Saenger Theatre, the New Orleans Home for Broadway Tours, Among Thousands of Buildings Impacted by Hurricane

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01 Sep 2005

The fate of the Saenger Theatre, the historic theatrical touring house in New Orleans, was not known as of Aug. 31 following Hurricane Katrina, which flooded the city and caused great loss of life.



A spokesperson for Clear Channel Entertainment, which programs legit tours at the venue — a palatial 2,800-seat house that was built for movies and stage shows in 1927 — told Playbill.com, "No one can get near the theatre — we have no idea how bad it is."

It is thought the theatre staff evacuated the below-sea-level city before the Aug. 29 onslaught of the Category 4 storm. A post-storm mandatory evacuation of the city will further prevent an assessment of the venue. The city is largely without essential services such as water, phone, electric and gas, and looting has been reported throughout town.

The theatre on North Rampart Street is among thousands of dwellings impacted by the storm. While a bruised building is nothing compared to loss of life and continuing human suffering, theatre people have special feelings for venues such as the Saenger, a home to thousands of theatre artists and technicians over the years.

National tours announced for Clear Channel's Broadway in New Orleans series in 2005-06 include Les Misérables (October), Annie (November), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (January 2006), Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance (January-February 2006), Little Women (April 2006) and Mamma Mia! (May 2006).

The Lion King was announced for 2006-07.

Due to the disaster, New Orleans engagements of those tours — along with other civilized rituals of everyday life in New Orleans — are not expected to happen due to a prolonged cleanup and rebuilding effort.

The Saenger was the site of a 1965 benefit for victims of Hurricane Betsy, which also devastated the Gulf coast (a photo of the benefit crowd is on the Saenger website).

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS announced that it was sending $100,000 to the American Red Cross for hurricane disaster relief.

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According to history notes on the Saenger website, www.saengertheatre.com, "On Feb. 4, 1927, after over three years of construction and at a cost of $2.5 million, the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans officially opened to the public with great fanfare and a parade down Canal Street. Mayor O'Keefe presided over the festivities and representatives from the Paramount Publix Corporation were in attendance. The top ticket price was 65 cents, and the bill for each performance included a silent movie, stage play, and music from the Saenger Grand Orchestra. Paramount Publix was the company that produced and presented the stage plays and silent feature films.

"As the flagship of the Saenger Amusement Company, the 4,000-seat movie palace was the largest of seven like-named Saenger Theatres built and operated throughout the South by the Saenger brothers Julian and Abe. Between 1922 and 1927 the brothers owned over 300 theatres throughout the South as well as in Mexico and Havana, Cuba. A handful of those original theatres still exist."

There is also a Saenger in Biloxi, MS, another coastal city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

According to saengertheatre.com, the New Orleans Saenger Theatre's interior "was designed by architect Emile Weil (with a nod to architect John Eberson) in an 'atmospheric style,' echoing the ambience of an Italian Baroque courtyard, complete with 150 small lights in the ceiling arranged in constellation patterns to give the impression of stars in the night sky. In addition to the stars, there are also special effects machines that project images of moving clouds, as well as a sunrises or sunsets across the 'sky.'

"It was rumored by some that the chandeliers in the outer lobby originally hung in the famous Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France. In fact the chandeliers were built and designed by the same maker of the Hall of Mirrors' fixtures, but came from the Chateau de Pierrefonds, a sometime hideaway for French royalty near Versailles. Of the original 12, 11 were sold in 1964 to help finance renovations for the theatre. Today, the sole remaining chandelier can be seen in the theatre's arcade entrance.

"Upon its construction the theatre boasted a 778-pipe Robert Morton Organ — the largest instrument the legendary Robert Morton Company ever built, and the prototype for the company's 'Wonder Organ' line. It was designed specifically for the Saenger's acoustics and is one of the few Robert Morgan organs in the United States still in its original installation position.

"Since 1996 the organ has been under restoration by specialist John Hiltonsmith of Memphis, where he is the organist for the Orpheum Theatre. Thanks to his efforts, the Saenger's organ is today more than 90 percent operable.

"In 1929, Julian Saenger sold the theatre to his theatrical/stage partner, the Paramount Publix Corporation, for $10 million in stock. Sadly within a few years that stock was worthless when the stock market crashed, effectively bankrupting and ruining the Saenger family. Despite the crash, business continued and in 1933 the Saenger Theatre did away with all its live performance elements and became a 'talking pictures' theatre only. Ownership changed many times following the depression but the theatre remained open and within a few years was profitable once again.

"In 1964 ABC Interstate Theatres turned the Saenger into a 'piggyback' theatre, with a wall constructed in front of the balcony to act as a separate second 'upstairs' movie theatre known as the Saenger Orleans."

"Becket" was the first film to be presented at the Saenger Orleans.

"On Sept. 29, 1977, the theatre was designated a historic landmark by the New Orleans Landmark Commission and in December of that same year it was signed to the National Register of Historic Places. But audiences had dwindled, opting for more suburban movie-going experiences and the theatre's existence was in jeopardy.

"In 1978, the Saenger Theatre was sold for slightly more than $1 million to E.B. Breazeale, who then spent an additional $3 million renovating it into a performing arts center alongside investors Zev Bufman, Barry Mendelson, and Pace Management, who was hired to run the theatre.

"The Saenger Theatre re-opened in 1980 with a revised seating capacity of 2,800 and a gala benefit performance by Johnny Carson. Then, in 1985, a joint venture was formed between the management team of the theatre and 50 limited partners to purchase the theatre from Breazeale.

"Today, the Saenger Theatre Partnership, Ltd. is a leading presenter of theatrical, musical, and performing arts entertainment in the United States.

In the summer of 2002, the Saenger Theatre returned to its cinematic roots and showed three classic movies ("Some Like It Hot," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind") in celebration of its 75th anniversary. Since that time the Summer Classic Movie series has been an annual event every June.