New James Earl Jones Theatre: Magnificent Inside and Out

On September 12, the old Cort Theater was renamed the James Earl Jones Theater in honor of this phenomenal theater and film legend. Many celebrities were present that day to celebrate this great occasion, including James Earl Jones. Although I was unable to attend this event, I recently received a personal, private tour of the theater from Robert E. Wankel, President and CEO of the Shubert Organization, who deemed Jones worthy of this honor. I was taken into the theater and shown all of its $47 million renovations and magnificence by Wankel and Mark Schweppe, VP of Theater Operations.

From the moment I entered the building, I was captivated by the stunning, detailed and delicate designs. Renovated by Kostow Greenwood Architects, the theater is truly something impressive to behold. A modern annex really gives the theater a nice expansion.

They built the 5 story building to give the theater a public space and it is accommodating in many ways. From the first floor there were five dressing rooms for the stars of the productions, as well as a bathroom. From the dressing rooms, I was taken to the extra wing space on the stage. From the stage, when you look up, the room is lit with 400 LED lights, which was not the case before. When you stand in front of the stage, you can see the restored scene of Marie Antoinette painted above the stage. The theme of Marie Antoinette has been restored throughout the theatre, from the delicately placed paintings of her on the walls along the stairs, to the bust of her in the lobby entrance. They replaced the Tiffany glass that was originally part of the main theater interior, and there are now wheelchair accessible places in the orchestra, mezzanine and balcony as well as an elevator that can take people. There’s a brand new rigging system, and the stage has been lowered five inches to solve a visibility issue: the original stage was too high for some of the audience to see the performers’ feet; this is no longer a problem. Each level now has a bar to serve customers.

“We bought the neighboring land and built this building there,” Wankel proudly shared. Taking the elevator to the fifth floor, we exited into the mechanical areas. Descending to the fourth floor, we entered a huge, beautiful rehearsal room with brand new hardwood flooring and a straight wall completely covered in mirrors, along with more changing rooms. To the side on any level of the theater there are windows to give you a view of the events outside. A pretty floor lamp illuminates the staircase and reaches the height of the five floors. It’s absolutely stunning and it gives the space a warm and inviting feel.

Entering the theater from the balcony, you could clearly look down and see the stage, and the seats were incredibly comfortable to sit on. (In case you were wondering, there are 1,047 seats in this enormous theater).

There are female rooms on all levels (and I had to check those of course). The theater originally only had restrooms on the lower level with a total of four female restrooms, and three urinals and one male restroom. There are now bathrooms on every floor of this jaw-dropping theatre, which will definitely help those queues before performances or intermissions move faster.

There are offices on the interstation floor for theater staff. On the second level, mezzanine, which gives access to the dressing rooms, there are no stairs, but instead there is an open space to accommodate people in wheelchairs. They got off the elevator and went straight to their seats. From this box, your eyes can once again appreciate the beauty of the scene of Marie Antoinette vividly portrayed above the stage.

On the lower level we also see the orchestra pit, and there are passageways that lead to the front of the house for the actors and a toilet for the crew.

On the lower level is a screen displaying photos of James Earl Jones in productions.

Recalling when Jones was there for the ribbon cutting, Wankel said: “We brought James in, the curtain was down. We made him sit down and we lifted the curtain, he lit up like a Christmas tree. Then he told us how it was the first theater in which he worked. He had a line, ‘Mrs. Rosenberg, dinner is served. At the premiere, he was with two superstars and he stuttered all night. He told how he was a stutterer and now he has become the most famous voice in the world.

Coming out of the theater, Wankel showed me the mark. Divided into three sections, it reads “James Earl Jones”. And on the side of the theater, above, the sign reads “Jones” identifying the location of the theater from afar. There is also the sign that states “Ohio State Murders” with a photo of Audra McDonald who will star in the newly named theater’s first production. Everything is absolutely exciting to see and experience.

For more information, visit www.shubert.nyc/theatres/james-earl-jones.

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