The group tiptoes into the empty auditorium at the Broward Center For the Performing Arts, which is dark except for a "ghost light" that throws light and shadow across the dormant stage. Standing amid the set pieces for the opening scene of Titanic, one of which is the large boarding ramp leading to the ill-fated ship, it seems as if the curtain has just gone up and the audience is holding its breath waiting.
But instead of the first lines of the Broadway show, tourists and locals taking one of the weekly backstage tours get an explanation from guide Laura Hampton: "Tradition has it that no theater should ever be in darkness, so after the performance is over and the theater is shuttered, you'll find a lit lamp on the stage in the smallest storefront theater as well as the most opulent arena, like the Au-Rene, where you're standing."
In the late '80s, architect Ben Thompson stood on nearly the same spot -- then a vacant lot on a bend of the New River -- and envisioned a hilltop beacon of culture proudly overlooking downtown Fort Lauderdale. Well, he had no hill with which to work, so he had dirt trucked in to create one. On it he perched his answer to the Acropolis, the Broward Center, which opened in 1991. In keeping with the city's "Venice of America" slogan, the center has a nautical motif, which is evident in the boatlike planks that make up the ceilings in the lobbies, among many other details.
Free backstage tours
Broward Center For the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-462-0222.
Given every Monday at 1 and 3 p.m., and at noon, 1, and 2 p.m. on the first Sunday of every month. (see www.co.broward.fl.us/curtainup.htm (then click on Cyber Tour)
Such background is offered up by volunteer guides, who show off the center's two theaters and its backstage areas. The tour starts at the smaller Amaturo Theatre, which sits across a stylish brick courtyard from its larger counterpart. The 595-seater -- its chairs upholstered in plush, vivid red or purple fabric and sculpted from cypress wood -- hosts smaller plays, concerts, and kids' events. During this part of the tour, folks have the opportunity to wander around the stage and see stagehands ready the lights or hang scenery flats. Although stagecraft is computer-controlled these days, each flat is still rigged to an intricate system of ropes so that it can be hand-manipulated if the computers "crash."
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Leaving the Amaturo, visitors are brought into the greenroom, where actors and dancers await their entrances. Every theater has one, although no one knows for certain how it got its colorful name. Hampton favors a tale from Shakespearean times. Back then conditions in theaters weren't very salubrious; everyone smoked heavily, as did the candles, and ventilation was poor. "By the second act," Hampton tells the group, "the actors' lungs were smoke-filled and their throats raw, so they left the theater during intermission and lay on the surrounding green [or lawn] inhaling fresh air." She looks around slyly before concluding triumphantly, "Hence, the 'greenroom.'" Well maybe.
Hampton then leads her troops deeper into the bowels of the center for a look at the dressing rooms. Since Titanic is running, the star's crisp captain's uniform, polished boots, and jaunty cap are laid out neatly in his private accommodations. The members of the chorus share more humble quarters, six to a long, narrow room, but fragrant flowers brighten the space.
The hourlong tour concludes with the 2700-seat Au-Rene Theatre. On the way through the grand lobby, for the moment empty of elegantly dressed theatergoers talking animatedly and waving cocktail glasses, the architect's nautical theme is instead the center of attention: Curvaceous wooden banisters and balconies, blue-and-green sea-inspired carpeting, and stories-high glass windows overlooking the river all conspire to make patrons feel as if they're in the prow of a ship.
More wood trim and bright turquoise seats carry the ship-sea design into the theater itself, but that's as far as the analogy goes. Here crowds enjoy operas, ballets, symphonies, and touring Broadway musicals instead of the lowbrow cabaret acts and has-been pop stars found on cruise-ship stages.