BRADENTON -- It was raining Thursday just before opening night of "Cats" at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
Yet people who pulled up in front could get out of their cars and into the building without getting wet.
Sliding doors opened automatically into a new foyer extending beyond the original doors. Inside the foyer was a box office window that until this week had faced the outside where patrons had to deal with rain and heat.
Where the foyer led to the lobby, big heavy glass doors have been replaced with another set of sliding doors.
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Inside Stone Hall, new black curtains lined the catwalks above the audience and new red panels punctuated the long, rounded back wall. It was all installed to help the sound quality in Stone Hall, which has drawn complaints from patrons over the past two years.
"Cats" was a hit with audiences. So were the roof, the doors and the improved sound.
"Wonderful," Janene Amick, center executive director, said of the audience's reaction. "Everybody was so excited by the improvements."
Different people were more impressed with different aspects of the new enhancements, she said.
"It depended on who I was talking to," she said. "One gentleman was happy that he could drop off his wife in the front without worrying about her getting rained on. A lot of people were excited that they could hear every single word of the lyrics."
Sound enhancements were in place after months of work by audio experts and weeks of construction and installation.
The sound work cost $20,000, Amick said, and was underwritten by longtime Manatee Players supporters Sara and Steve Bayard.
The outside work isn't quite done. On opening night, everything was functional -- the roof kept people dry and the sliding doors opened -- but some mostly cosmetic work remained. Amick told the audience it would be done in four days.
Rain Friday and a forecast for more rain in the coming days pushed the schedule back, on now she says it should be done within a week.
An awning over the main box office windows is also in the works, Amick said, and should be in place in about four weeks. It will be the same dark red color as many other features in the building.
Most patrons didn't get a chance to experience the theater's most distinctive new enhancement.
The technical booth that runs along the back wall of Stone Hall, up along the ceiling, has been divided in half. All the technical equipment has been moved toward the audience's left; the other half is now what MPAC officials are calling the skybox.
For the opening weekend, it's reserved for board members and major donors. After that it will be available for companies or anyone else who wants to reserve it.
The skybox seats 15 people. The $1,000 price includes tickets for the performance, free beer, wine and soft drinks and the services of a volunteer concierge. It will be available before and after the show so groups can socialize.
Jeff Evans, chairman of the Manatee Players Board of Directors, was one of the lucky people who enjoyed "Cats" from the skybox. "The sound is excellent and the view is remarkable," he said.
Amick said she and her staff have done some research and haven't discovered any other theater in the country that has anything similar to the skybox.
"We're pioneers," she said.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.