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They're Making It a Home Fit for a King

A major renovation is restoring the Pantages to its 1930s glory for the fall opening of 'The Lion King.'

May 21, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

"When this is done, it will be the most spectacular showcase in the world," said Nick Scandalios, Nederlander Organization executive vice president, speaking of the current renovation of his company's Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

C'mon, Mr. Scandalios--don't hold back. No false modesty, please.

The renovation is still in progress, so it's unclear how accurate Scandalios' prediction will be. But it is clear that the Pantages is likely to look better than it has since its salad days in 1930.

The effort was kicked off by the Walt Disney Co.'s decision to bring "The Lion King" to the Pantages in the fall. "They didn't ask for anything specific, but they wanted improvements," Scandalios said. "We decided this was the opportunity to do it right, for once."

The price tag so far: between $8.5 million and $9 million, according to Scandalios.

Actually, Martin Wiviott, general manager of the Nederlanders' Broadway/L.A. series, of which "The Lion King" will be a part, remembers that the Disney brass did express a few particular preferences for renovation details.

For example, one of the changes most immediately apparent to the public will be the absence of the circular concession stand from the center of the lobby. Wiviott recalls that a Disney official who was touring the lobby pointed at the concession stand and said two words: "That? Gone!"

However, since Nederlander is paying for the changes, Disney didn't have "carte blanche," Wiviott said. Nederlander rejected another idea that filtered down from Disney: restoring the original ticket kiosk in the middle of the outer lobby. "One person selling tickets in a little kiosk might work for a movie, but when you're selling 2,700 tickets [the capacity for a sold-out performance], it would block the flow of traffic," Wiviott said.

Still, that outer lobby certainly isn't going to look like it has in recent years. It may be the one area of the theater that will be the most visibly changed. Before the renovation, "it looked like a shower stall," Wiviott said. "Tiled walls, a flat ceiling with floodlights. It was someone's idea of modern," probably dating from the '50s or '60s.

"But now, old is new," Wiviott added. Although the kiosk will be missing, and the box office will be expanded on the east side of the outer lobby, the area otherwise will be restored to the way it looked when the theater was built. Particularly noticeable will be the return of an intricate carved ceiling that was 90% intact, hidden by the flat '60s ceiling.

Once inside the theater, at least half of the theatergoing public might vote for something more practical as their favorite renovation: The number of women's restroom facilities is being doubled or tripled, Wiviott said. Yet the original stone and marble partitions inside the restrooms will be kept intact, Scandalios added.

The concession stand that was removed from the center of the lobby will be replaced by several smaller stands around the perimeter and near the restroom areas. This will allow the lobby itself to be a big, open space--more suitable than ever for after-show parties and even weddings and bar mitzvahs. Imagine a bride coming down the steps at the end of the lobby, Wiviott said. But don't call just yet--weddings will not be a priority and would be very difficult to schedule around the "Lion King" performances.

The ceiling inside the theater has always been one of the building's most stunning features, and it's expected to look significantly spruced up by the fall. In recent weeks, workers standing on giant scaffolds have been meticulously applying gold leaf to the ceiling.

The seats and carpets will be designed so as not to compete with the ceiling, Scandalios said. "They'll be textured but look solid at a distance. That will allow your eye to go up, toward the ceiling."

Many of the theater's renovations will not be as obvious to theatergoers, but they'll make a big difference backstage--and under the stage. An old boiler room has been cleared out to make way for new dressing rooms. These will replace dressing rooms that used to be under the stage. The sub-stage area will now be a giant space that will be home to Pride Rock in "The Lion King," enabling the mountain to rise and fall as if it were some high-tech volcano. And after "Lion King" leaves, the space under the stage will be able to accommodate many other kinds of effects that weren't possible in the past.

Another feature not visible to theatergoers but very apparent to Wiviott is what he described as a 40,000-pound transformer that will provide the theater's electrical power, located on the floor under Wiviott's office. Speaking on the phone the other day, Wiviott said, "they're drilling right under me with jackhammers right now." When the installation is complete, he joked, "either our hair will stand on end or we'll be sterile."

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