Virtuoso Performance

Wayne Parham
A different kind of conductor: The Cobb Centre’s Managing Director Michael Taormina

Michael Taormina parks in a gravel lot outside the new Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and takes a call from a show business agent. They’re negotiating the contract for the unnamed star who’ll headline the spectacular new venue’s grand opening on September 15.

As Taormina talks on his cell, a City of Atlanta Public Works truck – which has ventured across the river into Cobb County – parks beside him. The driver, Lamar Singleton, steps out of the truck and stares in awe at the building, which has drawn him as if by magnet. He wants to know what this strange new structure could possibly be.

“I was driving in the area and I saw the building against the blue sky and it actually looked like a drawing, like a painting, and it was captivating,” says the enrapt Singleton. “It looks like a Phoenix just rising out of the ground. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s very futuristic. It looks like something from a comic book drawing or the movies.”

The building, sitting just to the west of I-75 and south of I-285, looks so futuristic that at first blush the 230,000 drivers who pass it each day might think a spaceship has landed next to the Cobb Galleria complex.

Not so. The center is simply one of the most striking structures to rise in the Atlanta region in years. In fact, it’s the first major performing arts center to be built in the metro area in four decades. A giant sign, with streaming video and animation on a 25-foot screen, will call even more attention to the center.

The center sits alone, unobstructed by other buildings, on a high hill overlooking I-75. The building itself soars 114 feet above a formerly bare 16-acre site that once held an Eastern Airlines facility and later served as a temporary setting for the vagabond Cirque du Soliel.

The center’s three giant gray arching metallic waves seem to undulate across the top of the building. Inside the structure is a world-class theater that will be home to the Atlanta Opera, plus a host of Broadway road shows, dance and musical performances.

The theater is named for developer John A. Williams, who donated $10 million toward the $145 million cost of the facility.

“We originally envisioned a performing arts component as part of the Cobb Galleria Centre,” says Williams. “We contemplated a project like this almost 15 years ago, when I took the job as the first chair of the Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the funds necessary to build the facility the first time around. The political tradeoff of putting the Cobb Galleria Centre in our current location also required the building of the Marietta Conference Center. The good news is by waiting, we will have a facility that will be world-class and to my knowledge will be the finest performing arts theater in the country.”

Cobb Energy Management Corp. paid $20 million for naming rights to the center, which is funded by a public-private partnership. Cobb County approved $57 million in bonds that will be repaid by the hotel-motel tax. Cobb Galleria kicked in $11 million. The Woodruff Foundation donated $3 million and Gas South gave $2 million for naming rights to the giant sign. A nonprofit foundation continues to raise money. At press time, fund raisers had about $34 million to go.

The center also will house a meeting facility with a 10,000-square-foot ballroom that can host everything from weddings to business meetings.

State-Of-The-Art Intimacy

Pulling it all together is Taormina, a human whirlwind recruited from the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston to be managing director of the Cobb facility. He oversees the complicated logistics of building and opening a state-of-the-art theater and meeting facility on time and within budget.

Taormina puts on his hard hat to lead one of his countless tours – for potential donors, community leaders and the media – through the construction site. Workers hustle past him to meet their schedule, which is relentlessly ticking down in red numbers on countdown clocks. Construction must be completed in late June so the facility can be thoroughly tested before opening night.

Taormina, a New Orleans native with 30 years experience operating major performing arts facilities, calls the schedule “a bullet train” – “All the pieces are running at the same time: the development piece, the construction piece, the programming piece, the staffing, the opening. It all needs to happen at the same time.”

He leads a guest into the soaring main entrance, past the concierge desk, to a long alabaster staircase that will be lighted dramatically, ascending past 10 massive contemporary chandeliers, weighing 600 pounds each. The ceiling is more than 70 feet high. As patrons reach the upper levels, they will have an unobstructed view of Atlanta’s skyline to the south – a reminder that the center is just over the hill from the city. Taormina can make it to work from his Midtown home in 13 minutes.

