by Jeanie Riess
Lydia C. Broyard has lived down the street from the historic Carver Theater since 1945. The 93 year-old popped her head into the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly renovated theater this morning to get a glimpse of the space where she watched all her favorite old westerns, and where her grandchildren and great-children all grew up going to the movies. "It looks nice," she says, walking home alongside the brick building. "Not how I remembered it, but nice."
RIght beside her, a marching band from Landry-Walker High School is lining up to go in and perform on the Carver's new stage. Jermaine Johnson, a senior drummer in the band, says he's excited to play because of the theater's storied history, though he had never even heard of the Carver before he was asked to play there.
That side-by-side experience, of the old reconnecting to a place once thought to be forever lost, and of youth embracing what to them is a new venue for music, theater, movies and community events, is a constant theme at the Carver, and one that the opening day's speakers picked up on as they addressed a meandering crowd of about 200. District A City Councilmember Susan Guidry said she noticed on the way people's faces changed upon entering the enormous auditorium, looking like versions of their younger selves. She also remarked at how significant the Carver is not just to the past, but to the future of Treme and New Orleans.
Jazz saxophonist Kidd Jordan told stories of the Carver, eventually touching on the theme of the day: "One thing about music, it's going to keep developing," he said. "Whether we like it or not."
The Carver opened in 1950 as the first theater exclusively for blacks when racial segregation was in full force. It closed in 1980, until Dr. Eugene Oppman reopened the building as a medical clinic. The clinic closed after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures of 2005, but it was Oppman's dream to restore the building for its intended purpose: an entertainment venue for jazz, theater, concerts and other community events.
"I guess this means it's finally open, now that there are people here that aren't architects and contractors," said Oppman. The optometrist first promised that the theater would open in 2012, a two-year delay not lost on one passing cyclist, who before the ribbon-cutting got underway, yelled: "It's about fucking time!" and rang his bike bell furiously.
The $8 million renovation, however, was worth the wait. A flurry of musicians opened up the theater with John Boutte's "Treme Song" and "Basin Street Blues," putting a $1 million sound system to the test. It passed with flying colors. In the lobby, flat screen monitors project the show inside, so that even while you're getting a drink or using the restroom you won't miss what's happening on stage. The auditorium itself is big and empty, making it a versatile venue for all kinds of events.
The celebration, which is also meant to commemorate International Jazz Day, continues on through tonight. You can see a full schedule of events here.
As for Broyard, she says she's not going anywhere "until the man upstairs calls me." She doesn't expect this visit to the Carver Theater to be her last.