Built for Expo ’74, the old opera house has seemingly had more major name changes over the past several decades than it’s had major renovations.
After being closed for six months – hidden by pedestrian barriers and construction equipment – the First Interstate Center for the Arts reopened a few weeks ago, just in time for the Best of Broadway’s series to bring in “Finding Neverland”.
Rediscovering the wonder of childhood through the lovely and complicated tale behind the development of the story of Peter Pan makes for interesting theater. Yet many of those who attended the first shows at Spokane’s largest performing arts venue were literally looking for physical changes to the theater as much as they were the deeper lessons tied to the power of imagination and innocence.
It was almost like a real-life version of “Where’s Waldo,” only focused more on drywall, glass and how comfortable the new seats might be, instead of looking for a goofy guy in a striped shirt. Making that even harder was that, just like in “Finding Neverland”, there was no Tinkerbell to lead the way.
Some of the changes were easy to see, notably the striking new artwork by Spokane sculptors Bill and Karma Simmons suspended in the lobby and made even more interesting at night when its dramatic lighting makes it really come alive.
But with a $23 million price tag and a new name, most were looking for more than just the largest hand puppets anyone has ever seen. The hard part is that these important renovations were mostly about helping the building’s bones than adding lots of shiny new features.
Before we go any further, we need to talk about the name: First Interstate Center for the Arts. That’s a real mouthful. No one is ever going to say that.
In some ways, that’s a little unfair.
When companies help support the arts, they should get a little love and recognition for it. When the First Interstate BancSystem Inc. in Billings, Montana, acquired Spokane-based Inland Northwest Bank, it was a pretty good bet the days of the INB Performing Arts Center were numbered.
At least in name.
After the theater’s name first changed in 2006, if you told someone you were going to a show at INB, everyone knew you didn’t mean at the bank. First off, it’s unclear anyone can even remember First Interstate Center for the Arts. Eight-syllable names are at least five syllables too long.
The good news is that Spokesman-Review features editor Carolyn Lamberson is ready to help fix our new multisyllabic theatrical nom de plume.
FICA. It rhymes with “like a.” Used in a sentence: I “like a” tasty low-calorie soda when I’m having some salty, delicious popcorn at a show.
You pronounce FICA a little like a that.
Now, let’s get to the important stuff.
The real goal for this renovation was to bring the FICA into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Though the performing arts center had technically been grandfathered into the law, no one associated with the venue felt like guests with different abilities were getting the experience they deserved when they came to the theater. Especially if wheels were involved.
Guests in wheelchairs who could not use stairs or handle the steep slope in the auditorium had to first go through the metal detectors in the main lobby before going back outside and down the sidewalk to enter the auditorium at the street level. This was fixed by adding a new hallway all guests could use together.
All of the clunky wheelchair platforms noticeably made of unpainted plywood were replaced with new seating areas for wheelchairs and companions as part of the auditorium seating. They look elegant and not at all like the piecemeal solution they once were. It looks like they are supposed to be there … because they are.
Although guests may not notice it at first, all the seats are new and are wider and much more comfortable. More importantly, the ADA companion seats are identical to the rest of the seating, instead of using the banquet chairs that had long become an odd fixture in the main-level seating area.
The number of ADA seats also increased from 16 to 22.
Another note on the seats: There are fewer of them now. The ADA changes took the seating from 2,700 to 2,609.
So what do you do when you get rid of 2,700 auditorium seats? Well, you see who else in our community could use them. The first shipment went to the Spokane Civic Theater to replace their even older seats.
In 2012, there was an extension on the sales/use tax, the hotel-motel tax and a state credit sales tax.
In taking advantage of those to do this project, it became an easier decision to do as much as possible to bring the 44-year-old building up to current sustainability standards by replacing the massive single-pane windows in the lobby with safer and more efficient glass and updating the theater’s outdated electrical systems.
Another change was to simply add more electrical outlets. Way more.
A much needed state-of-the- art sound system means your favorite musicals will sound even better.
The former music room, which the Spokane Symphony used for rehearsals when it performed in the hall – before the renovation of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox – has now become the place to go before the show and during intermission. It’s a cool bar area with TVs, comfy chairs and cool lighting. If it wasn’t located in a theater, it would totally be the bar you’d go to with friends.
Artists will see lots of differences in the theater, as well.
Three new dressing rooms brings the total to 10. There are more backstage bathrooms and even a meal area for cast and crew. A new elevator backstage allows crew to move equipment and costumes to the upstairs dressing rooms.
More artist security also was added, including metal detectors and a guard at the artist entrance.
Because these elements were grandfathered in, venue managers did not technically need to do any of this project. but with a unique opportunity available to finance it, it was much easier to simply do it all now.
It was the right decision.
Though it’s sometimes confusing to understand, the mission of the Public Facilities District is to maximize economic impact for our region. To do that, Spokane must keep its venues in the best physical condition, constantly adapting to revolutions in sustainability, technology and even people’s tastes and preferences.
The guest experiences have to be memorable. For the right reasons.
That makes changes like we are now seeing at the FICA a vital part of our community, to help generate business for our hotels, restaurants, bars, wineries, breweries, our local shops, car rentals, Uber, those crazy green scooters, and even real estate, as many visitors to Spokane choose to come back and live here.
Yes, we want these sorts of things to help add to the cultural value of our community, but it’s the visitors that really matter.
Visitor spending is essential to our region’s vitality. People come into our city and spend money. Then they leave. Unless they have a run-in with some of Spokane’s Finest from our local police department, they aren’t a drain on our services.
It’s almost like free money that helps to keep the local economy going. It even can help to keep our taxes lower.
While the Public Facilities District may be known for bringing in big business such as Garth Brooks, the NCAA basketball tournament, Broadway shows and big conventions, it really is at heart a local business working hard to take care of our community and help it prosper.
Along with the changes, it’s just one more reason why I like a FICA.