Sightlines: Recollections of the Southern Theater Renovation

Article by Mike Kittel

Mike Kittel is a well known and prominent lighting designer here and has worked at many theaters in town, primarily with Frank Theater and Park Square, where he is the resident designer.  Many people probably do not know that he was also the technical director of the Southern Theater when it was renovated and is responsible for a great many of the improvements made there.  In this article he discusses some of the trials and tribulations that went into creating the Southern as it stands today. - Mike Wangen

In the year 2000, I was the Technical Director at the Southern Theater.  For a couple of years we had been planning a big renovation, new seating, new dimmers, HVAC, and a total reconfiguration of the upstairs space. The Upstairs had been a “storage” space and was FULL of platforms and legs and a million curtains. I think we could have opened up a hardware store that specialized in stripped bolts and screws from the 1970s, torn dusty curtains, and old platforms.

We filled, I think, at least 5 ten yard dumpsters, and recycled a couple of tons of HVAC and steel. I sold 72 dimmers to Mixed Blood and gifted raceways to Red Eye Theater. The project timeline was tight at six weeks. Two weeks in we were done with demolition. From the stage right entry all the way to the arch was empty, and the stairway was gone.  Access to the second floor was by ladder.

The Architect and general contractor had a regular crew that would do all of the framing and to save money, southern crew would do the demolition and help out where needed. The GC’s crew was set to join the project on Monday, but the project they were on was hit by a MAJOR thunderstorm over the weekend and there was an incident involving a tarp so they had to stay on the other job to repair the damage. Now we all know how to use a hammer, a chop saw, tape and screw guns, but construction workers we are NOT!

The lumber order came on Monday morning and we had to cart it all in from the hotel cul-de-sac and through the stage door down stage left.  It took six of us almost a full day to get the lumber in the building and when it was stacked and sorted most of the stage was covered 3-4 feet high in plywood and 2x stock.

The seating risers were trussed in 2x6 with 2 layers of ¾ in ply glued and screwed; the bays under were also trussed out with 2 40ft 2x12 LVL headers bolted thru, glued, and nailed on 12in centers. The construction of the platform had to be “hurricane” code for the force of 300 people jumping to their feet at the end of a show. Most of the walls were 2 layers of 5/8 in drywall for fire code.

One Saturday Steve Kath, myself and Jonno (the GC) put up the main staircase.  Jonno assembled it on the ground with 3 LVL stringers and 2x12 steps and the three of us hoisted it into place with a rope and a pulley attached to the hi steel beam. It had to weigh 300lbs. (Jonno was a beast….and a bit crazy!) He bought Steve and I each a 20 0z Estwig hammer, one of the coolest gifts ever!

Two weeks go by and still no crew, just a few theater techs that were learning a lot about construction…fast. I was getting very nervous about getting done as I had to prep and label and run 144 circuits of multi cables, build the booth table and figure out a way to get into the grid (for months after we opened we still had to use my extension ladder to get up there).  

I had planned a week trip in the middle of the project because the GC assured me that I would not be needed for the construction, but it had been almost a month of 10 hr days for me, and we were all getting a bit punchy. A few days before I left the framing was close and finally…the construction crew joined us.

Drywall shipment came in. It seemed like 1000 sheets of 4X12 mostly 5/8in….HEAVY.  Of course we had to cart it 75 feet to get it into the building. At 8pm after a long day Jeff Bartlett, Dave Riisager, Ronnie Albert and I were rolling a full cart thru the stage door when a wheel came off the cart and trapped Ronnie’s foot under the cart. We all freaked out a bit and Jeff started throwing sheets off of the cart. Ronnie yelled “Jeff stop! Don’t break the drywall!” It took a few minutes to get him out of there and luckily all he had was a small cut on his ankle.

I got back from my trip and was amazed at the progress, the drywall was going up so fast, electric was done and inspections were rolling thru. I jumped on getting the dimmers set and the multi-runs going. We were going to open a Ragamala show in a week and there would be no seats.  The carpet had to be installed and the rep plot put in place.  Painters were everywhere and Jonno was installing the beautiful custom curved box office.  

It was very possible that the audience would sit on the carpet for the first few weeks of shows. We were in tech rehearsals and someone pointed out that Jeune Lune would be dark for a month so Ronnie and his “Sanford and Son” truck came to the rescue.  We were throwing 200 seats up the platform fireman style the afternoon of opening. We were off…

In a couple of weeks the seats were shipped and installed; the cushions and backs were new, and the sides and armrests were antiques that had been in the basement for years. The armrests were refinished and aisle handrails were built by Steve Kath. Ronnie welded cable storage racks.

I can’t begin to list all who contributed, but it really was a Herculean effort. It would take months to trick out the space and find out what fixes we needed to make, but when the seat tags were in, pilot hole drilled, centered with a hand cut template and a plumb bob of string and washer, nailed with hand cut brads, (½ inch would poke thru the back), we were finished.