Wharton’s new face

By Eric Gallippo & Joe Torok

Center ready to show off $18.5 million addition

In the early 1970s, when the Wharton Center was just a twinkle in the eyes of then MSU President Clifton Wharton and his wife, Dolores, they asked a team of people to visit venues around the region to get ideas for a possible new performance center.

On that team was Ken Beachler, who was then director of a lecture and concert series at MSU’s Fairchild Theatre. Over 12 years and several hurdles, what eventually became the Wharton Center was finished, and Beachler became its first executive director. Although he was thrilled with the possibilities the new center brought, Beachler said it was soon clear that more room was needed for staff and backstage operations, as well additional space for educational purposes.

“By the time we opened (in 1982), the design was about 7 years old,” Beachler said. “There were certain things we had new that were old-fashioned.”

Today, the Wharton Center prepares to show off a recently completed $18.5 million addition and renovation project. The new addition, which was designed by TMP Architecture/TMP Associates Inc., of Bloomfield Hills, and constructed by the Christman Co., took about a year and four months to complete.

Beachler, who retired from the Wharton Center in 1992, sees something a lot more like what he and others were first dreaming about. “[It has] not only the spaces we envisioned, but on a much larger and grander scale than we were even allowed to think of in the ‘70s,” Beachler said.

Ground was broken on the 24,000 square-foot addition in May 2008. The most striking visible change for visitors comes in the form of a fourstory glass and brick façade, as well as an expanded front lobby, box office and gift shop.

But the expansion at the Wharton Center goes beyond cosmetic tweaks. Perhaps the most practical byproduct of the construction is the rearrangement of office space. In the past, a staff of 35 was scattered throughout the building. Now, complete with conference rooms, office space and staff members are consolidated primarily on the third floor.

Two large donor reception rooms, able to accommodate a couple of hundred guests, reside near the lobby behind Cobb Great Hall. Bright hardwood floors dominate the rooms, and large glass windows provide an excellent view of campus.

Backstage, lights flicker on as one enters a room, one particular product of environmentally friendly design throughout the construction project. New dressing rooms have been installed, including a second “star” dressing room for shows featuring more than one diva. A “green room” with a large conference table and enormous flat screen television will give guests of a show an intimate and comfortable space to watch performances.

A new laundry and utility room will help crew members as they manage behind-thescenes duties. A quiet room for truck drivers and crew members who unload semis — many times in the wee hours of the night — creates a space these often overlooked workers can relax in, and maybe catch a few winks of sleep.

Since the project was first announced two years ago, Michael Brand, the Wharton Center’s executive director, said the focus has remained on backstage enhancements that allow shows to run concurrently in the Wharton’s main Cobb Great Hall and smaller Pasant Theater; patron amenities, including VIP donor lounges, rooms for private parties and more than 20 additional bathroom stalls throughout the building; and expanded offices to accommodate the number of staff needed to run the center, something it has never had. “We had to upgrade that, because we used every broom closet in the building,” Brand said, laughing.

Earlier this week, Brand was still getting used to the acoustics of his new third floor office. “They kind of sound like silos, because it’s so high,” Brand said. “Agents keep asking, ‘Where are you — thinking I’m in some weird spot.”

Brand said the Wharton Center already has a reputation as one of the top perform- ing arts venues in the world, and beefing up accommodations for talent and crew only strengthens that.

With a steady stream of touring shows, MSU productions and Lansing Symphony concerts, the Wharton Center’s theater stays plenty busy throughout the year. But Brand said he recently realized the center may have one more venue to program now that the construction work is finished. “We didn’t realize the new front garden has a little amphitheater in it, where we can actu ally do some concerts,” Brand said.

Last but far from least on the list of improvements is added space for educa tional programming, workshops and mas ter classes, which will include broadband hook-ups to be transmitted to classrooms around the region.

Brand said one of the projects of the year to make use of the new space is a production of “Jack Sprat’s Low-Fat World Tour,” a play addressing children’s obesity, which will be staged in the Pasant Theatre. Graduate students from Michigan State University’s Theatre Department, a director from New York and community theater costumers will spend three weeks putting the show together. “We’ll be doing more and more of that, programming for our specific collaborators we’re working with in the community and throughout the state,” Brand said.

To celebrate the finished project, The Wharton Center will hold an open house on Sunday, Oct. 11, during which guests will be able to take self-guided tours of the center’s new spaces, two theaters and backstage areas, with staff members spread throughout the building to offer details and additional information. The event also includes a ribbon cutting by Clifton and Dolores Wharton; an educational demonstration by 2009-’10 Wharton Center Artist-In- Residence Happendance, the Okemos dance company; and short performances by Doug Berky, who is part of next season’s Act One School Series.

Brand expects more than 1,000 tourists for the day. “People who have never been backstage will be surprised,” Brand said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people love standing on stage looking out. They’re going to be able to see the nooks and crannies and all the things they don’t normally get to see.”

Brand is also looking forward to guest responses to the new addition.

“I think they’re going to be pretty blown away with the two donor lounges. They’re beautiful and have a gorgeous view of the campus. The gift shop is three times the size [of the old one]. It’s more like a gift shop from a major museum; it makes you feel like buying something.”

Wharton Center Open House

Noon – 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11 The Wharton Center FREE www.whartoncenter.com