How did Northwest get a $9 million theater? School bonds, fame and a family tie ...

Northwest School of the Arts, which has produced such nationally known performers as Eva Noblezada, has long done its amazing work in a dilapidated building. This week it opens a new $9 million arts center that includes a 600-seat theater and an a
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Northwest School of the Arts, which has produced such nationally known performers as Eva Noblezada, has long done its amazing work in a dilapidated building. This week it opens a new $9 million arts center that includes a 600-seat theater and an a
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How did Northwest get a $9 million theater? School bonds, fame and a family tie ...

By Ann Doss Helms

ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

September 27, 2017 04:39 PM

Northwest School of the Arts’ reputation long ago outstripped its facilities.

Located on Charlotte’s historic Beatties Ford Road, in a building that opened as the all-black West Charlotte High in 1938, the magnet school’s reputation reaches far past the city limits.

Maybe you’ve heard about the school’s production of the musical “The Color Purple,” which took national honors and is the subject of a just-released documentary. Or perhaps you know Broadway star and Tony award nominee Eva Noblezada, who went straight from Northwest to the London stage.

But if you’ve gone to see young stars during their formative years in middle and high school at Northwest, you’ve either seen them on undersized and outdated stages or gone somewhere else. “The Color Purple,” for instance, moved from the school’s small “black box theater” to CPCC and Ovens Auditorium to accommodate the crowds.

That’s about to change.

Thursday morning Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools cuts the ribbon on a $9 million new theater and art gallery. There will be public officials, corporate and arts leaders and a performance by the Charlotte Symphony.

And the place will be aswirl with memories. CMS designed the state-of-the-art, 600-seat theater to nestle into the historic red brick building that has become known as a community treasure ... even when its insides were a bit threadbare.

“Now they can dance on the stage without worrying about a heel going through the floor,” laughed Linda Franzese, who started teaching musical theater and chorus when Northwest became an arts magnet in the mid-1990s. “And the fact that they now have a place to change clothes – the dressing rooms were just awful, a mildew-ridden mess.”

Linda Franzese, former director of the choral program and musical theater, and Charles LaBorde, founding principal at Northwest School of the Arts, marveled Wednesday at the state-of-the art amenities at their old school.
John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

She and former Principal Charles LaBorde, who both retired about a decade ago, came Wednesday to get a sneak peek at the new theater and reminisce about the old one. They spent countless hours, for instance, trying to cover the inexplicably huge windows to darken the auditorium for productions. Now those windows are bricked over but faintly visible; a worker putting finishing touches on the stage used the sill to rest his laptop computer.

LaBorde talked about students who have gone on to Broadway careers – Will Taylor, Grasan Kingsberry and Jacob Pinion, for instance.

“When you go back and think about all the people who danced or sang or played an instrument on this stage, or were in a play, they have gone on, many of them, to do amazing things in the arts,” Franzese said.

And for every student on stage, countless others have worked on sets and costumes, majored in music or developed their talents in visual arts.

The new space will cultivate all those skills, from the sunlit visual arts gallery in the entry to wheelchair-accessible sound and light boards to a set-building workshop where students are already gearing up for a fall production of “James and the Giant Peach.”

All Northwest students will get a message from the new building, said Assistant Principal Andy Lawler: You’re not just a bunch of kids dabbling in the arts. You’re getting an education that can shape a career.

“This is our professional working environment for our students to develop skills,” Lawler said.

The work was done with money approved in 2013 school bonds; Northwest got new science classrooms in addition to the performance space. While the needs of the aging building were clear, art director Don Nagel said the school may have gotten a boost from one special performance.

When Heath Morrison was hired as superintendent in 2012, his son, Zach, enrolled in Northwest as a seventh-grader. Nagel recalls that Zach got the lead in his first musical, and when his dad came to see the show at the black box theater he asked why they weren’t in the auditorium. Morrison got a look at the sad state of that space.

“Lo and behold, we were high priority on the 2013 bond referendum,” Nagel said.

If the Nov. 7 bonds pass, Northwest will get another $12.7 million for renovations and additions.

And there’s still an opportunity for a private donor to get in on the excitement of the new theater: The Northwest School of the Arts Foundation is offering naming rights for a major sponsor. If you can write that kind of check – or just want to know more – contact foundation chair Cynthia Conrow, CynthiaConrow@Mac.com.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms