Another Opening Finally!

by Michael S. Eddy
Broadway's Hudson Theatre
Broadway's Hudson Theatre

Broadway’s Oldest Theater, The Hudson, Returns as Broadway’s Newest Space

Opened in 1903, the Hudson Theatre is Broadway’s oldest space, but has had many different incarnations over its life. It was considered by many as a theatrical and architectural masterpiece and loved by both performers and audiences. The space is distinctive with its unusually large lobby, a triple-domed ceiling, and a system of diffused house lighting. It was transformed into a radio studio in the ‘30s, then a TV studio in the ‘50s, becoming the home for the original Tonight Show in 1954 with Steve Allen. Later, the space was turned into a theatre again, then a club and concert venue, and more recently an event space as a part of the Millennium Hotel. Today it is once more a Broadway theater.

The UK-based Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) signed a long-term agreement with the owner a subsidiary of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels, and set about returning it to its roots as a legitimate Broadway theater. They brought in the theater consulting firm of Charcoalblue to restore the space back to a working theater and be able to support today’s style of productions along with the comforts that modern audiences expect. The vendors and systems integrators brought in to bring the Hudson back to life included Barbizon Lighting, Electronic Theatre Controls, iWeiss Theatrical Solutions, and Kirwin & Simpson.

The Hudson Theatre possesses a natural acoustic that is highly conducive to the intimacy that Charcoalblue strives to achieve in a playhouse. The theater consultant’s objective was to understand the auditorium and stagehouse and make sure that the renovated theater delivered all of the technical requirements that current users would require. Patron comfort was a priority as the late 20th Century seating was replaced with new seats from UK-based Kirwin & Simpson Seating. The seat count was also increased from its previous 699 to 970 today. The renovation also tackled replacing the rigging system and drapes as well as bringing the house lighting up to today’s standards.

“Originally the intention was to maintain all house lighting as it was,” says Clemeth Abercrombie, a senior consultant in Charcoalblue’s NY office. “As we proceeded through design phases, ATG became interested in more energy efficiency and less maintenance on the lighting fixtures and sockets themselves.” They chose to retrofit all the house lights in the theater with historical replica LEDs, fully modernize the backstage space with LEDs for work lights and a new incandescent running light system, and give the people working in the theater advanced control over all the lighting systems.

While this may sound simple, in practice, it was anything but. Some of the wiring in the theater dated back to the original 1902 construction. The diverse types of sources (incandescent and LED fixtures backstage; dimmable LEDs, line-voltage controlled lighting, and low-voltage lights) in the landmarked lobby and audience seating areas meant the theater needed an adaptable yet comprehensive control system. Not to mention the strict standards an emergency lighting system required for public spaces. “There was a vast array of different systems that needed to function, and we wanted one system that could control and program all of them,” said Joel Brukner, project manager for Yorke Construction Company, the general contractor for the job.

Barbizon Lighting brought together a range of solutions with a combination of products from ETC and City Theatrical. Two ETC DRd12 dimmer racks provide power for house and backstage lights, with control coming from ETC’s Unison family of architectural controls—a Paradigm Architectural Control Module and Echo power modules and control stations. “We spent a lot of time working with ETC in testing a number of different LED lamps, because we have done a lot of installations like this where the owners are concerned with the actual performance of the dimming,” explains Scott Reagan, project manager of the install for Barbizon. “A lot of LEDs will dim, but they dim differently. There is a great misunderstanding that all LEDs are created equal, and that’s just not the case. If the lamp only dims to 30%, no control system will be able to make it dim any farther. We tested the owner-supplied LED retrofit lamps, which we had used previously on other projects like this one.”

Charcoalblue’s design called on the ETC Echo products to provide power and control to house lights without adding a lot of infrastructure. All of this meant that the theater could have lots of features while staying within a tight budget. “ETC’s Echo controllers gave us a good way to add multiple cost effective non-dim circuits without having to install a full relay panel,” says Reagan. A part of this control system was the 12-Volt LED and 12-Volt fixtures for the seating and aisle lighting, which needed to be seamlessly integrated into the control system as well. “In addition to the LED retrofit lamps, we had to be able to figure out how to make that low-voltage dimming curve play well with the retrofit lamps and the control system,” Reagan says. “City Theatrical make a great 12-Volt dimming driver that we used here. That enabled us to really be able to mimic the incandescent dimming curve so everything looked like one big system working together even though its four different products.”

In addition to the variety of ETC Echo wall station offerings, ETC’s Echo Access app gives the theater staff the ability to change lights from anywhere in the building, plus the ability to lock out control stations during shows. “Adding Echo Access let us give the head electrician wireless access to the work light / running lights from anywhere in the Hudson,” Reagan comments. “It also gave him a way to easily reprogram the buttons as he sees fit. Plus, he was fairly happy about the lockout feature while the show is running.” 

And then there’s the emergency lighting. The Hudson Theatre is the first theater to use ETC’s new six-channel DMX Emergency Bypass Controller, the DEBC-6. This multi-output version simplifies wiring yet still adheres to the UL924 code for emergency lighting systems. “That’s a great, seamless product from ETC,” says Reagan. “It’s all in the same family of products and allowed us to take control all the seat lights, aisle lights, and all of the different types of drivers on this project; and still be able to bring all of that to full when needed without having to bring in any third-party components.”

Outdated and substandard equipment in the stagehouse was removed and replaced with modern equipment designed to perform at the level of quality expected for a Broadway performance. The rigging system overhaul was supplied and overseen by iWeiss Theatrical Solutions who added 34 double purchase linesets, using its Align family of rigging equipment. The company also supplied a new fire curtain complete with the company’s Fire Stop electromagnetic release system for fire safety curtain systems as well as its Fire Release station, an all-in-one device that allows for the easy release of the fire safety curtain.

iWeiss supplied the house drapery as well, complete with a custom grand curtain and valance. Working closely with Charcoalblue and Yorke Construction, the iWeiss equipment was drawn, stamped, and approved without any changes to its design. Interestingly, iWeiss had worked with the Hudson Theatre previously in 2004, when they provided drapes and curtains for the renovation that turned it into a convention and event space.

Barbizon’s Reagan really enjoyed being a part in helping to bring the Hudson back to its former glory. “I love the feeling that you get when you walk into a really nice older theater; to me, that’s the Broadway magic that you expect,” he says. “To be able to update it to the modern age without anyone knowing that it’s been updated was cool; to be a part of that history.”

Now as the 41st Broadway theater, the Hudson re-opened with the revival of Sunday in the Park with George. Thanks to the design vision of Charcoalblue, the hard work of Barbizon Lighting, iWeiss Theatrical Solutions, and Yorke Construction Company, the Hudson will be wowing audiences for the next 100 years.