At the Ordway in St. Paul, moving a 70-ton wall is a breeze

Orchestra bandshell
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra uses the orchestra shell to help contain and focus their sound in the cavernous theater.
MPR photo/Marc Sanchez

Even when the house is empty, the inside of St. Paul's Ordway Theater is a sight to behold. From the stage, plush seats fill your line of sight row after row and extend to a third balcony.

The Ordway's stage has played home to many great conductors since it opened 25 years ago, but very few audience members ever get to experience the symphony that maneuvers an orchestra shell into place for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The shell consists of three pieces actually, two side walls and one in the middle. Each of the 35 foot walls is lined with Honduran Mohogany to match the decor, with the middle section alone weighing around 70 tons.

Since the theater is a multi-use space, the walls can't always form the orchestra shell, so sometimes they need to be stowed backstage. That's where the stage crew comes into to play. They're a busy bunch of men and women walking this way and that, across the stage, into the aisles, and even on top of the walls.

So how does the stage crew move these behemoth props back and forth? In one word: air. Each wall is equipped with air casters that help lift them off the ground. Essentially, they become giant hover crafts and float over a special "Marley" floor - the same kind of rubbery floor you might find in a dance studio. A soap and water solution is sprayed on the floor to keep the it slippery when the wall touches down, and to ensure the walls move at an even pace, a couple stage crew members guide motorized palette jacks like slow motion motorcycles.

Although moving the wall is fun to watch, and an engineering feat, it's the sounds of the whole process that turn moving the orchestra shell into a thing of beauty. One member of the crew directs the action with elaborate hand signals and a little yelling. The rest of crew buzzes with chatter as spray bottles are deployed and compressors hum, all getting ready for the featured soloist: the hiss, croak, and squeal of the orchestra shell.

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