January 11 2006, 3:36 PM
My past memories of the Oriental Theater at 44th & Tennyson are not entirely favorable. The last show I attended there was a community theater project, and though the production was fine, the space just plain sucked. It was winter, and the old theater had no heat, so the organizers had plugged in small electric space heaters along the aisles -- rather dangerously, I think, with those little cords all over the place. We sat wrapped in our coats and tried to ignore the stale smell of old smoke, dust, booze, and years of misuse. The theater opened in 1927 during the golden era of movie theaters. They showed films and staged vaudeville shows through the '40s and into the '50s, but the crowds left the city, bought TVs and stayed in the 'burbs for years. By the '70s it was a shabby porn theater, and during the '80s and '90s several groups tried unsuccessfully to revive it as a music venue. Most recently, MOD productions tried to get a music scene going there over the past couple of years, but they never were able to make it profitable enough to stick. But it looks like things are improving, finally, for the Oriental Theater. I walked through the renovated theater with the new owners recently, and it's a wonderful improvement. They re-opened it at the end of December, and now the spot is up and running and looks great. The exterior renovation will have to wait, since the new guys have already invested over a quarter million in the upgrades inside and understandably have a limited budget. Inside, however, it's vastly improved. The lobby has new hardwoods, cool chandeliers, a new bar, and local artwork on the walls. In the main theater, the old junky seats are gone, with new tiered levels installed and cabaret-style tables and chairs outfitting the tiers (they can pull the chairs & tables for standing-room concerts when needed). I was impressed. They left the 1920s "exotic revival" details intact - a little fresh paint brightened up the faux-Persion porticos, sconces, and other details, and the old '50s mural of a Middle Eastern palace courtyard at twilight still encircles the interior. The ladies' room hasn't been touched though -- it's next on the list, I'm told -- nor has the upstairs balcony. Still, overall, it's a major upgrade and a great addition to the Tennyson Street district. The new owners aspire to attract the types of artsy, sophisticated crowds that support the Boulder Theater, and hope to put similarly artsy, sophisticated music, comedy, and cultural events on the stage. This weekend there's a fun PacFashion show with Mr. Pacman that will surely get the hipster scene excited, but look for an eclectic, diverse roster of shows, with everything from jazz to country, rock, and pop rotating through the old green room.