Kenneth Gowland laughs as he looks at an empty shell of a theater from its second-floor balcony. Construction workers below, above and alongside him install walls, bars, lights, carpets — everything the Joy Theater needs when it opens in less than a month. Dust swirls, saws buzz, things are hammered into other things. But Gowland, who's worked on the project since 2005, wading through floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina, experiencing new ownership and frequent starts and stops, says the construction is in its final stage, and he has just a few things left to check off the list before the doors open Dec. 29.
"Next week the seats start going in," he says, waving an arm toward crews rolling out carpet on the balcony. "Today, the carpet's going in."
Gowland laughs again, not because there clearly is a lot of work to be done with a very, very tight deadline to follow, but because the project — a massive gutting of one of Canal Street's historic venues, the total renovation of a New Orleans icon and the ambition to anchor the street's revival as an entertainment capital — is actually happening. "And so much more will happen by tomorrow," he says.
The Joy Theater originally opened Feb. 7, 1947, the first of its kind on Canal Street in 20 years and a precursor to the streamlined vision of the 1950s. Architect B.W. Edwards used an ultra-Moderne template with a clean, wraparound marquee and glass-plated, glowing red neon spelling "JOY" on a white, vertical sign above the marquee.
It was the latest "modern film temple" from theater magnate Joy Houck, who named the theater (and his business, Joy Theaters Inc.) after himself. Houck owned more than 60 theaters across the southeast, including the famed Joy-Strand Theatre in New Orleans, which opened in 1938, and the Robert E. Lee theaters in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. When the Joy opened, The Times-Picayune raved about the new theater's "latest equipment and clear sound" — and the addition of a first-of-its-kind "cry room," a sound-proof, glass-encased room for mothers with babies.
The Joy was built at a cost of $275,000 and had 1,250 seats. Film celebrity Dan Duryea was the special guest at its opening weekend, which screened Lucille Ball in the revenge-comedy Lover Come Back. (Duryea's film White Tie and Tails opened the following week.)
According to theater expert and Prytania Theatre owner Rene Brunet (who ran the Joy from 1978 to 2003 — more on that later), Houck had a competitor and an enemy in E.V. Richards, who managed the neighboring Saenger Theater, the 4,000-seat venue that already had been a Canal Street titan for 20 years by the time the Joy opened.
"When Richards found out a theater was going up on Canal Street, he said, 'He'll never make it in that theater,'" Brunet says. "So Joy Hauck said, 'I want a great big sign with the name "Joy" on it. ... Every time Mr. Richards is going to look at the Saenger Theater, he's going to see Joy.'"
Ironically, the Joy's reopening this year precedes the Saenger's, which is scheduled to open for the 2012-2013 Broadway In New Orleans season.
Since Hurriane Katrina and the levee failures, the city has put a magnifying glass on the recovery of Canal Street, presently that small area of Canal where it meets North Rampart and Basin streets and Elk Place. Its glory days were far behind it by the '80s, though the theater remained in operation through the 2000s. Brunet says the 2005 flood was the worst thing to happen to it.
Resurgence of business on that end of Canal Street has been patchy. The Saenger's opening has been pushed back repeatedly, and there have been delays in renovating Loew's State Theater (or the State Palace Theater), but the neighboring Saint Hotel reopens next month inside the Audubon Building at 931 Canal St. Built in 1909 and closed since 1997, the building received a $45 million makeover for the boutique luxury hotel, which has 166 rooms and a restaurant from Coquette's Michael Stoltzfus. Across from the Joy is the Krauss Building, which housed department stores for more than 90 years until it closed in 1997. Its $60 million renovation as 1201 Canal brought luxury condominiums to the now 108-year-old building.
Edwards' architectural work also can be seen at near-identical Fiske Theatre in Oak Grove, La., built in 1950, a few years after the Joy. That theater is northeast Louisiana's oldest — and last month it finally switched its 35 millimeter film equipment to full digital projection, one of the last holdouts to do so. That theater originally was opened in 1928 by Howard Fiske. In 1950 it received a redesign with Edwards' trademark white-and-red Moderne style. (The theater now is owned by the West Carroll Chamber of Commerce and operated by Holland Entertainment.)