For Atlanta purists, the center is ITP – inside the Perimeter. But it’s also accessible for anyone in the region because it’s on main traffic arteries and avoids downtown’s congestion. The center will have 1,000 parking spaces, with overflow available at the nearby Galleria complex. Experience with the large crowds at Cirque du Soliel proved that traffic can flow smoothly in the area, which is convenient to U.S. 41, I-75 and I-285.

One of the highlights of Taormina’s tour is the restrooms – plentiful and convenient, with women’s facilities far outnumbering the men’s. For anyone who has experienced the leg-hopping wait in the Atlanta Civic Center’s restroom lines, the Cobb center’s restroom bonanza is a godsend.

Taormina is bringing in other touches of civilized convenience: Patrons will be able to pre-order drinks and pick them up at intermission without long waits.

The theater itself is built in the intimate style of traditional European theaters yet features state-of-the-art comfort and technology. Wireless Internet, demanded by touring show crews, is available throughout the building. Sound acoustical joints keep all vibrations from the structure – no noise will disturb the shows.

Aesthetically, the theater comes alive with a vibrant mix of earthy reds and browns that will complement the purple curtain. Mesh metallic waves swoop upward toward the ceiling. Seven balcony boxes on each side would make a duchess feel at home. Some boxes even have private bars a few steps away from the seats.

The theater’s 2,750 seats are located on three levels – orchestra, mezzanine and grand tier.

“The seats are very intimate,” Taormina says. “The theater literally wraps around you. The farthest seat in the last row of the grand tier is only 160 feet from the stage.”

The seating capacity compares with 6,900 seats at Chastain Amphitheater, about 4,800 seats at the Fox Theatre, 4,600 at the Atlanta Civic Center, and 1,800 at Symphony Hall in the Woodruff Arts Center.

“I don’t think we’re competitors,” Taormina says. “I think there’s enough product. What the Cobb Centre does is offer another option or another venue to attract more product to the area. The fact that we’re state-of-the-art and brand new and have dates available is a major draw.”

Crowded Playing Field?

There is a possibility the center could add to a potential glut of performing arts venues in Metro Atlanta. Even more space is coming: The Atlanta Symphony plans to build a 12,000-seat amphitheater in Alpharetta. The symphony is also raising funds for a dazzling new center for performances and educational activities in Midtown; so far approximately one-third of the $300 million needed for the new facility has been raised.

Yet the ASO doesn’t view the Cobb center as competition, but as a complementary facility that will generate more interest in the arts.

“I’m thrilled they’re opening – Cobb is my home county,” says ASO Vice President for Development Paul Hogle, who notes that the ASO has already been in talks about doing a youth program at the Cobb center.

Besides the Fox, the Civic Center and Symphony Hall, Atlanta is speckled with other performance venues, including Philips Arena, the Tabernacle, the Roxy, the Rialto, the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech, Spivey Hall at Clayton State University and the Arena at Gwinnett Center, which has 13,000 seats.

Yet with all those venues, the Atlanta Opera did not have a permanent home. Now it does. In Cobb.

“The size of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and the Williams Theatre were carefully designed to complement the other venues in Metro Atlanta,” Williams says.

The Cobb center also is designed specifically to accommodate the opera and large touring Broadway shows, which can require a full orchestra pit and enormous amounts of room backstage for scenery. The center’s 2,750-seat capacity is considered an ideal number for Broadway shows; it can make a run profitable in a reasonable amount of time while ensuring there are no bad seats in the house.

Allan C. Vella, general manager of the Fox, says performing arts facilities have been overbuilt nationally. But he foresees no problems for the Fox because of the new Cobb center.

“It’s a beautiful facility,” Vella says. “I think they will carve out a niche for themselves. We may lose some attractions to them and vice versa. I don’t think it will have a dramatic impact on the Fox. I think we will learn to complement each other. If shows require additional capacity, they will still come to the Fox.”

