landing a Broadway road show would certainly be a big win for the Walker. Broadway Across America Indianapolis now rents Clowes Hall and the Murat Centre to host touring productions of hits such as "Cats" and "Rent."

Kushigian of Clowes said the shows are popular, but the fee BAAI pays to bring the shows can run into six figures.

"Broadway does very well in Indianapolis," she said.

Still, it's not a slam dunk for the Walker.

Although an expansion might help it woo some larger shows, Kushigian said it will likely still be too small for ones on the scale of "The Color Purple." The intricate costumes, props and backgrounds require lots of room to maneuver.

"It would be a tight fit to present that in Clowes or the Murat," she said. "Even with an expansion, I don't believe it would fit in the Walker."

She said she cheers the expansion and hopes to get back to working more closely with the Walker to co-host multicultural events. But every theater is facing uncertainties as younger audiences get lured away by more entertainment options.

"If the Walker has a good business plan and they know their niche, they'll be successful," she said.

Indianapolis has a number of theaters-- some that host touring shows and others that stage their own productions--but there isn't much cut-throat competition, said Megan McKinney, marketing director for the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

"I think the theaters that are running now are all niche theaters to some extent," McKinney said. "We all have our own special angle and welcome growth."

And larger black-centered shows at the Walker means more exposure for the entire community.

"Taking the theater back to where it was as a true beacon of African-American culture in the city is tremendous," said John Green, chairman of the Department of Theatre at Butler University Jordan College of Fine Arts.
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