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The Ellie Caulkins Opera House gets a ‘transplant’

Ellie Caulkins Opera House

Written by Marshall Bissett

In a state better known for skiing, scenery and the Broncos, Colorado was once home to 46 opera houses, built to provide the mining communities with cultural enrichment. A few still remain, and the 2,500-seat Ellie Caulkins Opera House (locally known as the "Ellie") is a perfectly restored example, sitting inside the Performing Arts Complex in downtown Denver, playing host to touring roadshows and local productions. 

Despite extensive front-of-house renovation from 2002 to 2005, the "grand old lady of opera" was burdened with an obsolete and often nonfunctioning lighting-control system. After generating enough paperwork to choke a horse (or perhaps a Bronco), the job of tearing out the old Strand SLD dimmers, network and console, and replacing it with ETC product fell to the team at Barbizon Light of the Rockies. "The bidding and proposal stage of jobs is getting longer and more complex," says General Manager Rick Loudenburg. "The paperwork and approvals took over a year, but we pulled off the installation in a month." 

Ellie Caulkins control center

Although the fixtures and the conduits to the dimmer room were in place, the equipment 'transplant' provided some unique challenges. "In the old system, the load cables entered through the top of the dimmers and were not long enough to work with the vertical Sensor configuration," explains Project Manager Dan Obenhaus. Faced with the dilemma of lowering the bridge or raising the river, the design team came up with the ingenious answer in the form of vertically mounted passive-patch boxes. 

The challenges did not end there, and - mindful of the difficulties the building had experienced in the past - the new system had to include a high level of redundancy. "It was definitely belt and suspenders," adds Loudenburg. "We created a spanning tree loop for the signal path with switches at stage left and right, in the dimmer room and at followspot positions. Every system has a point of failure, but in this case, it would be hard to find." For added security, color-coded jacks were used whenever possible. 

With over 700 dimmers, two Eos Ti® consoles and an RPU , there is enough horsepower to take care of the needs of the Colorado Opera and Ballet companies and the roadshows that pass through. Facility Production Manager Mark Gabriel Debell adds: "At some point, we might look at LED striplights, but for now, the ETC Source Fours are working just fine." 

Ellie Caulkins dimmer room

Cost overruns and unforeseen technical glitches can quickly turn any big installation job into a nightmare, and the team at Barbizon hates surprises. "We plan down to the last detail, and write a timeline showing when every bit of gear will arrive," says Obenhaus. It all went to create a very happy end-user. "Barbizon took a big leap of faith on this project, and it went crazy-smooth. We now have an ETC system that works and is more interface friendly," says Production Manager Gabriel Debell.

Barbizon Light of the Rockies was opened in 1995, and - with a significant portion of revenue coming from installations - is the company's specialist in that area. Loudenburg explains: "It was a one-man office when I moved out here from Boston, and I had a strong interest and background in the installation side of things." Later, he was joined by kindred spirit Obenhaus, who started his career at Nortcostco in Minneapolis after college. "You can't name a middle school in the Upper Midwest where I have not done some kind of technical work," he jokes. The systems integration team is already looking ahead to many big projects that are in the works, and - as one of ETC's top dealers worldwide - will have to create wall space for more "$1 million Sales" plaques.