N.O. theater could reopen

A tiny, popular St. Claude Avenue theater took another step last week toward being allowed to reopen.

While the New Orleans City Council unanimously approved a zoning change for the Backyard Ballroom in the 3500 block of St. Claude, it ordered the City Planning Commission to hold a public hearing on a conditional-use permit that would allow its permanent operation.

Laura “Otter” Campbell opened the theater in a garage behind her house in 2006. She closed it in 2011 since she was operating it illegally because her property’s zoning doesn’t allow theaters in the neighborhood. The theater hosted original musicals, classical and contemporary plays and was a venue for the New Orleans Fringe Fest.

While the theater has received support of neighbors, Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, in whose district the theater exists, said she supported the planning commission’s suggestion of a modified approval to a light commercial zoning, rather than regular commercial zoning because of potential future uses that could have negative impacts on the area.

“That has nothing to do with what you do and how wonderful an addition you will be again once you reopen,” Palmer told Campbell.

Campbell said the decision to open the theater after Hurricane Katrina was a bit knee jerk but she “kind of wished we would have done it differently.”

She said she was hopeful that she again would host shows.

“I really do care about my neighbors,” Campbell told the council during its regular meeting. “We’ve been dark for about a year … so I’m very, very grateful you are interested in moving this along, because we really need to open again.”

John Broder, who works with the Big Easy Music Awards, said smaller spaces such as Campbell’s theater help nurture budding artistic talent in the area and urged the council to vote in favor of the zoning change.

Palmer said she agreed.

“This is a niche we do not have,” she said. “We always like to talk about our cultural economy, but often it doesn’t seem we’re always putting our money where our mouth is. And so to have these types of venues is very much the ground floor for promoting more artists throughout the city.”

After the council voted to approve the zoning change, Palmer asked Campbell to contact her office to get temporary permits so the theater could open in the interim before the planning commission hearing.