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A year ago, officials with The Green Room Community Theatre helped kick-off Reunion Day by breaking ground on a new $3.5-million project to create a new performing arts center in downtown Newton.
Today, plenty has changed at the property where shovels turned dirt near the corner of A Street and Main Avenue, and this week, Newton city leaders got one of the first glimpses at a facility that has been a beehive of activity since construction started.
"Does anyone recognize the old post office?" Green Room and Old Post Office Playhouse benefactor Bob McCrary asked Newton City Council members and department heads as they entered the front of a new facility, which maintained much of the character of the old mail service site.
In fact, while construction of the Old Post Office Playhouse has almost quadrupled the useable space on the downtown city block, creating a 376-seat performing arts venue, it has also maintained much of the character of the old building. As Green Room Board President Allen Bandy Jr. guided a tour of the work in progress, he pointed to many aspects of the facility that will remind visitors of the old mail facility.
Among those is a front facade, which relies on the existing post office building. Inside, visitors will find the terrazzo tile floor — buffed and polished — they walked across before the post office closed its doors. There's also a skylight atop the old customer service area — now the entrance gallery for the OPOP — that was created in 1936 and later hidden from view in the 1960s.
"Not many people knew that was here," Bandy said, adding the new facility will even make use of the old post office vault as a coat room. "Your coats will be safe with us."
The entrance gallery will even feature old post office boxes, where donors can have their own box where tickets can be placed for every Green Room performance, as well as other events at the facility.
Exploring deeper inside the building, however, visitors find that the facility is a long way from being a post office. Instead, it is quickly taking the shape of a state-of-the-art performance space.
Offices and rehearsal space were created and "roughed in," while progress on the auditorium area is moving forward. There, event-goers in the radius-style seating can enjoy performances that rely on a new fly-loft system, as well as an orchestra pit that will hold more than two dozen musicians.
"We tried hard to build a space we could afford to maintain," Bandy said, adding no elevators — a costly investment — were included in the OPOP plans. "You can get anywhere in the building without taking a vertical step."
The new space created a black box theater for smaller, more intimate performances — and that, too, will make use of the fly-loft stage, which allows scenes and actors to be raised and lowered into the performance area. There will even be TV monitors in the backstage and gallery areas for actors and event-goers to see on-stage performances without being inside the auditorium.
"These are features not normally available to community theatre groups," Bandy said.
Yes, as Newton city leaders saw this week, plenty of progress is being made at the OPOP site.
"What a difference a year makes," said Green Room Executive Director Sherry Butler. "We have still got a long way to go."
Butler said opening night for the theatre company's production of "The King and I" is set for Oct. 1, and general contractor David E. Looper Construction assured her the facility will be ready to welcome audiences.
"They still tell us we will be in good shape to open that night," she said, adding the "opening gala" is set for Oct. 30-31.
From there, the Green Room plans to produce and perform six shows on the main stage and three more in the black box theater during the first year.
"The first season, we were not really aggressive in terms of hosting things besides Green Room productions," Bandy said, adding that in the first three years, performance dates for outside groups will ramp up. "We want to be sure to do it right."
Bandy said that ultimately the facility will bring people to the downtown area at least 230 nights a year or more.
"This is all about Catawba County having a space where people can afford to come and afford to bring a family for a night of theatre or music," Bandy said.