Spruced-Up Shubert Ready for 'Les Miz'

It's major face-lift time, as the Shubert Theatre--dark since "Cats's" departure 18 months ago--prepares for its post-operative unveiling at the June 1 opening of "Les Miserables."

"We totally refurbished the theater," said Design Encounters' Caryn Thompson, who with partner Nina Gabriel began refurbishing the Century City theater in December, 1986. "It had been 16 years (since the Shubert originally opened), and time takes its toll. It needed redoing. There were some problems in the auditorium, holes in the drapery, the carpeting had been replaced on the stairways a couple of times, the lobby carpet was wearing."

For the most part, however, patrons would not have found the existing look particularly tacky.

"None of our theaters look tacky ," stressed Shubert chairman of the board Gerald Schoenfeld, on the phone from his New York office. "But there were certain aspects of the theater that we never particularly cared for--like the (two 67-foot lobby) chandeliers, which could not really be cleaned because you needed a scaffold to get to them. And this is the first opportunity we've had to do this. We decided instead of doing a piecemeal job--and then having to come back four or five years later and do the balance of the work--we'd do it all at once."

The old look--khaki-green walls and lobby carpets of striped orange, brown, purple, black and silver--is gone. The new look was on display Saturday at "Les Miserables' " first preview. Past the parade of red-vested valet parking attendants and lobby vendors (hawking everything from show albums, cassettes and CDs to T-shirts, sweat shirts, mugs, books, buttons and matches), recessed lighting has replaced the chandeliers.

The lobby side walls are covered with a soft pink-and-gray weave-like pattern. The old laminated plastic bars are now wood banquettes. The auditorium walls (originally travertine, but painted black for "Cats") are now charcoal, "to give the appearance of looking smaller, more intimate," explained Thompson. The formerly orange seats--all 1,829 of them--were taken out and re-covered in a plum fabric. "It's really magenta," she admitted, "but that word is kind of scary, so we'll stick with plum."

The main carpeting (also in the plum-teal-gray color scheme) features a distinctive diamond pattern that was designed on a computer and manufactured by Dupont. Local artist Salvatore Polizzi did the table carvings in the stairwells; Donna Horst's hand-painted fabrics (more plums, teals and grays) scallop the walls on the balcony level.

The elevators were refurbished as well, and refashioned to better accommodate disabled persons. Also redone were the bathrooms, administrative offices and box office--but not the dressing rooms. For latecomers, four 19-inch Sony monitors ("They only have two in the New York theaters," general manager Ira Bernstein says proudly) have been installed in the lobby and upper level. Big theatrical posters of former successes hang from the walls adjoining the circular staircases (handrails are gun-metal gray, like the staircase carpet).

The result is colorful and modern--yet conservative. As Thomson says, "We worked in conjunction with the Shubert Organization, and they kept in constant touch with New York. The gentlemen in New York didn't want anything too splashy, too California."

Also of primary interest to the producers was the new, permanent archival exhibition, a 400-piece collection of theatrical artifacts from the Shubert Archive in New York, dating from 1900 to the present.

Included are photographs of Max Reinhart's mime play "Sumurun" (1912), a poster for Sigmund Romberg's "Maytime" (1917), sheet music for "Fanana" (1905) and Al Jolson in "Sinbad" (1918). Also on view are enlarged, laminated costume sketches for "The Emerald Isle" (1902) and "The Greenwich Village Follies" (1922), an autograph to Sam Shubert by Evelyn Nesbitt ("Just Me") and photos of Eddie Cantor, Helen Hayes, Eleanor Powell, Ethel Barrymore.

Final price tag for the renovation? Said Schoenfeld, "We're acknowledging about $1.5 million." Although it's a coincidence that this project took place at the same time as the huge redo across the street at the Century City Shopping Center, the "Les Miserables" timing definitely is not. Everyone is bracing for a big, big hit.

"I think a show at the Shubert is a major event," Schoenfeld noted, "and if you ask (area) merchants the impact of having the theater open or dark, they'll tell you it's considerable. It's also considerable for us."

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