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Take A Peek Inside the Peabody Opera House
St. Louis’ 77-year-old former Kiel Opera House Set to Reopen Oct. 1
By Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The wide, curving marble staircases that swoop from balcony to lobby at the Peabody Opera House have seen plenty of action. Over the decades, who knows how many high heels and opera slippers, platform wedges and sturdy wingtips, dainty flats and gleaming loafers have crossed their surfaces, hurrying to see a show or strolling home afterward? And who knows how thickly layers of dust covered them during the 20 years when the building sat shuttered, a desolate lump of erstwhile civic glamour hulking over Market Street? If you walk down those stairs today, you better be careful. Cleaned and polished to a lustrous gleam, they feel as slick as they must have been when the opera house first opened in 1934.
Now, the Peabody Opera House, the former Kiel Opera House, is set to open Oct. 1 with a gala starring Jay Leno and Aretha Franklin. Some shows for the coming season have been announced, slowly so far. But John Urban, executive vice president for events and new business at the Peabody and Scottrade Center, says the pace will pick up soon. So it’s tenterhooks time. We don’t know too much about what will play there. Or what, exactly, the place that they play will be like.
Here’s a hint: Think sleek vintage elegance plus modern amenities.With about 11 weeks to the opening, Urban and general manager Marty Brooks gave the Post-Dispatch a preview tour of the Peabody and its $79 million renovation. It’s still very much a work in progress. Even a few weeks ago, Urban said, you couldn’t necessarily see big differences. But now “every time I come in, I see something new,” he said. “At this stage, progress is exponential.”
Here’s a peek at the different areas:
The Opera House • For theatergoers who remember shows at the Kiel (where audiences enjoyed everything from “Aida” to the Rolling Stones), the theater will awaken memories: It’s not that different. An Art Deco masterpiece of high ceilings, subtle gold trim and scarlet velvet seats, the theater has about 3,100 seats. A typical Broadway theater has about 1,200 seats; the Fox has about 4,500. The seats were replaced and the gold leaf was retouched, a painstaking six-week process. “But we didn’t have to re-create the Art Deco look,” Brooks said. “It was already here. This restoration is authentic.” Even the original lighting fixtures are still good, requiring only cleaning and rewiring. Luckily, he said, the building was only neglected, never seriously vandalized. In most theaters, the seats in the front rows are considered the best, but Brooks thinks the prime seats in the Peabody are the loge and the side boxes, with a sense of exclusivity in a public space, including a rail for drinks. The orchestra pit can accommodate 60 musicians. If a show doesn’t have musicians, or if they are on stage, the pit can be raised to the level of the stage to extend the performing area. Or it can be used for extra seating.
The lobby • With its high ceiling, marble pillars, stylized fixtures and, of course, those staircases, the lobby is pure vintage chic. Even the lettering on signs is original or in the original, New Yorker-like style. The upper lobby, which faces Market Street, boasts a portico that will be reopened. High-top tables will be placed there so theatergoers can enjoy a drink as they gaze at Schiller Park, the Peabody’s “front lawn.” Brooks said the Peabody will add plants to the park and other amenities: Christmas decorations for “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” maybe a skating rink. The portico will be illuminated to make the limestone building “glow.” An LED board will go in near the Market Street entrance, where fresh landscaping is under way.
Side rooms • Originally these four rooms were identical, each with its own small stage. One still has a stage, suitable for lectures and small shows. In another room, the arc around the stage has morphed into a dramatic backdrop for a bar. That room, a hospitality room for VIPs, will offer refreshments, too. All four rooms are large — 4,100 square feet each — and have been refurbished with fresh paint, seven layers of acoustic tile behind fabric diamonds and access to big modern kitchens. These rooms may sometimes be used for public, ticketed programs, Urban said, but he thinks they will mainly be used for meetings, weddings and other private events.
The Kiel Club • At this point in the rehab, you need a little imagination to envision the lower-level bar where patrons can go for a drink. But Urban can already picture it: dark wood, supple leathers, an elegant, intimate spot where the accoutrements include the big mirror that hung in the Kiel Club years ago. This is also the level where the Opera House and Scottrade Center connect.
Backstage • On the 15th Street side of the Opera House, the stage where Rex Harrison and Rudolf Nureyev performed opens onto a new loading dock that can accommodate three 40-foot trucks at once. (Modern shows do not travel light.) The trucks can back up to a vast open-top elevator that will carry amps and set pieces right up to the stage. The wall at the back of the stage has been replaced with one that offers complete acoustical and physical separation from the backstage area. Nobody can stumble onstage by accident. In fact, the forest of modern dressing rooms behind the theater itself is almost daunting, with plush suites for big stars, ranks of lighted mirrors for choruses and everything between. Signs, Urban promises, are coming. They are certainly going to be needed.
Necessities • Rehabbing the Peabody means new heating, air conditioning, sprinklers, plumbing and electrical wiring throughout. The project involved about 600 workers. The developers are Sports Capital Holdings-St. Louis, owner of the Blues and operator of Scottrade Center; Optimus Development; and Paric Corp. in partnership with KAI Design and Build. Plumbing has been a special concern. Brooks estimates that the number of bathroom facilities has been increased by at least 50 percent. Men’s rooms are tiled in buff and teal, women’s rooms in buff and mauve. The tile has a geometric pattern with a subtle Art Deco flair. Apart from that, the rest rooms are strictly 21st century.
Parking • There is no special garage or parking area for the Peabody. However, Brooks says, there is parking for enough cars in area garages and on the street to handle simultaneous events at the Peabody, Scottrade Center and Busch Stadium. “You may have to walk more than half a block,” he said, “but there will be space.” There will be some valet parking.
The bears • The Opera House’s limestone guardians — whose image is everywhere, down to the buttons on the staff’s uniforms — haven’t changed a bit. But if you want to, you can imagine that they’re smiling.