The Cavern Theatre is one of Carlsbad’s landmarks. It’s hard to imagine downtown’s North Canyon Street without its colorful marquee. Thanks to the City of Carlsbad and the efforts of many volunteers, the Theatre is only going to get better. It already is, though most of the improvements are not visible to the sidewalk observer.
Former state legislator and Carlsbad resident Robert Light, along with members of his family, bequeathed the beloved property to the City some years ago. It was a time of celebration, with many relieved that the site where so many memories were made would remain in place. Around meeting tables and over lunch, locals anticipated the rebirth of the Theatre into a grand venue for performances of all kinds.
The Dirty Work
Just as the Cavern Theatre was built brick by brick, its return to use is underway one step at a time. The dreaded task of asbestos removal was completed in 2016, a $70,000 job funded by the Lodgers’ Tax fund. Also completed was the removal of trash, old carpeting and pigeons. Crews Glass replaced the unsightly broken panes on the building’s façade, the City of Carlsbad cleaned sewer lines to restored function to old toilets and fire and electrical inspections were also completed.
With those major obstacles behind them, planners drew up a series of scenarios for bringing the building back to use. A final plan with a reachable budget has been settled on following an extensive process of research that continues today. Those involved include the City of Carlsbad, represented by Department of Arts & Culture Director Patsy Jackson-Christopher; the Mayor’s Cavern Theatre Advisory Committee, chaired by Ken Britt; and the Carlsbad MainStreet program, led by Karla Hamel. Juan Dorado of Durham Mackay Architects is technical advisor for the project.
Restoration, Not Renovation
Part of the process of reviving the Theatre was deciding on a theme. Team members visited other theaters around the state, bringing back information and pictures for discussion while others researched financial resources. Through it all, Mayor Dale Janway has been a champion of the Theatre, maintaining a vision for a concert at a grand reopening and always encouraging the participation of locals in the renewal process.
MainStreet Director Karla Hamel explained that the Cavern Theatre is not, by itself, on a historical register, but as a building in her MainStreet district, it’s a part of Carlsbad’s history. There’s no denying that the distinctive marquee and quaint interior features like the cry room hearken back to its 1950s heyday and add unique appeal. As such, Cavern Theatre preservation is considered to be under the purview of the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division. Architectural consultant Juan Dorado said the Division has been involved in project discussions, and maintaining compliance with the Division’s standards can qualify the project for grants it might otherwise not be eligible to receive.
After much legwork, the committee and other leaders concluded that the best plan is a practical one. Rather than be redefined, the Theatre will be revived in a modern rendition of its original glory. Thanks to many financial advantages, this plan has at last won out over a re-design that would modernize the style of the facility. Restoration, not renovation, is the goal, emphasized Dorado.
A Three-Phase Plan
Mid- and long-range plans to get the Theatre back into action are in place. Phase I involves upgrading the electrical circuitry and installing a temporary performance space to extend the narrow screen stage to a size that will accommodate live performance acts.
Phase II involves replacing the marquee’s neon lights with modern, energy-friendly LED lights. These improvements are already approved by the Historic Commission and are slated for kickoff in 2017.
Phase III of the plan will complete its readiness to host performances, at least for a while. Temporary buildings on the north side will offer dressing rooms for performers and a place for mechanical and equipment needs associated with performances. In the lobby, the concession area will remain, but with a new finish. Handicapped restroom access will be added. The cry room will stay, promised Dorado. Inside the Theatre proper, the ceiling will feature new, permanent lights and a concrete stage will replace the temporary one.
Over time, making the portable aspects of this plan into permanent fixtures will be accomplished as resources permit. Plans for a permanent green room and mechanical resources inside are in the more distant future. Lessons learned from use of the facility during the modular equipment stage will surely influence more permanent solutions.
For financial reasons, an elevated fly loft providing multi-level seating has been removed from the plan. Although it would add appeal on many levels, it’s simply not possible with foreseen resources.
Dorado cautioned that the first draft of Phase III plans was just finished in December and is subject to approval by the State Historic Commission. Details will probably change by the time a final plan is approved.
According to Ken Britt, the good news is that the final price tag on restoring the Cavern Theatre, by this plan, is much less than earlier estimates using other plans. About $3 million is still required to complete the project—a sizable amount, but more reachable than previous projections of $6-7 million.
Another Lodgers’ Tax grant is anticipated to assist with marquee restoration and the City will integrate the modular seating and stage equipment into its annual
budget, since the equipment is a resource that can be moved to other locations for use as needed. Committee members, Mayor Janway and Jackson-Christopher will be pushing for Carlsbad to receive state capital outlay assistance with the legally required infrastructure updates. Carlsbad MainStreet will pursue grants available from the Historic Commission. The statewide MainStreet program is slated to provide funds for performance equipment that will stay inside the district, such as projectors and screens.
The Carlsbad Foundation has opened an account to benefit the Theatre’s restoration. Anyone wishing to support the project with a tax-deductible donation can do so through the foundation. Donations can be made in honor or memory of anyone the donor chooses, and public recognition is provided.
All Good Things Take Time
Restoring the Cavern Theatre has been a labor of community love for all involved. Jackson-Christopher’s December 2016 update on the project sheds light on the many advantages their work will eventually yield. It will aid cultural tourism, a reason many tourists visit a city. It provides a new and unique outlet for the arts, complimenting downtown development and overall property values and local quality of life.
Economically, a fully operational Theatre is projected to sustain 67 full time jobs, add $1.5 million to community household incomes and generate $195,000 in local and state tax revenue.
Mayor Janway and his committee envision the Theatre as a vibrant community gathering place. Although the progress that’s been made isn’t immediately obvious, it’s significant. Over time, as devotees stay the course to see realization of their goal, it will again deliver excitement. Patrons will have the irreplaceable experience of attending live performances as music and words reverberate off its walls. Performers will thrill to the sensation of performing on a stage from which stars like Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe once tickled the fancy of guests who wore bobby socks or butch wax. It’s just going to take time.