On Saturdays at the Carver Theater, 10 Pepsi-Cola bottle caps earned you a free movie ticket. So Leah Chase would dress up her children, round up all the neighborhood kids and head to the movies — carrying a sack of Pepsi bottle tops she'd collected from behind the bar at the family restaurant, Dooky Chase's.
"So you see?" she says. "It wasn't like every child would have to save his own 10 tops, because maybe you wouldn't have 10 tops. But I had them here because we were selling Pepsi. So we'd get all the tops and we'd go to the Carver."
It isn't hard to get people to talk about their memories of the Carver Theater. The historically black auditorium and movie theater on Orleans Avenue was a cultural epicenter of Treme in the mid-20th century, and its reopening April 30 has inspired reminiscing. The theater opened in 1950 as one of the few theaters in New Orleans exclusively for black audiences during segregation. It's the venue where Irma Thomas was discovered after winning second place in a talent contest, and it's where Dr. John's dad used to drop him off when he couldn't get into the bigger theaters downtown.
"The community is really excited about it," says Dino Marshall, managing director at the theater. "There's not a day that goes by that somebody doesn't come by and tell me a story of their Carver experience." Marshall says one man told him his wife was about to give birth, but he found out a Bruce Lee movie was playing at the Carver. He was two hours late to visit his newborn.
On Wednesday, Carver Theater opens with a ribbon-cutting and a celebration of International Jazz Day from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. At 7 p.m., it screens the documentary Rocking the Opera House, and a panel of celebrity musicians including Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Vernel Bagneris discuss the film. The main topic of conversation, however, will be the significance of Carver's reopening. A concert at 8:30 p.m. with Big Chief Donald Harrison will christen the renovated venue.
After the Carver closed in 1980, the building was reopened in 1984 as a medical clinic. Dr. Eugene Oppman, an optician at the clinic, bought the structure in 1991 with the dream to bring back the old Carver Theater, Marshall says. The brick building was heavily damaged following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures of 2005, and the road to restoring it was a long one.
"It was strange because Dr. Oppman took me here about five years ago and brought me to this place after it had been through 30 years and Katrina," Marshall says. "I remember at the end of the day saying, 'Well, that was a waste of half the day, meeting with this guy and his dream and what he's gonna do now.' It had gone through Katrina, it had the flood, you know. And then Treme wasn't famous, there was no Treme [television] series back then. We lucked out that Treme came back and was rebuilt, but when I first saw it I said ... 'This is preposterous.'"
Once Oppman began renovating, a host of problems delayed the theater's grand opening, which originally was slated for 2012. The floor had to be raised 3 feet, which Marshall says was expensive, and Oppman had to add another wing to the building to install an elevator.
Several years and $8 million later, the building glimmers. The outside is clean and fresh, and the Carver's iconic marquee is lighted for its grand opening. The interior walls are a deep purple that adds warmth to the classic red of the exterior. A $1 million lighting and sound system gives the theater the ability to host everything from plays to concerts to weddings. The main showroom seats 800 people.
"We have all the acoustics in the room done, so there's no slapback (delayed echo) or anything; the sound is excellent," Marshall says. There's also a balcony and two VIP booths.
In addition to events and shows, the theater will host a monthly market, where Marshall says vendors from the neighborhood will set up booths. The Carver also has its own nonprofit in the works, though it won't be operational until the theater starts to make money, he says. The Treme Arts Center will teach kids the mechanics of lighting and sound design.
"A lot of the nonprofit programs right now for kids teach them music and art," Marshall says. "We're going to teach kids sound engineering, lighting and gaffing and all of the things that you can use for convention services and production services, so they'll immediately be hireable. We're going to partner with sound companies and light companies."
Most important, the new Carver won't lose touch with its history or the neighborhood, Marshall says. At the monthly market, for example, visitors can eat food prepared by Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews' grandmother, who lives just a few blocks away. The Carver also has contacted nonprofits such as Providence Community Housing to negotiate parking, and local restaurants will cater events at the reopened venue, among other neighborhood involvement.
Arnatra Hulbert, who works at the Community 6 Grocery near Carver, says she's excited for the theater to open. "I lived here when it was open before," she says. "The last movie I saw there, I think it was in the '70s. ... It's a good memory." Hulbert also thinks Carver Theater will boost business as events and shows there draw more people to the neighborhood.
As for Chase, she says she's excited the theater where she spent so much time is reopening — though she's keeping her eyes peeled.
"You have to watch what people do in the neighborhoods," she says. "If you're going to come in a neighborhood like this, I don't want you to come in here feeling like, 'Oh, this is all poor black people,' which it's not anymore because the whites are moving in like flies. I don't want you to feel that way and bring us nothing. Bring us quality stuff. Bring something good, something uplifting, and that uplifts the neighborhood. You don't want people hanging out and doing all that kind of stuff. So I'm watching them very closely.
"The Carver really is a good thing," she summarizes before heading back to her kitchen.