Kimmel draws ideas for a Merriam experience made anew

Facilitators for the Kimmel Center Sunday led conversations at the Merriam Theater on how the Merriam might look different after renovations and what kinds of new programs might draw untapped audiences.

What would a new front for the Merriam Theater look like? How can the Kimmel Center, the Merriam’s new owner, give the century-old theater a more lively presence on the street? Which slice of the ticket-buying public should the Kimmel look to serve that it’s not currently reaching?

Kimmel Center leaders invited in members of the public to give their opinion, and opinion they gave. About three dozen participants showed up Sunday morning for the first of three public conversations on renovation plans under consideration for the Merriam, but larger crowds were expected for sessions Sunday afternoon and Monday night.

Many at this first one were residents of the Academy House, just to the west of the Merriam, who are concerned about the height of a proposed residential tower that they say could block their views and light. The Kimmel’s plans for the tower are not firm, but the idea is to take the office building whose ground floor currently serves as the lobby of the theater and demolish it.

In its place would go a new building with lobby spaces and amenities at the base, with a tower rising up to 32 floors above.

But little was said at the meeting about this aspect of the plan. Facilitators brought in by the Kimmel guided the highly structured conversation of three separate working groups Sunday.

The public was asked about barriers to attending the Merriam. No leg room, “scary” access to balcony levels, and a lack of restrooms, responded one group. Ticket prices that are sometimes much higher than those of nearby concerts and events, answered another. The third group spoke of the potential for more diverse programming, including storytelling, hip-hop, and poetry.

What should a new front for the Merriam feature, and what kind of new amenities would be most inviting?

“Windows with a low-cost restaurant,” said Susan Quinn of Media. Several talked about the need for a place nearby where audience members could go to talk about performances after the curtain comes down — a sidewalk cafe, or even direct access into a new restaurant that would be carved into the Broad Street Concourse.

The 1,750-seat Merriam, which opened in 1918, has a history of use as a vaudeville house, pre-Broadway tryout venue, and concert hall for rhythm and blues, and pop shows. Its interior is largely intact — if dowdy, with chipped plaster and faded paint — and the Kimmel, which recently bought the Merriam from the University of the Arts, plans to upgrade theater systems, preserve historical architectural elements, and enhance amenities.

Kimmel leaders may take ideas generated in these meetings to “inform” the request for proposals it aims to have in the hands of developers by around the first of the year. Said J. Edward Cambron, the Kimmel’s executive vice president, of Sunday’s brainstorming session: “We’re taking it all to heart.”

The third of the Kimmel Center’s town hall meetings on the future of the Merriam Theater will be Monday, Sept. 25, at 6 p.m. at the Merriam, 250 S. Broad St. www.kimmelcenter.org, 215-893-1999. Registration is suggested.