It’s been a long road with plans to renovate the Warner Theatre taking a bit longer than expected when the plans were originally drafted back in the early 90’s.
Jill McCormick has our special report looking into the future of Erie’s historic downtown theater.
The Warner Theatre opened its doors in 1931 serving Erie as a movie theater until 1976.
The early 80’s saw the Warner converted into what we see today.
Talk surrounding the need to transform the Warner into a performing arts center began in the early 90’s, and then Governor Tom Ridge earmarked funding to start restoration work.
“That became the number one priority back in the 90’s of reinvesting in this theatre to make it a true performing arts center, because what we have here is a movie and vaudeville house,” said Casey Wells, Executive Director, Erie Events.
Over the years, front of the house work has happened, but her age is showing backstage and needs more of a transformation.
“Well, we say it’s the beauty and the beast. The beauty is up here in the house, in the lobby and it’s just museum quality environment. But backstage is the beast. It is literally 1931 equipment, 1931 furnishings, 1931 treatments in every respect,” said
While performers love to take the stage at the Warner, it comes with challenges the audience doesn’t know about.
“They’ll see this theatre and say ‘My god this is one of the top ten theatres I’ve ever seen’ and it gives me pause for a little, are you kidding me? Also, pride in that we have this and they’re saying that about Erie Pennsylvania because they have traveled around the world and for them to say that is amazing, but there’s always that little caveat that backstage needs work,” said Barry Copple, Operations Manager, Warner Theatre.
The backstage has old dressing rooms designed for vaudville stars who didn’t bring much along living life on the road.
There are virtually no loading docks, because this movie house wasn’t designed for shows that we see today. Shows that come to town with as many as ten semis full of sets, costumes, and props.
“We simply cannot fit them. We’ve been producing Broadway here for over 25 years, but you know what, people don’t see if there’s a portion of the show that never made it to the stage, because it literally won’t fit,” said Wells.
Some big shows bypass Erie altogether, because they can’t produce a show on the stage as is. This isn’t a new problem, but one that will be history once this fourth phase is complete.
“We’re going to increase the depth of the stage by 20 feet, put in loading docks. It’s going to truly transform into a 21st century performing arts center,” Wells said.
The project has grown over the years. Now it will include a full rehearsal space that will double as a second venue for smaller productions, new dressing rooms, lighting and sound.
Now, the issue is how to pay for the project. The bids came in higher than expected at $26.8 million.
“The money earmarked for this project is specifically for a performing arts center and if not used here in Erie it’s likely to go to places like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh,” said Wells.
Despite the road blocks this project has faced, Wells is confident ground will be broken this spring and the project will move forward as planned.
“We have to get this right, this theatre has served this community for 95 years and we got to get it right so it serves this community for another 95 years,” said Wells.