Debate over the future of the Johnny Mercer Theater has raged for years, and since the decision to demolish it along with the MLK Arena was recently reversed by the Savannah City Council, the argument has now shifted to the issue of what can be done about the theater to update and improve.
There are many practical and philosophical aspects of the theater’s function that need to be addressed, but one that is at the forefront of discussion is sound quality. There are many professional and audience opinions about the Johnny Mercer Theater’s sound quality, which can vary from show to show.
Is there a problem with the cinema’s built-in sound system? Are the acoustics bad? Do traveling music productions know how to use the available space properly?
The future of the Mercer Theater:Experts say the venue can partner with Enmarket Arena
Analysis:Why Savannah is struggling to attract high-profile theatrical shows
The case for the story:Savannah residents discuss the future of the Johnny Mercer Theater
Where to start Maybe the acoustics
Based on my own experience as someone who has seen Bob Dylan twice at the Johnny Mercer Theater, the only way I can judge the sound quality is that (as any Dylan fan can tell you) it’s unfair to blame the venue for how harsh his voice sounds.
The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra has performed at the Johnny Mercer Theater in the past, but with the space’s fate in the air they did not perform there last season, nor have they booked it for performances next season.
Amy Williams, Executive Director of the Savannah Philharmonic, would like to continue using the Johnny Mercer Theater in the future, but in her opinion and the opinion of Music & Art Director Keitaro Harada, the theater needs to make some changes to lure her back.
Conductor of the Savannah Philharmonic:The next concert season will be “really something for everyone”
“In terms of sound, the acoustics at the Johnny Mercer Theater are challenging,” Williams said. “They are not acoustics designed for an acoustic art space… There are venues across the country that have been refurbished for acoustic purposes that now sound phenomenal and some of the best places to perform include bringing in trained acousticians who specialize in sound for orchestras.” and theatre.”
The Savannah Philharmonic is currently performing at the historic Lucas Theater, and Williams acknowledges that nostalgia for the beautiful space is certainly a draw for audiences.
“I love listening to people talk about their memories of Johnny Mercer,” Williams said. “I think it’s really special. They also have memories of the Lucas Theater and their first visit. Theaters are nostalgic in every way.”
Current series:Savannah doesn’t have art house cinema, but that’s not for lack of trying
Nostalgia and practicality are two different arguments, but Williams is open to the idea of making the Johnny Mercer Theater the home of the Savannah Philharmonic with the right improvements.
“It would be really special to have a place like Johnny Mercer where we would be the resident company to perform in,” Williams said. “Having a space like the Johnny Mercer set up for a large orchestra on a stage would be something really cool in Savannah. There are just some logistics that need to be worked out first.”
Thereafter? How about a new sound system?
Event Designer and Producer at Stage Front, Paul Mazo has decades of experience at the Johnny Mercer Theatre. In an op-ed published in that newspaper on May 6, Mazo made a plea for the theatre’s rescue, along with his personal assessment of its strengths and weaknesses and what changes could be made to improve it.
“The Johnny Mercer theater controversy has been going on for quite some time,” Mazo said. “I sat back and watched and waited and watched and waited and figured it’s time to throw mine out there. I tried to write it from a realistic point of view. Not particularly biased one way or another other than having been to the theater countless times and knowing its potential and capabilities. Thank goodness the current city council decided they will keep it.”
Event Producer:The Johnny Mercer Theater is vital to our entertainment and arts scene
One complaint about the theater is its sound system. The 15-year-old single speaker rack hanging over center stage produces mono sound that works well for stand-up comedians who just need to amplify their voice, but is totally unacceptable for modern music production.
“The PA was designed for community events,” explained Mazo. “It was never, never intended as a performance system. As a performance system, it’s mediocre at best.
“A lot of the acts that are touring, especially the concert-like acts, are traveling with their own production. They want their own consoles, their own speakers, their own system. There is nothing the internal system can do to satisfy the lion’s share of it.”
A new sound system can and should come to the theater, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that touring productions and engineers won’t continue to use their own sound engineering.
letter to the editor:Don’t overstate the parallels between the Gaillard Center and the Johnny Mercer Theater
“When the musical acts come, we either bring something to support them or they come with their own gear,” Mazo said. “And the good news is that the system is set up so that it’s very easy to pull the suspension points down, drop them down, hang the new PA, press a button and fly back in the air. It’s really an easy thing for the road acts to do.”
“But if I had my brothers we would keep the current mixer because it’s still a decent quality to do most things and I would tear down the single suspended PA and put up a stereo system and add a couple of subwoofers or bass speakers to boost the bottom end.”
Victory North recently outfitted their venue with a state of the art Meyer sound system, which happens to be the brand of audio the Johnny Mercer uses. A new sound system would be the simplest upgrade that could be made to the theater.
But then there is the controversial issue of acoustics. Do these need to be updated?
letter to the editor:The Gaillard Center in Charleston shows us what the Johnny Mercer Theater could be
“That’s an interesting question,” Mazo said. “There are as many opinions on Johnny Mercer’s acoustics as there are people. What I can bring to the table is that when it was designed, this place was conceived as a concert hall with symphonies.”
The Johnny Mercer Theater currently houses large acoustic capsules, commonly referred to as “clouds,” running down the ceiling and walls on either side, which direct sound back to the audience. There is also a 25ft fiberglass orchestra shell that runs behind the orchestra for the same purpose.
“Acoustic music, believe it or not, sounds best at Johnny Mercer,” Mazo said. “When concert acts come in and the technicians don’t understand the space, that’s the biggest problem. It’s not the acoustics of the room, it’s the people driving the PA and they push the PA so hard it reaches the back of the room and it turns to mud. If you take the same PA and turn the gain down instead of turning it up loud and work with your band to control the sound coming off the stage, that’s the time I’ve seen the sound amplify sounds best.”
“It’s really about the technique of making the room sound good on its own and not trying to overpower it.”
Other issues with the theater arose from the adjacent MLK Arena. For example, a reservation has sometimes resulted in a monster truck rally or rodeo blasting into the theater across the lobby during a concert. But this problem would be solved with the removal of the arena.
“It’s just physics,” Mazo said. “You can’t stop sound from penetrating walls. With the decibel level of monster trucks and the theater literally across the street from something like this, you will hear it.”
letter to the editor:Remove the I-16 overpass and build a new Johnny Mercer Theater there
Mazo and others believe that theater is an integral part of Savannah’s entertainment choices. Several venues of varying capacities have opened in recent years, including Victory North, District Live and Enmarket Arena, but there are no theaters that compare to the Johnny Mercer Theater in capacity or utility.
“The theater is necessary because we don’t have anything of that size for people to make money from,” Mazo said. “You can’t make money in the 1,150 seater in the theater of SCAD. You can’t make money with a 1,150 seater at Trustee’s. You certainly can’t make money in the 400-seater at the Cultural Arts Center. This is available. The 2,500 seater actually allows theatre-focused acts to make money selling 2,500 tickets.”
Mazo understands the complicated arguments for and against the sound of Johnny Mercer Theater, but he is able to summarize opinions on the subject in simple terms.
“If you know what it’s used for and how to use it, it’s not bad. If you use it outside of the area it’s intended for, it sucks.”