Historic Carver Theater closes after operating in Treme, off and on, for 70 years

Sunday, 03 December 2017, 06:54:13 PM. The Carver Theater, a historic landmark that operated off and on in the Treme neighborhood over the past 70 years, shuttered its doors earlier this month because the business was

The Carver Theater, a historic landmark that operated off and on in the Treme neighborhood over the past 70 years, shuttered its doors earlier this month because the business was failing, according to several sources.

The theater at 2101 Orleans Ave. shut down on Nov. 14, theater staff said in a letter to customers who had bought tickets for events scheduled there.

"Due to circumstances beyond our control, the theater is permanently closed," the letter read. It said ticket holders for canceled events are getting refunds.

Named after pioneering African-American scientist George Washington Carver, the theater was built in 1950. At the time, it was hailed as one of the country's finest theaters for black patrons.

In 2005, the theater closed after suffering extensive damage in Hurricane Katrina. It reopened in 2014 following an $8 million renovation using federal and state funding.

It had since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In recent years, the theater had been used as a concert venue and entertainment hall, seating about 940 people.

Among other big names, it hosted Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who delivered his State of the City address there in 2015, and Snoop Dogg, who performed there during Jazz Fest last year.

Fans of the theater on social media lamented a closure they said seemed sudden, but for years signs had pointed to difficulty operating an institution of its size and type in its location of New Orleans.

New Orleans’ historic Carver Theater, recently renovated, is up for sale

The theater first closed in 1980, thirty years after opening. Four years later, it opened as the Carver Medical Clinic, which served mostly the residents of the nearby Lafitte housing development.

In 1991, the building was purchased for $240,000 by Dr. Eugene Oppman, an optometrist who had joined the clinic in 1987. Oppman turned the building into a private eye clinic, which he operated until Katrina.

The building suffered extensive damage after the storm, having sat in about 5 feet of water for weeks.

When Oppman returned to New Orleans after the storm, he announced a plan to restore the building to its original use, rather than rebuild a medical clinic there. 

After years of delays, the restored Carver Theater reopened in 2014 using federal new market tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, the state's live performance tax credits and funds from the state Office of Community Development.

Before it opened, Ottman had said he was so passionate about the project that he spent "every penny" he had, including his retirement and his child's college funds, to be able to open it.

Other investors predicted it would transform an area that struggled to regain its former population level after Katrina.

"We look at this as a revitalization of the entire community, not just the building itself," Sylvain, the Carver's general manager, told The Times-Picayune then.

The dream didn't last long, however. Just two years after restoring the building, Oppman announced he was putting the theater up for sale.

In 2016, the 17,600-square-foot theater and six other nearby properties were listed as a package for $5.5 million, after a foiled plan to develop some of the lots and turn the area into a "destination" for out-of-towners.

At the time, Oppman said it was time for him to "just move on" from being a theater proprietor and go back to being an eye doctor. 

Less than a year later, Oppman again changed his mind, after a theater manager from Chicago convinced him to give the business another shot.

Under the management of Chris Ritter, the theater continued to "hobble along" for about another year before eventually closing, according to Davis Rogan, a talent buyer who worked at the Carver between October 2016 and March 2017.

Publicly, theater staff boasted of reinvigorated business under Ritter's tenure, with new programming, in-house booking and promotion and a revamped space that included a new VIP area and better sound system.

But Rogan said the writing had been on the wall.

He cited problems trying to compete with other local theaters, including the Orpheum and the Saenger, for big-name acts, all while operating on a line of credit that was eventually pulled after the business failed to bring in needed dollars.

"It didn’t make any sense and it didn’t work out," Rogan said.

Madania Graves, an entertainment consultant, agreed. "To have a huge entertainment facility in that neighborhood, it was almost destined to fail," Graves told WDSU-TV, which first reported news of the Carver's closing.

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