Any longtime Fort Lauderdale theater-goer has their favorite thing about Parker Playhouse. Maybe it’s the design and décor that, shall we say, ask the viewer to consider the line between fine art and camp. Statues of gods and mermaids? Sure! Signs that are Art Deco-ish, or maybe Art Nouveau-esque? Absolutely! Paintings of 20th-century icons who once performed at Parker? Honestly, what theater doesn’t need full-length portraits of the likes of Phyllis Diller and Yul Brynner?
And of course, the spacious theater with brothel-red seats in long arcs of single rows – no middle aisle here.
Of course, fans can also list the old gal’s drawbacks. The two small concession stands at the end of either side foyer that made an intermission drink into a chugging contest if you didn’t make it right to the front of the line. The dungeon-esque bathrooms that required going down stairs and usually lining up in a cramped hallway. The lack of places to linger before or after a show.
Now the theater is once again welcoming shows after a massive refurbishment that theater leaders believe made necessary improvements to a building that opened in 1967 while preserving what people loved about it in the first place.
Perhaps the most noticeable upgrade happens when you walk through the front door. The front of the theater has been expanded; an entry that was once a box office and narrow hallway leading to foyers on the east and west of the building is now a high-ceilinged lobby with a long bar and new bathrooms.
“What’s really new is this whole, grand lobby,” says Jan Goodheart, vice president of external affairs for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which runs the Parker. It’s large enough to accommodate tables and be an event space on its own, she says.
The project, which serendipitously coincided largely with the theater-darkening times of the pandemic, finished in time for the 2021-22 season to begin in the fall. It was funded by the Campaign for the Parker, which raised $30m. The City of Fort Lauderdale kicked in $6m to begin the campaign, and private and corporate donors gave the rest. (The city owns the theater; the Broward Center has run it since 2005.)
Goodheart’s proud of both the amenities that have been added and the history that’s been preserved. Take the new bathrooms. Answering nature’s call was not, she admits, always an easy experience at the Parker. Now, large new bathrooms sit at both ends of that new front lobby. If you’re confused as to which is the men’s or women’s room, there’s a clue – large black-and-white portraits of Mickey Rooney and Eartha Kitt near the respective entrances on the east side. On the west, it’s Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones. (All four once performed at the Parker.) Elsewhere, framed posters detailing shows from seasons past are dotted around. They used to hang backstage; now everybody can enjoy that history.
It’s those touches, as well as details like the restored ornate ceilings on the side foyers or the preservation of the actor portraits, that matter to patrons, Goodheart says.
“People who are from the city really care about the building,” she says.
“Some people say, ‘This is where I saw my first show; please don’t mess anything up. Don’t tear it down and build a new building.”
Many of the most important upgrades won’t be visible to patrons. Improvements in areas such as sound and lighting are substantial, says theater manager Tate Tenorio. Paradoxically, the supply chain issues that have hampered so many industries in recent months actually helped the Parker. A number of times when they tried to order equipment, they were told it wasn’t available. So, they got free upgrades. Tenorio estimates that for $50k, the Parker now has about $130k in new equipment.
Other upgrades are more obvious. Downstairs, in what had been part of that cramped bathroom space, there’s now the Linda B. Haller Club. For $35, a patron can have drinks and light bites for up to an hour before a show, followed by dessert at intermission.
The project comes at a time when the Parker plays an increasingly valuable role for the Broward Center. It accommodates about 1,000 people, a good middle ground between the Broward Center’s two theaters, which seat about 2,700 and 600.
“This fills a niche that we don’t have at the Broward Center,” Goodheart says. “The economics work because it is the right sized house for the anticipated audience.”
As it has in recent years, the theater offers a diverse calendar that includes big touring musical acts, dance and stand-up comedy. As of this year, it’s also the Broward home of the South Florida Symphony Orchestra.
What it doesn’t stage much of anymore are the plays that were the mainstay of its early years. That’s why the people who run it have been referring to it more as “The Parker” than “Parker Playhouse.”
But, Goodheart says, patrons are welcome to call it whatever they like.