by john fleming
Times Performing Arts Critic
ST. PETERSBURG — Audience members won't see dramatic changes when the Palladium Theater reopens this weekend after being closed for renovations all summer. Though most of the work took place behind the scenes, it amounted to a substantial upgrade, including new air-conditioning, electrical improvements and the addition of an elevator.
Executive director Paul Wilborn is looking forward to being free of some of the headaches and aggravations that had come with running the theater in a converted church. "We had problems where we would plug in a coffee pot and the lobby lights would go off,'' he says. "Once we blew a fuse before the opera started.''
The renovation cost about $2.3-million, bankrolled by St. Petersburg College, which acquired the theater in 2007 and has assumed an important role in cultivation and support of the arts in downtown St. Petersburg.
The grand reopening concert Saturday features a number of nationally known jazz players, including trumpeter Warren Vache and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, as well as the Nate Najar Trio. It's the sort of program that is becoming a trademark of the Palladium.
"For a theater of our kind you need to find niche markets that really work for you,'' Wilborn says. "And jazz seems to be working for us.'' Saturday's concert will be in the 850-seat auditorium, but some of the Palladium's most successful jazz programs have been in the downstairs space, dubbed the Side Door Cabaret.
"It's set up like a nightclub, and we were getting 130 to 150 people for most of our performances last season,'' Wilborn says. "I'm finding myself doing more things down there. The audience seems to love it, and it's a good size for us.''
Wilborn, a former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune, became head of the theater about a year ago after four years as manager of creative industries for the city of Tampa. He's also a pianist and singer who has performed the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and other Tin Pan Alley songwriters at the Palladium.
In his first year of programming, Wilborn is sticking with the theater's established mix of opera, chamber music, jazz and community presentations. Some of the performances he's excited about include a concert version of the musical Webb's City, featuring creators Lee Ahlin and Bill Leavengood; the modern dance collective Moving Current; and a Duke Ellington Christmas show.
The Palladium's Skinner pipe organ has been renovated, and a series of concerts on it will be inaugurated by Rosa Rio, the ageless theater organist (born in 1902) famous for her inventive accompaniments to silent films.
The biggest name on the Palladium season is folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, known for his 1972 hit Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road) and these days for his children, singers Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. It's a coproduction with WMNF radio and a way for the theater to present a national act with a partner to share the risk.
"We're in a market that is saturated with performing arts centers and road shows,'' Wilborn says. "I think our niche is to do a little national programming, but I think it would be a mistake if we tried to do a ton of it.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.