2004-08-18 / Front Page

Restoring a Red Bank gem to its original grandeur

Refurbished theater reopens Aug. 20

The seats at the Count Basie Theatre were in poor condition and were removed in the first phase of interior renovations. At left, a dragon motif uncovered during preparations for renovations will be repeated as a design element.The seats at the Count Basie Theatre were in poor condition and were removed in the first phase of interior renovations. At left, a dragon motif uncovered during preparations for renovations will be repeated as a design element.

Refurbished theater reopens Aug. 20



RED BANK — New seating and a preview of the vintage interior redecoration under way will be presented to the public when the Count Basie Theatre reopens Aug. 20, with a concert honoring the 100th birthday of its namesake. The changes are part of the $1 million first phase of a multiphase restoration project.

New seats were the first priority because they would have the greatest impact on the audience’s experience and enjoyment of the theater, according to a theater representative. The current seats, which had been purchased used from Carnegie Hall almost 20 years ago, were considered too dilapidated to restore.

As part of phase one, the balcony was returned to its original configuration. Installing the new seats on the original risers has restored the sight lines and increased the number of seats from 1,400 to 1,575. Some-time during the 1960s, wooden platforms had been built over several of the balcony’s concrete risers to create fewer, wider rows that held couches for movie lovers.

Francesca Russo of Francesca Russo Architects in New York City has been retained as the interior architect. She has served as restoration architect for a number of landmarked buildings and eight Broadway theaters including the Winter Garden, St. James and Music Box.

Russo describes the Count Basie as a gem and points out that not much damage has been done to the original infrastructure.

"After reviewing all the decorative elements, we classified the Count Basie as a Renaissance-style theater with more Spanish/Moorish than Italian details," she said. "You can still see the rough Spanish Moorish texture in the original plaster."

While analyzing the theater’s decor, Russo found a dragon motif that morphs into foliage cast in the decorative ornamentation of that original plaster.

"It’s a unique motif representative of the style of the theater. Because it was painted in white, it wasn’t immediately apparent," she explained.

The dragon originally appeared only under the faux balcony near the stage but Russo has incorporated the Spanish Renaissance design throughout the theater. It will be the dominant feature on the hand-painted end panels of the new seats, which are based on a historic model. The dragon will also be the signature element in a specially manufactured carpet to be laid throughout the auditorium this fall.

To determine an appropriate color palette, Russo hired Joe Brady, a restoration paint specialist. Brady analyzed 12 paint chips from various locations and determined that the theater’s original color scheme involved umbers, siennas and greens.

Although her work will have a vintage look, Russo is aware of today’s theater technology.

"I always try to create a restoration design that is evocative of the original, but not necessarily a duplication, because the way theaters are used now, there’s a lot more light," Russo explained. "The scheme is always designed to incorporate requirements for contemporary theater use."

An area near the stage has been fully restored by Russo and Brady to provide a preview of the completed theater. In addition to the paint scheme, Russo has designed a valance based on the original painted vaudeville curtain still in use at the Basie. The valance, which is hanging in the arch underneath the faux balcony, symbolizes the new curtain that will be reproduced in a future phase of the restoration.

"It was quite a challenge to do a representative sample that will give a sense of what the whole will look like," Russo said.

Sometime this fall, imported bronze and brandy colored alabaster lighting fixtures will replace the 1950 wall sconces and be added to the underside of the balcony overhang.

The entire project is being coordinated by Dahn & Krieger Architects Planners of Hackensack, which provides comprehensive programming, building evaluation, space planning and construction documentation services.

The first phase of the Basie restoration is being funded through private donations and matching donations from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Cultural Center’s Capital Grant Program.

To support the restoration, the theater has instituted a Take Your Seat campaign. Donors who adopt a seat can have a personal inscription engraved in a plaque on its arm. For more information on the campaign, contact the theater’s development office at (732) 224-8778, ext 309.

The Aug. 20 concert features the Count Basie Orchestra and multi-Grammy-nominated vocalist Nnenna Freelon performing songs that Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn sang with the band. For tickets call (732) 842-9000.

Russo describes the project as "a puzzle of schedule and money. Because [the Basie] is a producing theater, we needed to do a lot of work in a short period of time.

"The staff and the board are very much advocates and realize what a treasure they have," she said.

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