The Marigny Opera House grows into an arts center


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Dave Hurlbert is restoring the former church and hosting arts events at the Marigny Opera House.
  • Dave Hurlbert is restoring the former church and hosting arts events at the Marigny Opera House.

The Marigny Opera House (725 St. Ferdinand St.) is home to Press Street’s 2012 Draw-a-thon, which goes from 6:30 a.m. Saturday to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 1-2. The event is free and open to the public and there are presentations and prompts scheduled round the clock to keep the creative juices flowing. More on the Draw-a-thon here.

To host the event, owner Dave Hurlbert had to get a special permit from the city to use the space for a public event. When Hurlbert and partner Scott King bought the deconsecrated former church in August 2011, they had been looking for a warehouse space to put Hurlbert’s grand piano, a restored 1906 Steinway, and use as a large office. Hurlbert hadn’t thought about using the former church as a public events space until New Orleans Fringe Festival director Kristen Evans approached him about using it for the Fringe last year. After the festival and some other events, a neighbor complained and the New Orleans Fire Department disallowed further public events without appropriate city fire and safety permits.

“I didn’t think there’d be trouble,” he says. “It was all acoustic music and it ended by 10 p.m.”

Evans went to City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer to get a special permit for the 2012 festival. Since Hurlbert has now attained a couple of special permits for arts and theater events, he hopes he can continue to get them for future projects at the Marigny Opera House. He’s already supporting new art and theater projects through his private uses.

When Hurlbert and King bought the building, they set up a nonprofit foundation and their goal was to save the deteriorating building. It was originally constructed in 1853, and so far they have fixed the bell towers, roof and gutters to prevent further water damage. They also have fixed heating, plumbing and electricity in the building.

The 2011 Fringe opened their eyes to what the space could be. Hurlbert and musician Mark Growden scheduled a series of acoustic concerts, all unamplified, some of it classical music. But then the Fire Department shut them down, because they didn’t have fire and safety permits.

Hurlbert can use the space for private events. It has hosted weddings, and last week, the English electronic band Depeche Mode shot part of new video inside the building. Actor James Franco recently directed and appeared in a commercial filmed in the space. Renting the space for private such uses helps pay for electricity, insurance and maintenance costs.

Renting the space for private functions, however, is not part of Hurlbert’s evolving nonprofit arts mission, so he is pursing proper permits. Initially, he learned there are a lot of restrictions on what he can do with a space in a residential neighborhood. The solution was to have the city recognize the building as a church again, which made sense because he had already created a nonprofit, he has been letting community groups meet there, including an Episcopal group, and it would allow some of the public events he wants to host. Eventually the city recognized the building as a church (or “Church of the Arts” in Hurlbert’s words), and Hurlbert is continuing with necessary renovations to get the appropriate permits. He’ll have to install a new entrance and make other improvements. He made a presentation to the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, and it has been generally supportive of his plans.

In the meantime, the space is an incubator for theatrical productions. The upcoming show The Liebeslieder Project by the 9th Ward Opera is rehearsing in the space. There will be a private performance in the Marigny Opera House and then two performances at the AllWays Lounge & Theater. (Hurlbert notes that he is not trying to open a music club, as some have assumed. He is interested in classical music but the focus for the space is oriented toward theater and dance.)

The New Mexico based duo Button Wagon debuted its new show Trash Rabbit at the Marigny Opera House in the Fringe festival. The two are working on their show at the space for another month before taking it on tour. Hurlbert also has opened the space to dance artist Angelle Hebert, who presented the show Surprise, No Surprise at the space during the Fringe.

There are other upcoming projects, including a dance festival and giant puppet festival, that Hurlbert hopes to host at the space if he can secure special permits. And other artists will be developing other projects in the space as well.


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