"The architecture then was more streamlined, getting away from traditional design," says Gowland, who is with architecture/design firm Metrostudio, which is overseeing plans for the Joy's 2011 resurrection.
The theater represents an entirely different era of design from its neighbors the Saenger and Loew's — it's minimal, sticking closely to its original Moderne-inspired look and traditional theater space with draped curtains lining the walls, neatly packed folding theater seats, and a movie screen on the back wall. With its 2011 makeover, however, those details are no longer there, and the new Joy Theater is not quite a movie theater — it can be anything.
"People would come (to the Joy) three times a week and they were showing different things every day. There were no televisions," Gowland says. "The problem nowadays, the single-screen theater doesn't fit the business model of theaters anymore. You need a multiplex with a wide choice of [films]. To make this a movie theater, it wouldn't work. ... You have music, corporate events, lectures, comedy acts, you can have chairs, no chairs — there's a seating we have that looks like a theater seat, but it folds up and can be taken out."
The opening events lineup leans heavily on live music (including Irma Thomas on opening night), and the theater will schedule comedy shows, wedding receptions, dance recitals, theater performances and, of course, film screenings.
Neal Hixon, Joe Jaeger, Todd Trosclair and Allan McDonnel comprise the NOLA Theatre District, which purchased the building earlier this year, and each has a stake in a different field of entertainment: Trosclair produces movies and can envision the Joy as a premiere or festival venue, Hixon and McDonnel see it as a music venue, and Jaeger as a theater venue. The Joy is a huge complement to the upcoming Canal Street theater district, with more seats than Southern Rep Theatre but fewer than the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.
Bill Johnston, former entertainment director at Harrah's, was hired in September as Joy's acting talent coordinator. He added to the lineup his productions Joint's Jumpin', a New Orleans R&B revue, and Warehouse Revisited, a tribute to the music of the Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street, the legendary rock venue Johnston helped found in 1970.
"It's incredible how much has been done since mid-September and how much more needs to be done before the end of the month — and it's going to be," he says. "It's just staggering. We've had so many phone calls from different promoters from around the country who want to rent it." Johnston says he remembers his early visits to the venue. "When I was a kid I'd go see movies there. I remember seeing The Exorcist there. I had a whole bunch of people behind me more scared than I was, a bunch of little girls going crazy."
Construction crews have blocked off the sidewalk and all entrances to the Joy. Hanging above the fenced-in sidewalk is the sign, brought back to life and draped in immaculate white, installed just days before Gambit toured the otherwise construction-heavy, hard-hat-required zone.
Gowland says the project has been more than a renovation; it has involved designing and building because the original building plans aren't available. "There really weren't a lot of drawings," he says. "We were only able to find two or three drawings. We had to do a lot of forensic work and peel back layers, and look at old archives ... and kind of see how it's built."
Historically correct, single-person ticket turns flank the entrances on either side of the theater, and a wide lobby bar greets guests. Art-deco flourishes and subway tiles were added in the lobby bathrooms, and double doors on either side of the bar open to a massive, high-ceilinged venue space — up to 405 seats can occupy the bottom floor, which doesn't have permanent seating, and a standing-room occupancy can top 900. Another wraparound, Moderne-style bar and a soundboard anchor the space facing the stage.
The building previously received only minor renovations and was in disrepair, with holes in the roof and several feet of water in the basement.
"Because it's sloped and because of the basement, [floodwater] gathered, and it stayed — from 2005 to 2010," Gowland says, pointing to the stage. "The old chairs were basically melding into a pile of rust. Because of the moisture, the ceiling completely collapsed. (When it rained), it would add more water, over five years."
Not until the McDonnel Group took over as its general contractor this year were crews able to finish pumping out the water. Gowland used a pirogue to wade through the theater to the wettest, lowest, murkiest and moldiest parts of its foundation to do survey work — not unlike another movie he first saw at the Joy — Jaws.
Following its run with Houck and other theater operators, longtime Joy owner Levere C. Montgomery closed the theater on Aug. 31, 1978. But a few months later on Dec. 28, 1978, Brunet took over.
