LINCOLN — The Johnny Carson Theater, named in honor of the former “Tonight Show” host and University of Nebraska-Lincoln benefactor who died in 2005, is getting a face-lift.
UNL officials on Friday announced a $571,500 gift from the John W. Carson Foundation to renovate the theater, built in 1990 on the west side of the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
It is a 250-seat “black box” theater — a simple space easily reconfigured for an array of performances — that hosts more than 100 events each year, ranging from dance performances and theatrical stagings to youth programs and special events.
The renovation gift is to be used to create a “dramatic” new entrance and lobby area, along with a new floor for the theater, said Bill Stephan, executive director of the Lied Center.
It will create an environment for patrons to “begin to experience the ultimate theater journey,” he said.
The renovation also will include a tribute area that celebrates Carson’s career and legacy.
Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, and reared in Norfolk, Neb. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he earned a bachelor’s degree in radio and speech, with a minor in physics, from the University of Nebraska in 1947.
He and his foundation have given millions to his alma mater, dating to the 1978 establishment of the Johnny Carson Scholarship, a permanently endowed fund to provide awards to Nebraska high school graduates.
In addition to his 1988 gift to help build the Lied Center, Carson gave $5.3 million in 2004 to support theater and film programs and to renovate the Temple Building, which houses UNL’s theater program.
The theater arts program was renamed in his honor after a $5 million bequest in 2005 to support theater, film and broadcasting programs. In 2011, the Carson Foundation provided a $1 million gift to create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund. Those scholarships go to Nebraska students within the Carson School of Theatre and Film.
After an architect, final design and construction contractor are hired, UNL officials expect to begin construction next summer, with the renovation to be completed by the end of 2014.
In a statement, Carson Foundation members said they were pleased to continue Carson’s legacy of supporting the University of Nebraska.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the Carson Theater gives students and others a chance to experience many aspects of performing arts.
“We are incredibly appreciative of this gift, which promises to greatly improve the experience guests will have at the theater, while proudly honoring Johnny Carson’s legacy,” Perlman said.
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