As for the Cobb center, he says, “It’s one of the best facilities for its size in the country.”

The architectural firm for the project is Atlanta-based Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates.

“The intent of the design is to make it as exciting an experience as possible for the patrons as they approach the building and once they get inside,” says William Reynolds, a principal of the firm.

“We felt it was important that everyone be as close to the stage as possible. A lot of the more recent theaters tend to not be as tall and just have a single balcony. We felt it was more important to have the patrons close to the actors, to give it more personality. It’s very similar to the European theaters.”

Many theaters built in recent years have tried to downplay the traditional opulence of older houses, but in Cobb, “we’re trying to return that feeling,” Reynolds says.

The firm decided on the wave design because the building had to be high in the rear, where scenery is housed. The waves build up from front to back to avoid the feeling of having a short front and tall rear of the structure.

The building goes deep in the ground, as well. A large orchestra pit, 30 feet deep, can accommodate 84 musicians. Backstage, carpeted dressing rooms with full shower facilities will spoil any diva. A green room will allow artists to meet in comfort with VIPs and friends. Other dressing rooms are large enough for a show’s chorus.

Taormina leads the way up a hallway to the ballroom, which can seat up to 500 for a meal and also can be divided into thirds for separate meetings.

“The ballroom operates separately from the theater,” he says. “We have a full-service kitchen, chef, catering staff. We’ll be doing everything here.”

Making An Impact

On his way out, Taormina introduces his guest to Don Keel, construction manager for Hardin Construction, who oversees the massive project.

“We have 70 subcontractors, vendors and suppliers,” he says. “On any given day, 250 to 300 workers are here. I estimate we’ve had 4,000 people working on this project – about 30 percent from Cobb County, 70 percent from Metro Atlanta and 95 percent from Georgia.”

When finished, the project will have consumed 28,000 yards of concrete, 10,000 gallons of paint and nearly 1 million work hours and 23,000 truck deliveries, he says.

“This is a very special and unique project for us and for our subcontractors, vendors and suppliers,” Keel says. “Everyone has the feeling of being part of an institutional landmark that will be very special.

“Two things make this project unique,” he says. “First, we face the subtle technical challenge of building a performing arts center, where you have to pay great attention to the acoustical and visual performance. We have very tight tolerances for pouring the seating slabs – they have to be in exactly the right place. We double- and triple-check that. We have to be very proactive in maintaining sight lines and maintaining very tight control over the finished project.

“The second biggest challenge is maintaining the acoustical integrity of the theater. We have two-foot-thick concrete walls around the perimeter. We have two concrete roof decks to keep noise out. And we pay a lot of attention to electrical and mechanical systems to make sure we don’t let any outside noise into the space.”

Keel also points out that the facility will far exceed minimum accessibility standards for physically challenged patrons.

Cobb Commission Chairman Sam Olens says construction of the center is fueling a revitalization in the Cumberland-Galleria area. For example, General Growth Properties is investing $65 million to redevelop Cumberland Mall. Grove Street Partners, bankrolled by John Williams’ investment fund, plans a massive development with a 15-story office tower and an 18-story combination hotel and residential condominium tower, plus retail stores and restaurants.

“It’s becoming a true live-work-play community,” Olens says.

Olens, chair of the Atlanta Regional Commission, says the center is a valuable arts resource for the entire region because of its location and access. And, like Williams, he doesn’t foresee an adverse impact on Atlanta.

Olens notes that projects of this magnitude normally take a decade or more.

“We’re doing it in four years,” he says, crediting the leadership of Williams, Kessel Stelling of Bank of North Georgia and Earl Smith, chairman of the Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority, as well as Cobb Energy and other donors.

Work will continue feverishly as September approaches, from construction to sound checks to fund raising. But all is on schedule. Taormina says he’s only missing one important item.

“The one thing I don’t have yet is our ghost,” Taormina says. “Every theater has a ghost.”

Doug Monroe is an Atlanta freelance writer.

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features