Do it right

Renovations at the Community Center Theater are way overdue—but don’t shortchange us

All those seats, and only two aisles.

All those seats, and only two aisles.

Sacramento Community Center Theater

1301 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 808-5291

Construction won’t begin for another year at least, but after a decade of discussion, plans are slowly moving forward for a long-overdue $40 million renovation of the Sacramento Community Center Theater. The 2,452-seat “big box” downtown venue was built in 1974, and hasn’t seen a major upgrade since. People have been talking about a makeover of the aging theater since the late 1990s, and with good reason. SCCT’s shortcomings are well-documented:

Nowhere near enough restrooms, particularly for women. There are lines during intermission (even when the house is not full), and people are routinely directed across the courtyard to the Convention Center Exhibit Hall where there are more restrooms. (This is somewhat problematic when it’s raining hard.)

Access problems. The only wheelchair-accessible seating is in the back row. Given that the Americans With Disabilities Act only became law in 1990, this is no surprise. A lawsuit by a disabled patron resulted in some additional seating for wheelchair users in the orchestra section, but access is problematic for everyone. The auditorium has no cross aisle, and no back-to-front interior aisles—only side aisles. If your seat is in the middle of the house, you must squeeze by dozens of people to reach it, apologizing all the way.

The seats are basically worn out after 36 years of steady use; repair parts are no longer available.

The lobby is too small for a reception at a full-house event.

The “back of house” facilities are inadequate across the board: not enough dressing rooms, storage, rehearsal space or loading-dock space.

Many of these points are addressed in the preliminary renovation plan that went before the Sacramento City Council last month. The plan calls for “a 50 percent increase over the current commode count,” additional aisles and new seating in the house, a slightly larger lobby (with more glass, opening up a view of Capitol Park) and various backstage upgrades. The project will take years; most construction would take place between June and September (when SCCT is less busy) over a three-year period from 2011 through 2013.

Alas, the SCCT renovation plan includes only “minor acoustic upgrades,” which is a pity. Currently, SCCT is OK for hosting touring shows on the Broadway Sacramento series, which use high-powered amplification. But the hall’s natural acoustic is frankly pretty “dead.” If you’ve heard the Sacramento Philharmonic at the Mondavi Center and compared that experience to the way the orchestra sounds at SCCT, the difference is pretty dramatic. SCCT is particularly unfriendly to the unamplified human voice—this year, the Sacramento Choral Society decided to hold concerts at the Mondavi Center and at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, and stay out of SCCT.

Such acoustic shortcomings were common in the 1970s; Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco was judged a dud when it opened in 1980, and a $10 million acoustic makeover was set in motion a few years later. But we’ve come to expect higher sound quality to match higher ticket prices.

Also, don’t lose sight of the reality that sprucing up SCCT will not address an important related issue: Sacramento badly needs a mid-range venue with around 1,200 seats, with a stage big enough for ballet and opera and a resonant acoustic. It would be a huge boon to the region’s larger arts groups.

Will such a facility ever become a reality? Given the way city leadership obsesses over a new sports arena yet never seems to make much progress, we’re not optimistic in the near term. But if we don’t keep bringing up the obvious need, it’ll never happen.