Las Vegas: Curtains to open on Smith Center for the Performing Arts

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, set to open Saturday (March 10) in downtown Vegas, is a $470-million complex that will host concerts, theatrical performances and more.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Myron Martin was in fourth grade when he attended an opera at Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston.

“Our school bus pulled up to the front, and I saw this majestic building, and I knew that we’d gone someplace special,” he said of his first encounter with theater. “I happened to sit in the eighth-row center on a mohair seat. Just as the house lights were going down and the curtain was going up, I got goose bumps all over.”

That was the catalyst for a career in the performing arts that would take him from Texas to Broadway and, eventually, to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas? The same Vegas where a lap dance qualifies as a cultural experience?

The very same. Beginning March 10, Martin and company will redefine what passes for a good time in Sin City. The man who was the starry-eyed schoolkid is now at the helm of Vegas’ new Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a repurposed former railroad switchyard where expanses of marble and original artworks provide the backdrop for a varied lineup of theater and concerts.

While the glitzy Goliaths populating Las Vegas Boulevard lure out-of-towners, this downtown property a mile or so west of the Fremont Street Experience will cater to locals, many of whom say they have yearned for this for decades.

“[We] no longer wanted to be the largest community in North America without something important,” said Martin, president and chief executive of the $470-million Smith Center, which will have a public open house on March 18.

Admission prices are being kept low, important in a community still reeling from the recession. Tickets for the first Broadway musicals this spring and summer — “The Color Purple,” “Mary Poppins,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Memphis” — will start at $27; only a handful of seats exceeds $89.

“Sometimes you feel a little ripped off,” Martin said. “We want to be the opposite.”

The architecture also suggests that this place is unlike anything on the Strip. With a four-octave, 47-bell carillon and its 16-story tower, the building stands out, aurally and architecturally.

“They wanted a building that was timeless, and that was extremely important to them,” said David Schwarz, the project’s architect. “They wanted a building that spoke of Las Vegas, Nevada and its history.”

Therein, however, lay a problem.

“There’s very little in Las Vegas that’s timeless or deeply rooted,” Schwarz said of a city that seems to implode its landmarks every few years. Eventually, Schwarz and his designers decided to have the building emulate one of Southern Nevada’s earliest construction marvels: Hoover Dam.

“It’s not only a constructed icon, but it is a critical moment in the history of Las Vegas,” he said. “The workers who built Hoover Dam had a lot to do with ... what Las Vegas became. So it is central to the architectural happenings here, but it’s also central to the cultural cementing of Las Vegas’ future.”

Using nearly 2,500 tons of Indiana limestone — instead of the dam’s concrete or the modern favorite, stucco — the Smith Center merges the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles that were strong influences at the dam.

In the marble and terrazzo lobby, a winged creature nearly 17 feet tall takes flight from the first landing of the central staircase. The bronze sculpture is inspired by two stone carvings at the Nevada entrance to the dam, Oskar Hansen’s “Winged Figures of the Republic.”

“Originally they called me to do a piece that was just a replica of the Hoover Dam pieces,” said sculptor Benjamin Victor. “But a replica is just a replica.… I wanted to make something that’s a work of art in its own right.”

“It’s pretty big for an indoor piece,” he said of his bronze. “But the facility is just so beautiful that it houses it perfectly.”

The building’s showcase is Reynolds Hall, named for Las Vegas’ Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which pumped $150 million into the project. (The center was named in honor of the foundation’s chairman and his wife, Fred and Mary Smith.)

The hall’s interior has an almost intimate atmosphere, even though it seats 2,050 patrons. Regardless of where or on which level they’re seated, guests are promised crisp sound, with or without amplification. After a recent rehearsal by the Las Vegas Philharmonic, the man behind its acoustics said the hall had reached a new standard.

“[We’ve] made this room even more successful than others of its type,” said Paul Scarborough of design firm Akustiks. The stage is equipped with state-of-the-art sound-enhancing drapes. Because of the low humidity in the Nevada desert, the hall’s furnishings were selected to complement, not deaden, the sound.

Many of the building’s luxurious finishes — its massive amounts of polished stone and stainless steel, for instance — owe their existence to the downturn in the local economy, including a construction industry that was devastated when home prices began free-falling.

The center “was designed and budgeted in the old economy and built in the new economy,” said architect Schwarz. During its design, construction prices for material and labor were higher but its actual construction dates meant significant upgrades could be made without going over budget. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a happy accident,” he said.

The first few months will see runs of the four musicals interspersed with other performers as diverse as Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (opening performance on March 12), Yo-Yo Maand the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. With a six-week run starting in late August,”Wicked” will kick off the center’s first full season of Broadway shows. (Ticket prices have not been announced, but they will be comparable to the initial offerings.)

The 258-seat Cabaret Jazz theater also will host regular concerts, as will a park-like venue just steps outside the lobby doors.

Educational programs for youngsters — not unlike the one in which Myron Martin participated many years ago — form an integral part of the Smith Center’s mission. In conjunction withWashington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, the Las Vegas venue will regularly host special shows for schoolchildren.

“I have a daughter who will, in our first full year of operation next year, be in the fourth grade,” Martin said. “I want her to get goose bumps and I want all of her classmates and kids around the community to have the opportunity to get goose bumps the way I did.”