Just over a half-century since its 1967 inception, the 1,100-seat Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale is now in the final stages of an ambitious $30 million renovation project that began a little over two years ago. With the grand reopening, the venue will also change its name to simply, The Parker.
“This is the first comprehensive renovation and expansion, certainly, in its history,” said Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the Broward Center, who has been a principal overseer of the project. “We did it in phases and the second phase landed right in the middle of COVID. So it kind of worked out nicely that the building was already scheduled to be closed during this period of time. We’ll come out of that second phase now without having sacrificed any additional event activity.”
Named for founder and benefactor Dr. Louis W. Parker, who built it with $1 million of his own money and dedicated it to the community, the playhouse is one of Fort Lauderdale’s first venues. It played an important role by fueling economic development and establishing the city as the first stop for blockbusters in South Florida bringing in Broadway tours, outstanding performances, activities and educational programming. Dr. Parker partnered in his theater’s early days with impresario Zev Buffman, who had been presenting at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. During that period, many stars appeared on the Parker’s stage and several shows actually moved from the Parker Playhouse to Broadway. Elizabeth Taylor made her stage debut at the Parker in “The Little Foxes” in 1981. Other stars appeared during those years including Katharine Hepburn, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones, Mickey Rooney and Christopher Plummer.
Mr. Shanley said the Broward Center came to the aid of the Parker Playhouse a few years after it started to struggle financially, which began about 20 years ago, principally because its infrastructure could no longer handle massive touring shows coming from the Great White Way.
“The Broward Center was built because Broadway got bigger, both in terms of the economics and the amount of seating capacity it needed as well as the size stage it needed to accommodate productions like ‘Phantom of the Opera,’” he said. “That changed the game on the road. Parker to that point had survived primarily on the Broadway series in Fort Lauderdale. It struggled financially for a few years. They tried handing it over to some local producers, with mixed results. Eventually we got to a point where we figured out how to make things work.”
Broward Center President & CEO Kelley Shanley said the renovation was done in phases and will be completed without sacrificing any additional event activity.
That all began in 2005, when the Broward Center took over management of the Parker and initiated programming the venue with a wide array of concerts, comedy and theatrical performances. Under Broward Center management the Parker enjoyed a renaissance with a savvy mix of well-known performers and up-and-coming artists.
Mr. Shanley said the improvements to the Parker Playhouse rolled out in two categories. One was standard replacement and upgrade; the other was improvement and expansion. Replacement and upgrade efforts overhauled existing aspects such as the sound and lighting equipment, the rigging, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and the electrical and mechanical systems — making sure all of these systems were essentially new. Improvement and expansion focused on the new lobby now featured in the front of the building.
“The old Parker Playhouse did not have a front lobby the way a lot of theaters do,” Mr. Shanley said. “The way you used to enter the playhouse was through the front doors, which would immediately present you with the box office. There would be a long hallway that went across the front of the building that led you to one side lobby or another, leading directly into the seating chamber. Now there’s a space in between the drop-off area and porte cochere out front and those front doors, which we essentially filled with a new, grand lobby. We also incorporated the original art deco façade of the building into the interior into the new lobby. So it’s a rather grand way to pay homage to that original façade while allowing people to be close to it and see it in a way that they couldn’t before.”
He added there are new, expanded, modern and easier-to-access restrooms on either end of the new lobby as well.
“So basically, everything that was old has been renovated and upgraded,” Mr. Shanley said. “Those portions of the facility that were uniquely ‘Parker’ — that is, with an ornamental ceiling and paintings on the rotunda inside — were saved and restored. They’re elements of the building that are distinctive; that people will recognize and remember. We thought they were important to keep.”
Other areas were simply upgraded: new carpet, new wallpaper, new coats of paint.
“We also wanted to save the seating diagram, which people loved,” Mr. Shanley said. “The way the seating is laid out is in a continental seating configuration, which gives people lots of legroom. We’ve kept the seating layout with the exception of adding some additional accessible seating and replaced the old seats with new ones. So audience members will have the same great legroom and intimacy they’ve always had in the chamber, but with a seat that’s more current than 1967.”
The Playhouse’s signature red seats have been upgraded and placed in a continental seating configuration, which gives audience members plenty of legroom.