As the Oct. 5 opening of “Billy Elliot the Musical” approached as the debut of the Des Moines Playhouse’s 100th season, David Kilpatrick roamed the dusty construction zone in a ball cap, casual shirt and jeans. 

No construction job worth its playbill wouldn’t test the calendar a little, right? 

Not that Kilpatrick, the Playhouse executive director, was complaining. Far from it. He supervised a major construction project at another stop in his career, and he was determined that the last phase of the nearly 10-year overhaul of the Des Moines Playhouse would avoid the mistakes he had seen in the past, such as not adding enough electrical outlets or lights, or staging the work in a way that wasn’t ideal.

“This is the completion of our [$9.2 million] grand renovation, which has actually been almost 10 years,” Kilpatrick said. “The first phase was the replacement of the exterior and the west lobby because that was falling down. The next phase was the exterior of all the wraparound of the building, the cladding and the roofing. This phase started on May 1 and was the interior public spaces, and it was $4.2 million, which came from private donations, corporate donations and a lovely gift from the state of Iowa, the city of Des Moines and Bravo Greater Des Moines. Over 650 people and separate entities were involved in making this a success.”

What a transformation it has been. All the seats are new. The auditorium got its first catwalks, which will be great news not only to the worker who had been allowed to climb the 16-foot aluminum ladder to hang lights in the middle of the space before, but also our friends at the federal worker safety agency, OSHA. Now a permanent ladder leads to a catwalk on each side of the auditorium, where new lights hang in a much safer and more flexible environment. 

The theater got new carpet, new railings, new paint and the new smell that goes with it. 

As with any great work of art, the theater has been a work in progress, and some changes were made in original plans, Kilpatrick noted just as a worker stopped vacuuming construction dust less than a week before the new season began. 

“This is an instance where what looks good on paper, when you put into practice is terrible,” Kilpatrick said of one small element of the construction. 

“We moved these seats away from the wall so you aren’t compressed against the walls. And they are the best seats in the house. We had a little metal rail here, and you could sit and enjoy the show and you really felt like you had some leg room.”

But the design called for a change at the section of seats, maybe halfway back and off to stage right.

“Aesthetically, we had a design that said, no, let’s put a nice wonderful wall here,” Kilpatrick said. “And so we put up a wall and lost six inches. Because of that, these became the worst seats in the house. We had our open house, and we had enough people say, ‘What happened to the good seats?’ that we took the wall down and decided to put the railing back. One construction person said, ‘What? We aren’t even done with the refurbishment and we are now refurbishing?’ ”

There is virtually nothing in the auditorium that isn’t new, so the 100th season is bringing a fresh start, literally. 

“We gutted the space and rebuilt it,” Kilpatrick said. “The only thing left is the walls.”

For the first time, the stage is accessible to wheelchairs. There is a wheelchair seating area in the middle of the theater. Ramps allow access to lobby areas. Part of the lobby is dedicated to historical photos and artifacts, with tributes to luminaries from the decades of Playhouse productions, which feature local talent. The original 1919 board of directors gets a nod, too.

The doors to the theater were redesigned. The concession stand was moved to the upper lobby and gained a formal line arrangement. New signs make it easier to find seats. 

As we spoke, a guest artist was busy designing the light show for “Billy Elliot,” at a new permanent production area in the middle of the theater. 

The children’s theater area was refreshed, too, and “twinkle lights” will let people know a show is about to begin. 

And the box office, which clearly had a counter that was too tall to meet accessibility law, has been changed to comply with ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Behind the scenes, the green room, where performers prepare, has been refreshed. 

The architects on the project came from local firm BNIM. Ball Team was the general contractor. 

Kilpatrick said the Playhouse is part of the quality of life that drives economic development in the area, with productions by the people for the people.

“I think what’s neat about the Playhouse is that this is a community that owns the Playhouse. There is a great preponderance of patrons that treat this like it’s their property, which is to everybody’s advantage. They care for it, and they support it

“You know, 100 years is a testimony to a continuous renewal of that support. It’s not just the same handful of people who believe in it. This is a community that embraces the Playhouse. We’ve always shopped local. We have to shop local. We don’t bring in talent, we only use what we have and whom we can find and whom we can train and grow.”

The arrangement has worked so well the Playhouse ranks among the elite in the country. 

“Some community theaters do one show a year. We do 11. We are the third-biggest community playhouse in the nation based on budget and other factors,” Kilpatrick said. 

And, now, as the 100th season unfolds, the fresh smell of “new” ushers in the second century.