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New orchestra pit debuts at Historic Iao Theater

By Staff | Dec 10, 2015

Albert “Bunt” Burkhalter is the initiator, designer and project manager of the new Historic Iao Theater orchestra pit. Kim Vitterli, keyboard player for “Elf,” is pictured in the pit on opening night.

WAILUKU – When the musical “Elf” opened up on Black Friday, Maui OnStage (MOS) dedicated and christened its brand new orchestra pit. The move is in line with its mission “to raise the artistic quality and increase the aesthetic value of Maui’s theater goers…” said MOS Executive Director Alexis Dascoulias.

The person responsible for this development is Lahaina resident, seven-time winner of the top Halloween costume prize, retired airline pilot and theater lover Albert “Bunt” Burkhalter.

“I think it was over Mai Tais that Bunt proposed the idea,” said Dascoulias, “and the next morning, I asked Steven (her husband and the theater’s technical director) if he had heard what I had? And when he confirmed it, we decided to go for it.”

That was last year, but Burkhalter, who has been on Maui for more than two decades, said the idea came to him 18 years ago. “I decided, I’m not getting any younger, so if this thing was going to happen, this would be the time,” he explained.

What is a retired Northwest Airlines pilot doing designing and building an orchestra pit? Burkhalter holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Math and Physics from California Polytechnic State University and a Masters in Oceanography from Texas A&M.

He flew for what he laughingly referred to as “Cobra Airlines” for 30 years. The reason it got that moniker was, “They were always ready to strike.” He said that some of the strikes lasted quite a while. He realized he would need supplementary income, and he and another friend started renovating lake houses in Minnesota where the airlines was headquartered.

When he and his wife, Ann, retired to Maui, they fell in love with Maui theater and got involved. He has been helping build sets since then. For the last month, he and his team have created a new space for musicians to perform in.

Besides himself, his team included Ann and Bern Burkhalter, Ricky Jones, Steven Dascoulias, Dan Deknis, Bob Offermann, Tom Allen, Ally Shore, Chris and Sandra Weininger, Kari and Keith Welch, Daniel Vicars, ELCCO Electric and Stevie Webb. The County of Maui and the Office of Economic Development were also instrumental in making it happen.

The team worked tirelessly to create a space that is 21 by eight feet by five feet deep and can accommodate a pit orchestra of ten. Burkhalter said they pumped in “three yards of concrete for the floor.” That’s nearly 10,000 pounds of concrete.

Burkhalter said there were two major challenges. When they took up the floor, there were two huge eight-inch by ten-inch wooden girders. These had to be cut, but before they could be cut, they needed to be reinforced, because these girders span the entire foundation of the theater. They jacked the girders, cut out what they needed and then put in permanent posts.

The other challenge was the discovery that the room is slightly curved. This made the engineering of the project more difficult had it been a simple rectangle.

When the theater is not doing a musical, Burkhalter designed floor plugs to return the theater floor to what it was. “The entire thing will disappear for non-musicals,” Burkhalter said.

The theater is excited because it recaptured 36 seats. The audience is thrilled because the balance between the actors and the music is noticeably improved.

“This will help sell the front row, because you can be a part of the whole experience,” said Ellen Peterson.

Another audience member seated in the rear section of the house said, “It doesn’t overpower what is happening on stage. Much better balance.”

The musicians love it because it’s a more professional situation. Also, now that this has been done, it opens up the possibility for additional creative entrances and exits.

Ms. Dascoulias refused to divulge the precise cost, but she did say it was less than $20,000. “Elf, the Musical” is the first beneficiary of this improvement. It runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. until Dec. 13. There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Dec. 12. Tickets are available at www.mauionstage.com or by calling 242-6969.