NEW ORLEANS — The Joy Theater's bright blinking "JOY" sign that for more than 50 years was as common a sight on Canal Street as the streetcars in New Orleans is blinking again for the first time since before Hurricane Katrina.
The theater's illuminated sign, located on the famous thoroughfare that borders the French Quarter, is being hailed as a beacon of light in a section of the city left largely dark and distressed since 2005, when Katrina flooded the Joy, Saenger and Loew's State Palace theaters — the center of what once was a bustling downtown theater district.
"You don't know what that sign does to me," said 90-year-old Rene Brunet, who for more than two decades operated the Joy, built in 1947.
Standing under the Joy's wrap-around marquee donning a hard hat and walking cane, Brunet said he couldn't help but get emotional, and a little nostalgic, seeing the sign aglow again. "It takes me back to another time. This theater, all these theaters on Canal Street ... it was a wonderful place for entertainment."
The Joy closed in 2003, unable to compete with large movie complexes offering multiple screens, digital sound and stadium seating. Katrina's flooding further hampered any chance of reopening. But on Thursday, the Joy returns, reborn as a multipurpose venue for performing arts, music concerts, private parties and movie screenings.
The opening night act is New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas and jazz saxophonist Lance Ellis. Other entertainment pegged for coming weeks include the Soul Rebels brass band, jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, rhythm and blues singer Percy Sledge and the rock band Cowboy Mouth. Tickets are available online at www.thejoytheater.com .
"Canal Street used to be a shopping and entertainment mecca," said Joseph "Joe" Jaeger, one of four developers who salvaged the Joy. "This is a great chance for a renaissance of this part of Canal Street, to give everybody, not just tourists but the locals, something exciting to do."
The theater's easy accessibility by streetcar is a boon, Jaeger said. Besides the streetcar line running on Canal Street in front of the theater, a new line is being installed on Elk Place, the street running alongside the Joy that intersects Canal Street.
In its new incarnation, the Joy will join the ranks of its neighboring Saenger, Loew's and Orpheum theaters, which in the years before Katrina served as concert and performing arts venues. Those theaters remain shuttered six years after the storm, but plans are under way to begin renovating the Saenger next year, Jaeger said.
Plans to renovate the Loew's and Orpheum have stalled. Those theaters remain boarded, and the Loew's has a "For Sale" banner draped over its marquee.
Renovation of the Joy started this past summer, when an architect used a pirogue — a small boat similar to a canoe — to paddle through floodwater to get measurements to draw up plans. The $5 million renovation included upgrades such as the installation of a stage, new sound and lighting systems, more bathrooms, wider balcony seats and elevators.
"It's spectacular," said Brunet, surveying the newly renovated space.
The theater's exterior was restored to the way it looked on opening day in 1947, which meant creating a replica of the original circular ticket booth that was hit by a car and removed in the 1980s.
The Joy originally showed first-run moves, mostly from Universal Pictures, opening with "Lover Come Back" starring Lucille Ball and George Brent. Other early films included "Tammy and the Bachelor" starring Debbie Reynolds and "Operation Petticoat" with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.
Some of the Joy's longest-running films included 1975's "Jaws" and 1985's "The Color Purple," both of which ran more than 20 weeks. The theater's final showing was 2002's "Drumline."
The Joy was one of the longest-surviving movie houses in New Orleans. Dozens of others closed well before 2003. Some showed pornography to stay in business, while others were converted into churches or reception halls or were torn down.
"The Joy was always a place you'd want to take a date, especially a first date, to really make an impression," Brunet said.
Brunet's love of movies and old theaters led him to take over operation of the Prytania Theatre in New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood in the 1990s. The Prytania is the only single-screen movie theater still operating in the city, and Brunet runs it with his son, Robert. Brunet shows up almost every day in a suit to introduce the movie of the day.
Brunet said he's grateful developers came forward to save the Joy. Mold from Katrina's floodwater had destroyed the theater seats and drapery. Decorative plaster from the lobby ceiling crumbled, and light fixtures were ruined.
"I saw it after Katrina, and it was complete devastation," Brunet recalled. "I thought, 'Well, that's it. I'll never see the Joy again.' Seeing it now, it brings new life into me."
The Joy Theater, http://www.thejoytheater.com