A Broadway Fixer, Keeping Theatergoers Safe and Comfortable

Charlie Copeland is a Broadway fixer, who’s worked on everything from “The Phantom of the Opera” to “Frozen,” tangibly changing the experience for a generation of theatergoers. Copeland is not a director or a writer. He hasn’t even attended some of the shows that he’s fixed.

Copeland is an engineer, the president of Goldman Copeland, a New York City engineering firm celebrating its 50th anniversary. The work he and his firm have done for New York theaters won’t win any Tony Awards. Audiences don’t notice it. But they feel it.

“A lot of Broadway theaters have challenges because they’re old,” Copeland says. “It’s a comfort issue.” It can also be a safety issue.

Most people surely picture  the scene at left when they think of the musical “Frozen.” Charlie Copeland (center) thinks of the piping that cools the “Frozen” stage at the St. James Theater (right)

Theatergoers who are conversant in Shakespearean English and chat easily about TDF or the fourth fall may be ignorant of MEP or HVAC. But the behind-the-scenes and inside-the-wall world of MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems) and of HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) is central to the theatergoing experience. Your boredom or restlessness at a show may be largely due not to the acting, but the ventilation.

Some of the theaters that Copeland et al have worked on clockwise from top left: American Airlines Theater, Hudson Thater, New World Stages, St. James Theater, Playwrights Horizons

Goldman Copeland has installed or upgraded MEP and HVAC systems for a wide variety of clients and projects in New York – office buildings, houses of worship, community centers, Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall. Charlie Copeland estimates that the firm’s staff devotes more than a third of their time to theaters. The firm helped convert New World Stages from a cineplex to a building with five Off-Broadway theaters and a rehearsal space.  They were instrumental in the $25 million restoration of the 1918 building originally called the Selwyn Theater (installing “new HVAC, plumbing, fire protection, electrical distribution, emergency power, and fire alarm systems”) which in 2000 reopened as Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater. 

Before “Phantom of the Opera” opened at the Majestic, Copeland et al were hired to remove the ice storage bin under the stage – a holdover from the time when Broadway theaters trucked ice into the basement in order to cool the theater, the cold water routed through pipes onto the stage and the balcony. That old-fashioned system had been replaced years earlier, but the equipment remained. The “Phantom of the Opera” team wanted it removed because it was located where they planned to build an elevator that allowed the Phantom to emerge dramatically onto the stage.

Ironically, a recent visitor left a comment about the Majestic on Trip Advisor: “Bring a sweater! It can be quite chilly especially in the first part of the performance.”

In any theater, as it turns out, “the biggest challenge is cooling,” Copeland says. “Many Broadway theaters have marginal air conditioning; they need more capacity.” Engineers must balance competing demands for acoustics, air quality, comfort, and energy efficiency. But even just maintaining the air quality is more complicated in a theater than in your apartment, where you can always just open a window.

Part of the challenge is keeping down the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. As Copeland explained it to me: Outside air (fresh air) has about 450 parts per million (450 ppm) of CO2. A level of 5,000 ppm or higher is a risk to health, but anything higher than 700 ppm can be odorous and stale. Thanks to all the theatergoing bodies close together in a theater, the CO2 in the air can easily rise to 1,100 ppm. Stale air can make you uncomfortable, tired, distracted.

Older systems of cooling don’t get the job done and they’re also noisy – so noisy that theater management often turns them off during important scenes. A more up-to-date system has built-in C02 detection that automatically brings in fresh air when it’s needed.

Goldman Copeland installed a state-of-the-art cooling system in the theaters at Playwrights Horizons, which is much quieter, and emanates from the floor, under the seats, rather than the ceiling.   “Not many theaters have under-floor air conditioning,” Copeland says, but it’s a better way of doing things, since that way “we don’t mess up the exterior with ducts or fuses” – which could obstruct the stage and a theater’s rich architectural detail.

No air conditioning runs in utter silence, which is why the production team of “Frozen” asked Copeland to create a switch at the St. James Theater that would enable them to turn off the air conditioning remotely during an important scene.

Copeland’s switch was part of a massive systems upgrade for the St. James – mechanical, electrical, safety – ordered by its owner Jujamcyn, in time for the opening of the show.  “We had to do it in a huge rush.”

Particularly challenging was the new cooling system, because of the show’s use of video projections. “The screen has close to a million LED’s” (light-emitting diodes)  “Individual LEDs don’t emit much heat, but when you have a million of them, that’s a substantial cooling load to offset. We designed a separate 45 ton air conditioning system consisting of  35 tons for the stage and 10 tons for the tech areas.”

Those “tons” require some explaining. “The term tons dates back to the original cooling capacity of a ton of ice (12,000 btu) which is how the early theaters and other buildings were originally cooled. Forty tons is equivalent to cooling eight or nine suburban houses or maybe 30 to 40 NYC apartments.”

Cooling tower on the roof of the St. James Theater, home of “Frozen”

Another taxing assignment from  Jujamcyn was to replace the cooling tower atop the St. James.  The Landmarks Preservation Commission has to approve the new design; “it wants to make sure the new one doesn’t disrupt the view” – that, in other words, it cannot be seen from the street.

Copeland believes “a lot of older theaters could do more to upgrade their systems,” although he acknowledges “theaters in many cases have marginal budgets.”

Among the most important systems are the fire alarms. “Theaters should have a relatively sophisticated alarm system.” State-of-the-art systems “have the ability to instruct people not to run for the door all at the same time.You want to be able to control it; you want people from Rows A to D to leave first, etc.” There should also be an exhaust system on the stage, so if there’s a fire on the stage, it pulls all the smoke out.

“A lot of theaters have these systems; all new theaters do. But  I’m sure there are many old ones that don’t.”

A poster on the wall of Charlie Copeland’s office pictures a man emerging out of a manhole and the motto: “Maintenance is the vitality of a civilization.” It certainly makes theatergoing more civilized.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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