Q: Is the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre really almost a century old?
A: Relative newcomers to Orlando might assume from its glass front that the Carr has been around for only a few decades. But look closely: Behind the exterior is a brick structure that began life 86 years ago as the Orlando Municipal Auditorium. The story of how it was transformed into the Carr could be called “Miracle on West Livingston Street.’’
In the early 1970s, Mayor Carl Langford and others decided the city needed a state-of-the-art performing arts venue (sound familiar?). But with the economy tanking, finding the $7 million to $9 million needed was out of the question, so a committee started studying whether the auditorium could be renovated. Up to then, the “Muni Aud,’’ as it was called, had hosted everything from boxing matches and church meetings to organ recitals and Elvis (yep, in 1956).
Local architect Tom Price was on that study panel—and eventually became the lead designer on the “adaptive reuse’’ project. “I caught fire on the thing when I realized we could take this old barn of a building and make a state-of-the-art performing arts center within or close to the budget we already had,’’ Price recalls. Amazingly, that budget was only $2.2 million.
So in 1975, Price and his team went to work. The interior was gutted, and renowned theatrical design and acoustics expert George Izenour was called in. Every-other-row seating was installed (you look between people in the next row, not over them). Seating leg room was 39 inches, 3 inches more than required, which gave more space for people to pass and allowed for a continental seating plan (no center aisle). An acoustical shell for orchestral performances was put in place (removed when the stage was enlarged for Broadway performances in the early 1990s).
But what to do with the entrance? It needed to look state-of-the-art too, but there wasn’t enough money to demolish and reconstruct the front of the auditorium. Price recalls his design group was having a heated discussion about the front one day when he finally blurted out, “Well, what do you want to do—build a glass box around it?!’’
Well, why not?
“The room fell silent,’’ Price says. “We were so fortunate that it fell in our laps that way.’’ Price designed the front you see today, consisting of a garden lobby and upper promenade, at a total cost of $90,000. That three-arched entrance to the lobby bar? It was the entrance to the original auditorium.
For the last 35 years the Carr has been the local place to go for Broadway touring theater, symphonies, ballet and intimate pop concerts. But with the touring shows moving to the new performing arts center next year—and the ballet and symphony following when their hall is built—what’s to become of the Carr, especially since it's on land intended for the massive Creative Village project?
Price says he would like to see the Carr “have a third life.’’ And it just might. While he makes no promises, Creative Village developer Craig Ustler says there’s a chance the venerable venue could find a place as part of the digital city of the future, possibly as a performance space for digital media or alternative arts. Adds Ustler, an Orlando native, “I see value in the history and story of this building.’’
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