Sound controls

The Johnny Mercer Theater could be improved with new sound equipment

The debate over the future of the Johnny Mercer Theater has raged for years and since the decision to tear it down along with the MLK Arena was recently overturned by the Savannah City Council, the arguments have now shifted to the topic of what can be done. update and improve the theatre.

There are many practical and philosophical facets of theatrical function to be addressed, but the one that is at the forefront of discussions is sound quality. There are many professional and public opinions about the sound quality of the Johnny Mercer Theater which can fluctuate from show to show.

Is there a problem with the cinema’s built-in sound system? The acoustics are bad? Do itinerant musical productions know how to make good use of the existing space?

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Where to start? Maybe the acoustics

In my own experience, as someone who has seen Bob Dylan twice at the Johnny Mercer Theater, my only assessment of the sound quality is that (as any Dylan fan can tell you) it’s unfair to blame the place for the hoarse sound of his voice.

The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra has always performed at the Johnny Mercer Theater, but with the fate of the space up in the air, they did not perform there last season and have not booked it for performances next season.

Amy Williams, executive director of Savannah Philharmonic, would like to continue using the Johnny Mercer Theater in the future, but according to her and music and artistic director Keitaro Harada, the theater needs to make some changes to attract them again.

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“Asonically, the acoustics are tough at the Johnny Mercer Theater,” Williams said. “These are not acoustics designed for an acoustic arts space… There are places all over the country that have been acoustically renovated and now sound phenomenal, and are some of the best places to Everything is determined by using acousticians trained and specialized in sound for an orchestra point of view and a theater point of view.

Keitaro Harada, Music and Artistic Director of the Savannah Philharmonic, and Amy Williams, Executive Director.

The Savannah Philharmonic is currently performing in the historic Lucas Theater, and Williams acknowledges that nostalgia for the beautiful space is certainly a draw for audiences.

“I love hearing people talk about their Johnny Mercer memories,” 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.

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Nostalgia and practicality of use are two different arguments, but Williams is open to making the Johnny Mercer Theater the home of the Savannah Philharmonic, with the right upgrades.

“It would be really special to have a place like the Johnny Mercer where we would be the resident company, where we could perform,” Williams said. “Having a space like the Johnny Mercer designed for a big orchestra on stage would be a really cool thing in Savannah. There’s just a bit of logistics that needs to be worked out first.

A view of the stage from the balcony of the Johnny Mercer Theatre.

After that? How about a new sound system

Paul Mazo, event designer and producer at Stage Front, has decades of experience working at the Johnny Mercer Theater. In an op-ed published in this article on May 6, Mazo made the case for saving the theater, along with his personal assessments of its strengths and weaknesses, and what changes could be made to improve it.

“The dispute over the Johnny Mercer Theater has been going on for a while,” Mazo said. “I sat and watched and waited, and watched and waited, and thought it was time to throw mine out there. I tried to write it a realistic point of view. Not particularly biased one way or another, other than the fact that I have been to the theater countless times and know its potential and capabilities. Thank goodness the current city council has decided to keep it.

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One complaint about the theater is its sound system. The single 15-year-old speaker rack that hangs above the middle of the stage produces a mono sound that works well for stand-up comedians who simply need to amplify their voice, but is completely unacceptable for musical productions modern.

“The PA was designed for community events,” explained Mazo. “It was never, ever meant to be a performance system. As a performance system, it’s mediocre at best.

Seats inside the Johnny Mercer Theatre.

“A lot of acts that tour, especially concert acts, travel with their own production. They want their own consoles, their own speakers, their own system. The internal system will do nothing to satisfy the lion’s share of those.

A new sound system can and should be installed in the theater, but that does not necessarily guarantee that traveling productions and engineers will not continue to use their own sound equipment.

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“When the musical groups arrive, we either bring something to support them or they travel with their own equipment,” Mazo said. “And the good news is that the system is set up to be able to very easily pull the suspension points, drop it, hook the new sound system, press a button and it goes back into the air. It really is an easy thing to do for route numbers.

The Johnny Mercer Theater.

“But if I had my druthers, we’d keep the current mixing console because it’s still a decent quality to do most things, and I’d remove the single overhead sound and install a stereo system and add some subwoofers or loudspeaker bass speakers, to reinforce the low end.

Victory North recently updated their room with a state-of-the-art Meyer audio system, which happens to be the audio brand used by Johnny Mercer. A new sound system would be the easiest upgrade to the theater.

But, there is the controversial subject of acoustics. Should they be updated?

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“That’s an interesting question,” Mazo said. “There are as many opinions as there are people on acoustics at Johnny Mercer. What I can bring to the table is that when this place was conceived, it was intended as a concert hall with symphonies in mind.

The Johnny Mercer Theater currently houses large acoustic pods, commonly referred to as “clouds” on the ceiling that run along the walls on either side that redirect sound towards the audience. There is also a 25ft fiberglass orchestra shell that goes behind the orchestra for the same purpose.

Chris Evans with Victory North Savannah

“Acoustic music, believe it or not, sounds best in the Johnny Mercer,” Mazo said. “When you have gigs in there and the engineers don’t understand the room, that’s the biggest problem. It’s not the acoustics of the room, it’s the people driving the sound system, and they push that sound system so hard to hit the back of the room and it turns to mud. If you take the same PA system and turn the gain down instead of making it louder, and work with your band to control the sound coming out of the stage, that’s when I saw the its sound the best.

“It’s really about the technique of letting the room sound good on its own and not trying to overpower it.”

A view from the Johnny Mercer Theater sound booth.

Other issues with the theater stemmed from the adjacent MLK Arena. For example, the reservation has sometimes led to the roar of a monster truck rally or a bleeding rodeo in the theater across the hall 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 passing through walls. With the decibel level of the monster trucks and the theater literally across the hall, you’re going to hear it.

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Mazo and others believe theater is a staple of Savannah’s entertainment options. Several venues of varying capacities have opened in recent years, including Victory North, District Live and Enmarket Arena, but there are no theaters comparable in capacity or utility to the Johnny Mercer Theatre.

Visitors explore the Enmarket Arena.

“Theater is needed because we don’t have anything that size that people can make money off of,” Mazo said. “You can’t make money in the 1,150 seater SCAD theatre. You can’t make money on a 1150 seater at Trustee’s. You definitely can’t make money in the 400-seat Cultural Arts Center. That’s what’s available. The 2,500 seats actually allow theater-oriented artists to earn money by selling 2,500 tickets.

Mazo understands the complicated arguments for and against the Johnny Mercer Theater sound, but he is able to summarize opinion on the subject in simple terms.

“If you know what it’s for and how to use it, it sucks. If you use it outside of the scope of what it’s for, it sucks.