Brunet's father Rene Brunet Sr. started the family's theater legacy in 1906, and the family ran a string of theaters including the Carver, the Gallo, the Circle, the Famous, the Clabon (formerly the Harlequin) and the legendary Imperial Theater, built in 1923 (and burned down in 1957).
Brunet added a "piggyback" concept to the Joy, with a second screen (and later a third) added to the theater's second floor. "We didn't have all the big pictures," Brunet says. "But we had most of them."
Brunet sits at his desk inside his office at the Prytania. He's wearing a suit and and a tie with a picture of James Dean in a red jacket. Above Brunet's chair is a certificate from New Orleans City Council honoring his 90th birthday.
"When you stood on the neutral ground in front of the Joy, you looked at the Joy, the Loew's, and the Saenger," he says. "I sound like a salesman for New Orleans."
Brunet championed a family-friendly theater, and the Joy opened with the PG-rated Clint Eastwood-and-chimpanzee buddy flick Every Which Way But Loose. The theater also screened Alfred Hitchcock classics, hosted premieres, and allowed special screenings — a week before the 1980 premiere of The Blues Brothers, John Belushi called the theater to ensure he could get a seat for the movie. "I said, 'Be my guest. Tell me when you're coming and we'll have it on the screen for you.' And we did," Brunet says.
The Joy also held a special screening of Earthquake, outfitting the theater with equipment that shook the building — and shook up people waiting at the adjacent bus stop, Brunet says. "They didn't know whether the building was falling or what, because the sidewalk was shaking."
In the late '80s, Brunet's son Robert curated a breakdancing competition outside the theater that shut down Canal Street, and midnight screenings for slasher flicks were free for anyone wearing pajamas — and everyone wore pajamas. The Joy also was home to the first ever New Orleans Film Festival, which celebrated its 22nd anniversary this year.
Brunet's favorite memories, however, are the Joy's bright red letters and the chasing neon lights that circled its rounded white sign — and the Canadian Club Whiskey sign on the roof. Thousands of flashing light bulbs surrounded the sign, which was replaced in the '90s with a Louisiana Powerball billboard.
"It was something to behold," Brunet remembers. "It lit up that end of Canal Street like nothing else"
The rise of multiplexes and mall-bound cinemas dealt a punch to the barely three-screen Joy. But its biggest blow came with the decline of Canal Street.
"Canal Street had lost its punch," Brunet says. "The Loew's closed, the Orpheum closed, the Saenger closed. Canal Street ceased to be the entertainment district of the city.
"Before the Joy opened, going downtown to the Saenger, Loew's, Orpheum, to further on down, the Tudor, the Globe, the Center — that was something to do. Slowly but surely all those other theaters closed. So I found myself there alone. ... Business was getting less and less. I climbed a mountain by myself and couldn't do it anymore."
Brunet closed the Joy Theater on Dec. 3, 2003. He purchased the Prytania in 1996, and it remains one of the last single-screen movie houses in the state.
"It's been a heck of a process," Gowland says as he surveys the renovation work from the second-floor balcony. "It's come a tremendous way. ... We're taking something that's been out of commerce and demobilized since 2003 and bringing it back into place and reusing the entire building, the entire exterior, all the steel was repaired and reused. To us, that's really a big component of being a sustainable building."
Downstairs, steps from the bare concrete staircase leading to the balcony, is site superintendent Joseph Montalbano. Growing up in St. Bernard Parish, he remembers taking the streetcar as a boy for a day on Canal Street. It began with lunch at Woolworth's, shopping at Krauss and a flick at the Joy — Old Yeller and The Yearling were favorites.
"Now I get to see it come back to life," he says.
All performances are at the Joy Theater (1200 Canal St.; www.thejoytheater.com).
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 29
Irma Thomas, Lance Ellis
9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 30
Soul Rebels Brass Band, Cyril Neville's Tribe 13
9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 31
Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, Big Sam's Funky Nation
9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7
Glitz: The Art of Female Impersonation
9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13
Joint's Jumpin', Jodi Borrello
Saturday, Jan. 14
Thursday, Jan. 26
Little River Band
Saturday, Jan. 28