On Sept. 12 the former Cort Theatre was renamed the James Earl Jones Theatre in honor of this phenomenal theater and film legend. Many celebrities were on hand that day to celebrate this great occasion including James Earl Jones. While I was not able to attend this event, I recently received a personal, private tour of the theater by Robert E. Wankel, chairman and CEO of the Shubert Organization, which deemed Jones worthy of this honor. I was taken into the theater and shown all of its $47 million renovations and magnificence by Wankel and Mark Schweppe, vice president, theater operations.
From the time I entered the building I was enthralled by the stunning, detailed and delicate designs. Renovated by Kostow Greenwood Architects, the theater is truly something impressive to behold. A modern annex truly gives the theater a beautiful expansion.
They built the 5-story building to give the theater public space and it is accommodating in so many ways. Starting on the first floor, there were five dressing rooms for the stars of the productions, along with a bathroom. From the dressing rooms I was taken to the additional wing space on the stage. From the stage, when you look up, the theater is lit with the assistance of 400 LED fixtures, which had not been the case before. When you stand in front of the stage you can view the restored scene of Marie Antoinette painted above the stage. The theme of Marie Antoinette has been restored throughout the theater, from paintings of her delicately placed on the walls along the stairs, to the bust of her in the lobby entrance. They replaced the Tiffany glass that was originally part of the inside of the main theater., and there are now wheelchair-accessible locations in the orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony along with an elevator that can take people up. There’s a whole new rigging system, and the stage was dropped five inches in order to address a sitsightline issue: the original stage stood too high for some of the audience to see the performers’ feet; this is now no longer a problem. Every level now also has a bar to serve patrons.
“We bought the land next door and built this building on it,” Wankel proudly shared. Taking the elevator to the fifth floor we stepped out to the mechanical areas. Walking down to the fourth floor we stepped into a massive, gorgeous rehearsal hall with a brand-new hardwood floor and a right wall completely covered by mirrors, along with more dressing rooms. On the side on any level of the theater there are windows to give you a view of the happenings outside. A lovely standing light illuminates the stairs and reaches the height of the five floors. It’s absolutely stunning and it gives the space a warm and welcoming feeling.
Entering the theater in the balcony area, you could clearly look down and see the stage, and the seats were incredibly comfortable to sit in. (In case you were wondering, there are 1,047 seats in this enormous theater).
There are ladies’ rooms on every level (and I had to check those out of course). The theater originally only had restrooms in the lower level with a total of four water closets for women, and three urinals and one water closet for men. Now there are bathrooms on every floor in this breathtaking theater, which will definitely help those before-performance or intermission lines move with greater speed.
There are offices on the interstation floor for theater staff. On the second level, mezzanine, which gives access to box seats, there are no stairs, but instead there is open space to accommodate people with wheelchairs. They would come off the elevator and go straight to their seat. From this box seat, your eyes are again able to appreciate the beauty of the Marie Antoinette scene vividly depicted above the stage.
On the lower level we see the orchestra pit as well, and there are passageways that lead to the front of the house for the actors to go through and restrooms for the crew.
In the lower level stands a screen displaying photos of James Earl Jones in productions.
Recalling when Jones was there for the ribbon-cutting, Wankel said, “We brought James in, the curtain was down. We sat him down and we took up the curtain, he lit up like a Christmas tree. Then he told us how this was the first theater he worked in. He had one line, ‘Mrs. Rosenberg, dinner is served.’ Opening night he was with two superstars and he stuttered through the whole night. He told the story of how he was a stutterer and now he has become the most famous voice in the world.”
Stepping out of the theater Wankel pointed out the marque to me. Divided in three sections it reads “James Earl Jones.” And on the side of the theater, high above, the sign reads “Jones” identifying the location of the theater from far away. There’s also the sign that declares “Ohio State Murders” with a photo of Audra McDonald who will star in the newly named theater’s first production. Everything is absolutely thrilling to see and experience.
For more info, visit www.shubert.nyc/theatres/james-earl-jones.