MILLVILLE — At first glance, there is little to show that the Levoy Theatre will open as scheduled Aug. 10.
Everything from toilet seats to theater seats remains to be installed. Construction equipment fills part of the building. Doors are missing, walls need painting, and a crystal-and-glass chandelier is yet to be hung in the second-floor mezzanine, where its light will shine onto High Street through giant windows in the front of the building.
Theater officials say everything will be ready for opening night, when the sound of welding torches and power tools will be replaced by sounds from “The Music Man.” Guests will walk on freshly carpeted floors and stroll up a grand staircase with a railing whose design is based on a 6-foot fragment of railing that helped grace the inside of the theater decades ago.
All of that is good, because customers from places such as Maryland, New York, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin and Ontario are reserving tickets for some of the estimated 120 events to be held in the facility in the next 12 months, said Lauren Van Embden, who heads the Levoy Theatre Preservation Society’s board of directors.
Ticket holders will be part of what Mayor Tim Shannon has called “feet on the street,” as many as 75,000 Levoy customers who city officials hope will spend time in downtown shops to help a struggling High Street business district.
Those merchants are counting on the Levoy.
Mark Papadaniil said he bought Bojo’s Ale House on High Street about four months ago in anticipation of the Levoy’s opening. He said he is not sure if the theater will create any new weekday business, but he’s counting on a business bump when the Levoy holds shows on weekends.
“I don’t think I’m going to get a 100 new customers,” said Papadaniil, a Vineland resident who already owns a tailor shop in the city. “I’ll be happy to get 15 or 20.”
About two blocks away from Bojo’s on High Street is the Megabyte Café, an Internet breakfast and lunch spot that former casino employees Shawn and Gloria Leader hope to open in time for the Levoy’s first performance.
Gloria Leader, a 52-year-old local resident, said she and her husband did not plan their business because of the Levoy. She said they nonetheless want to have extended hours on days when the Levoy has events and offer theatergoers pre- and post-show discounts.
“It’s going to bring a lot of people here who have gone to other venues for entertainment,” she said.
That hope is not lost on Levoy officials, who made economic recovery a part of the sales pitch for the theater’s $8.5 million renovation.
“This will be an economic engine,” Van Embden promises.
Her father, Phillip Van Embden, who is a society director, said theater operators are taking special care to make Levoy events affordable and diverse to attract as wide an audience as possible.
Booked events include the Grammy Award-winning band Jars of Clay, the Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe, the Harlem Gospel Choir, shows for children and even a fundraiser for the Palace of Depression renovation project in Vineland. Most adult tickets sell for between $17 and $29, and nobody should be disappointed with where they sit, Phillip Van Embden said.
“You might as well buy the cheap seats, because every seat is a good seat,” he said.
The Levoy first opened in January 1908 with two floors — one for movies and one for a dance hall. The theater went through a series of boom-and-bust business over the following decades and finally closed in December 1974.
The decision to rebuild the theater came after years of debate and ended discussions about its possible demolition. The $8.5 million renovation is financed by $5.6 million worth of Urban Enterprise Zone, or UEZ, funds, which come from state sales tax revenue, $1.9 million in New Market Tax Credits through Chase Bank and $1 million from the Cumberland County Improvement Authority.
Reconstruction was not without its trials.
Part of the building collapsed in January 2011 after contractors excavated beneath an unsupported footing. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued what eventually turned into $1,000 in fines against the project’s general contractor, Ogren Construction of Vineland.
Sun National Bank canceled a $1.6 million loan for the project, apparently because the opening was delayed after the building’s collapse. City Commission in December replaced that money with a $1.6 million UEZ loan.
Work delays caused by the June 30 storm forced opening night to be pushed back from Aug. 3 to Aug. 10.
With the opening just a little more than two weeks away, Phillip Van Embden eagerly shows off the building that he said is the biggest project he has ever undertaken. He bounds through the theater, showing off dressing rooms, offices, plumbing, electrical panels and even the facility’s elevator shaft.
The Levoy is one of about 24 theaters for which Jason Livingston of Studio T+L in Brooklyn, N.Y., has done design work. Livingston was one of the first people to become part of the project, first touring what was then a dilapidated building in the winter of 2008. Lauren Van Embden said she and Livingston had to take care not to fall through the stage’s rotting floorboards.
The theater and its 700 seats — people can rent the lobby and mezzanine areas for receptions and other events — is much more cozy than the 2,000-seat facility supporters once envisioned, Livingston said. The smaller size makes the theater more comfortable and increases the likelihood of sellouts, he said.
Now, Livingston is helping to supervise the final days of the work, everything down to whether a metal roll-up door to the stage should be fastened to the inside or the outside of the building.
“It’s exciting,” he said.
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