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Call of the Wild

Theater design luminary Jeff Smith collaborates with a style-savvy client in creating a glamorous home theater for a South Florida vacation home.

Call of the Wild
“Build a theater around this,” the wife said to First Impressions Theme Theaters’ founder and theater designer Jeff Smith, as she handed him a sample of animal-print carpeting.

“There was something about it that spoke to me,” she says. “I felt the tiger print motif would impart a sense of drama and elegance.”

Smith credits his client’s sense of style as the driving force behind the project that serves as an entertainment center for the grandkids, and a retreat where she and her husband relax and socialize with family and friends. “She wanted something fun and informal with a sophisticated theme that harkened back to the glamorous, old-style, traditional movie houses,” Smith says.

The owners, an active couple with eight grandchildren ranging from 4 to 22 in age, are avid golfers. Their desire for a warm weather getaway from their home in the Northeast led them to build a two-story, 10,0000-square-foot estate in a South Florida golf community. “We always planned to include a home theater in our vacation home,” the wife says. “It was a toss up between a home spa or a theater, and the theater made more sense because we could enjoy it as a family.”

To manage the technical aspects of the 500-square-foot theater, Smith enlisted Jim Pearson, founder and president of Creative Media Designs in Boca Raton, Fla. “We’ve worked with Jeff on numerous projects in and outside of Florida,” Pearson says. “It’s a great collaboration—Smith gives us his plan [on paper] when it’s about 90 percent complete, then we work together on the details to make sure everything works.”

As with all of Smith’s installations, the theater was designed and built at the company’s North Miami facility, then disassembled, delivered and installed in the home. “We begin with the space plan, proceed with specifying site lines, monitoring angles and aisle spacing, then add the embellishments such as the woodwork, lighting, furniture and accessories,” Smith says.

Originally one large open space, Smith carved out an 8-foot-by-10-foot vestibule in the entryway. The dramatic design scheme originates in “The CineBar,” Smith’s trademarked bar in which flooring of Absolute Black granite commingles with dark wenge wood cabinetry—finishes that are a precursor to what lies beyond the theater doors.

An archway swagged in gold-toned French velvet drapery provides a peek into the theater, where tawny animal print tones and rich, textural fabrics imbue a comfortable, yet sumptuous appeal. A cozy configuration of two tiered rows of pillow-back CineLoungers—clad in black French velvet and caramel-toned piping with black Absolute Granite cup holders—accommodate seating for seven.

“The rest of the house is more traditional in style and features a neutral palette accented with soft blues and greens,” Smith says. “The wife’s carpeting choice clearly stated that she envisioned this space as a destination all its own, so we suggested more of a ‘wow factor’ here to set the room apart from the rest of the house.”

While the 400-square-foot theater didn’t pose any spatial restrictions, the location of a large air-conditioning soffit in the room’s rear created a stumbling block. Smith’s response was to rotate the plan from front to back, making the rear of the space now the front/stage area. He took advantage of the soffit by building the stage’s proscenium elements around it. “This is really a cube space with very high ceilings,” Smith continues.

“We created a place to house the projector by building a matching soffit at the back of the room, and then had it fitted into an insulated thermal box and hidden behind water-white optical glass.”

Initially, the decision to flip the floor plan created concern about lining up the projector and the screen. “The sight-line issue did pose a challenge,” Pearson states. “I realized that we needed a long-throw projector for the owners to enjoy the biggest screen possible.” The room’s dimensions required an 18-foot throw distance and necessitated the screen be placed high enough to be visible from the back. “We pushed the projector as far back within the ceiling soffit as possible, then increased the lens port for maximum efficiency,” Pearson says.

To accommodate Pearson’s selection of a 123-inch Vutec Fixed Screen, the team added proscenium elements to conceal the Sonance THX Ultra left, center and right speakers. Meticulously detailed “columns” along the back and side walls house the system’s rear and surround speakers. “The columns were created for pure aesthetics and were detailed with corbels to give them an authentic look,” Smith explains. “Our goal was that the columns not protrude into the aisle space.”

That goal necessitated speakers that are only four inches deep.” To further enhance the audio effect, Smith’s team created base traps filled in the corners of the theater that are with sound baffling material; there are also base traps within the three rectangular areas of the projector soffit.

