The people behind Akron’s Civic Theatre ordered 1,000 pieces of cake, hired stilt walkers and musicians and then cued up “Singing in the Rain” — the iconic American musical focused on a revolutionary artistic transformation, the moment when silent films added sound.

Then, on Saturday, they opened the doors to the public for a free 90th birthday party celebration of the theater, which — along with the surrounding downtown neighborhood — is going through a revolutionary transformation of its own.

Among other things, the Civic is building a separate, smaller club space for 200, adding outdoor concrete decks overlooking Lock 3 and Lock 4, and finishing the long-sought renovation of its extraordinary lobby, which stalled in 2002.

Executive Director Howard Parr on Friday didn’t hide his joy, for both the Civic and the neighborhood, which rumbles with construction equipment as hundreds of new downtown apartments are being built at the same time Main Street itself is being overhauled.

“To me, it’s unbelievable. I tell people, it’s a 20-year overnight success story,” Parr said. “And it is happening. You still get people asking, 'Is it really happening?' … It’s really happening.”

The birthday salute also marked a pivot point in fundraising at the Civic, which calculated the cost of its transformation to be about $8.5 million.

Over the past 15 months, the nonprofit theater raised about $7 million from community organizations and leaders. On Saturday, it launched a public fund drive hoping to raise the remaining $1.5 million.

Parr is optimistic the public will come through, because they both appreciate what the Civic does and recognize it can be a catalyst to make downtown a place where people want to work, play and live.

“I can’t reiterate enough how positive the response has been,” Parr said. “We just didn’t get any negative feedback.”

 

Future plans

Here are the five major ways the Civic plans to spend the $8.5 million raised:

• Restore and convert the Whitelaw Building, which is attached to the north side of the Civic, into a flexible two-story club space hosting 100 events per year, including every Friday and Saturday for 50 weeks a year. It could be used for everything from comedy and poetry slams to live music and weddings.

• Finish aesthetic restoration of the grand lobby and entry arcade. Most of the electrical, heating and air-conditioning work are already finished. This will be repainting and other work to make the Civic look as bold and colorful as it did in 1929.

• Build a new box office, administrative offices, elevator access to restrooms and storage and outdoor decks overlooking Lock 3 and Lock 4. The size of the decks and whether they will be open or covered is still being worked out.

• Transform the windowless exterior walls of the Civic to match the splendor of its interior. The wall facing Lock 3 will be filled with a giant mural and a 15-by-30-foot video screen. A second large mural will go on an exterior wall facing Bowery Street. Parr said the Civic wants community input on what the murals should look like and what the art should represent.

• Create long-term financial stability by doubling the size of the Civic’s endowment with an additional $1.75 million. Though the Civic has operated in the black for about a decade, the expanded endowment will ensure it can maintain its existing and expanded facility to high standards.

 

Next steps

The club space — which will have its own name — will be among the first parts of the project completed, Parr said.

Parr said the general design is a mini-version of the House of Blues in Cleveland, where people can stand on a balcony and look directly onto the stage.

Construction is expected to be wrapped up on the club at the end of the year. That will free the Civic to then install sound and lighting. The club’s first events, Parr said, could start as early as January.

The club will have beverage service and access to an unrelated, yet-to-be announced restaurant slated to open adjacent to the space.

Barr said the expanded Civic project will impact the surrounding downtown Akron neighborhood much like Playhouse Square has in Cleveland, but on a smaller scale.

The Civic serves the Greater Akron community. But about 20 percent of its programming is national. And 60 percent of people who attend those shows, Parr said, come from outside Summit County.

“We’re going from zero residential units in our area [of downtown] to 150 or 200 in a couple of years, 95 in the first year,” he said.

“That change right there will be incredible, then add Lock 4, the bars and restaurants,” Parr said. “Our goal is to keep Akron wonderful.”

 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.