“The base traps act like pool table pockets in the sense that they prevent the sound bouncing all over the room, and they catch as much sound reflection as possible.” Above, an engineered diffuser ceiling, its elements hidden behind burnished gold ceiling panels, makes the room sound “voluminous.”

Notwithstanding the myriad of detailing in every aspect of this project, one of First Impressions’ many signatures is its high attention to lighting, Pearson says. “This theater has 12 automated loads of lighting, including cove lighting, chandeliers, CineBar lights, and numerous stage lights. There’s also a Hollywood light bar above the screen and downlighting in the stage area to spotlight the grandchildren’s karaoke performances. Twelve loads is a lot, but it gives maximum theatrical impact.”

As resounding testimony to the project’s success, the wife shares how they can’t keep the grandchildren out of the theater space. “The 9-year-old can be in there for hours with his Xbox 360,” she says. Overall, both husband and wife couldn’t be happier with the theater space. “We felt early on that Jeff was the best fit for the project and we would choose First Impressions again if we have the opportunity,” she says. “His expertise and creativity were certainly impressive, but more importantly, he and his team were totally gracious and responsive to our requests.”

Where the Wild Things Are

This installation perfectly spotlights the inherent challenges that come with retrofitting a theater into an existing space—even one that was designed to house a theater. “The room was designed as part of a spec house, and they didn’t do the things you do when designing a theater room, like checking throw distances or projector offsets,” says Jim Pearson, president of Creative Media Designs in Boca Raton, Florida. “So the location we had for housing the projector was right at the cusp of whether it required a long-throw or standard lens.”

This one factor led to a domino effect that shaped the entire course of the installation. For aesthetic reasons, the decision was made to move the Marantz VP-12S2 DLP projector back, rather than forward, and go with the long-throw lens. And as a result, the image naturally got larger, which meant that the proscenium got smaller. Pearson and his team had also made the decision early on to avoid the use of a perforated screen, which meant that the speakers couldn’t go behind the screen.

“The center channel had to go beneath the screen,” he says. “But we had to place it in such a way that it was in line with the second row of seating, so it wasn’t muffled by someone sitting in the front row. And we couldn’t raise the screen higher because of design elements above it.”

The solution was to turn the center speaker sideways. And of course with most speakers, this would have led to serious dispersion problems—especially a speaker built to THX Ultra 2 specifications, which call for wide horizontal dispersion and narrow vertical dispersion—but

Pearson’s choice of LCRs offered the perfect solution. “The baffle that holds the midrange drivers and tweeter in the Sonance Cinema Ultra II LCR in-wall is rotatable,” he says, “so we were able to turn the speaker on its side and still maintain the proper horizontal dispersion.”

The theater is also a good example of a trend we’re seeing more and more of these days: the use of integrated A/V receivers in lieu of separate surround-sound processors and external amplification, even in high-end installations. Is this an indication that receivers are finally losing their second-class status? Actually, Pearson indicates that they may actually be pulling ahead of their bulkier brethren,

“We went with the Marantz SR9600 THX Ultra2 Surround Receiver for two reasons: First, space limitations. The area where the theater equipment was going also had to house the equipment for the rest of the home. Plus, the receiver gave us nine-band equalizer for any room-correction we might need to do; it had HDMI; it had video up-conversion. It had a lot of the features that we needed to get the job done—features that, in many cases, high-end processors lack.” —Dennis Burger

Custom Installer: Creative Media Designs of Boca Raton, Fla. (800.237.9161,

Crestron CHV-TSTAT Heating/Cooling Thermostats Crestron CLS-C6 iLux Integrated Lighting Systems (2) Crestron CNX-B4W 4-Button Designer Keypad, White Crestron MC2W control processor Crestron ST-1700c wireless color touchscreen DirecTV HR20-700 HD satellite receiver and DVR Marantz DV4500 Progressive Scan DVD Player Marantz SR9600 THX Ultra2 Surround Receiver Marantz VP-12S2 DLP projector with long-throw lens Middle Atlantic AXS-R rack and hardware Panamax M5500-EX 11-outlet line conditioner/surge suppressor Sonance Cinema Ultra II LCR in-wall speakers (3) Sonance Cinema Ultra II SUR in-wall surround speakers (4) Sonance Son of Sub subwoofers (2) Vutec 123” Pearl Brite screen

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