News | Saenger Theatre, which opened 86 years ago today, steadily recapturing its glory days

February 08, 2013

By Andrew Adler | The Times Picayune

Original Article

Day by day, hour by hour -- amid thickets of steel scaffolding, sheets of dull plywood and dust kicked up by screeching saws biting into blocks of gray concrete -- the Saenger Theatre is reclaiming its original glory

Since the beginning of 2012, the Saenger has been undergoing a comprehensive renovation aimed at erasing the ravages of time and the floodwaters that followed Hurricane Katrina. Closed since a year before the storm, when the theater was getting new seats as part of a relatively modest refurbishment, the space is now more than half-way through a $52 million effort that will bring the facility up to modern technical standards, while acknowledging its exceptionally rich visual history.

When the project is completed, sometime this fall if the schedule holds, the Saenger should appear much as it did when the theater revealed itself to New Orleans 86 years ago.

"Our goal has always been -- with today's technological and mechanical improvements -- to return the building to the way it looked when it opened in 1927," said Saenger general manager David Skinner.

The theater made quite a splash when it opened.

“The sensation of being lifted from a workaday world into a land of medieval romance and of seeing the latest departure in modern performances under a summer sky of twinkling stars and moving clouds was conveyed to four thousand Orleanians at the opening of the Saenger last night,” The Times-Picayune reported on Feb. 5, 1927 in a paper that contained a 10-page special section for the occasion.

Skinner, who also runs the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, spoke earlier this week while giving a tour of a labyrinth of hallways, staircases and grand public areas. Construction personnel scurried about. Bare bulbs threw shafts of light into corners where painters, brushes in hand, recalled visions of generations past.

The Times-Picayune's special section, published, Feb. 5, 1927, announced the opening of the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street in New Orleans.The Times-Picayune 

"We've had artisans who came in and removed different layers, all the way down because through the years there have been various layers of paint that had been put on top of what was there...,” Skinner said. “And of course we're finding, as we go through, the painting scheme we thought we were going to find wasn't nearly what we thought it was."

One of the most striking aspects of the Saenger's renovation is its atrium arcade, a soaring entranceway off Canal Street that immediately affirms the monumentality of the original design. The atrium was originally an open space between two other buildings – the LaSalle Hotel and 1101 Canal Street – popularly known today as the Popeye's Building."

Ever the impresario, Skinner talked up the revamped arcade with evident glee.

"From this area you can see the marble all the way up has been redone, all the painting has been redone, and the columns – and they look just outstanding. You can see some spaces where we're going to have chandeliers. Through various hands of ownership through the years with the Saenger, it fell on some hard economic times and to stay open it became necessary to sell some assets – and the chandeliers, unfortunately, were sold.

At least one of the chandeliers was found in a local antique shop, but Skinner said, “We were not able to locate all of them, so some of them will be reproduced."

Katrina flooded the Saenger's basement, which housed the principal electrical and mechanical systems, and inundated much of the original entranceway.

"It's kind of hard to tell," Skinner explained as he stood about two-thirds of the way down the corridor, "but just about where we are is where the water peaked. We have some pictures where, if you look at Canal Street, there are people going down in fan boats."

Now the electrical panels are at street level.

"The main switchgear and all the equipment is being housed in the 1101 building, so we are back up to grade," said Sheila Price, one of the renovation's project managers. "We've done all the measures we can to provide all the protection we can from any rising water problems."

Making it better

Eventually, Skinner said, "the (street) level will be retail, the second story will be a lounge, with the third and fourth stories (housing) administrative offices. The LaSalle Hotel is also going to renovate. The ground floor will have a storefront for a ticket office, which in the past was located all the way back on Rampart."

Other improved patron amenities include revamped concession areas, better lighting, and a move that should delight legions of bladder-beleaguered women: double the number of restroom stalls.

The doors of the Saenger Theatre should open in the fall.Martinez + Johnson rendering 

Much of the renovation budget is being devoted to significant structural improvements. To accommodate large touring Broadway shows that have been performing at the Mahalia, the height of the Saenger's stage house will be extended by 16 feet.

"We are also picking up room on the sides were some offices were," Skinner said, "which is going to give us more wing space. So any touring attraction that is on the road today will be able to play the Saenger. That was always the goal, (for) our Broadway series to relocate to the Saenger. That's its home; that's where it feels the best."

With about 2,600 seats compared to the Mahalia's approximately 2,200, the Saenger offers appealing economies of scale.

"When you take that many seats over, say a four- or five-week run, that's quite important for show," Skinner emphasized.

Touring companies will discover enlarged and modernized dressing rooms, plus stage lighting and sound systems that are fully up-to-date. The orchestra pit remains the same size, accommodating around 60 musicians, "which is more than we will ever need," Skinner said.

A welcome addition to theater scene

There will be considerable relief in the theater community once the Saenger reopens, particularly when it comes to the chronically pressured schedule at the Mahalia.

"If you look at where we were pre-Katrina," Skinner said, "in the city we had operating the Mahalia, the Saenger, the Lowes State across the street, and the Orpheum Theater. And all three were successful to varying degrees. For the past four years we've had one, so all of the demand for these four facilities has been compressed into one facility: the Mahalia."

Tell Your Saenger Stories

If you have photos or memories to share, the Saenger encourages you to share them at theSaenger Theatre website. Follow the project on Twitter @SaengerNOLA, using the hashtag #saengerstories

Read more on Dr. Barry Henry's efforts to celebrate the history of the Saenger, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.

As a consequence, "an awful lot of entertainment shows have not been able to play here," Skinner said, "because we just don't have the dates. Everybody wants a weekend."

“If you look right now on my calendar from the third week of April to the first week of July, I do not have an open date at all (at Mahalia). We are totally booked. So what's going to happen once we open the Saenger is, we will move Broadway and live entertainment back here. So, if we are in the middle of a three- or four-week engagement here and we have a concert, we'll put it in the Mahalia."

Additionally, "it will free up more space at the Mahalia for the (resident) arts groups – the opera, symphony and the ballet – so they will have a little more breathing room."

Meanwhile, the Saenger's original beauty continues to rise out of the dust and noise. Day by day, hour by hour – and yes, even minute by minute.

"I've already been here three or four times today and I always stop to take a moment and look," Price said. "I can see progress from the morning to the last time I walk the site in the afternoon."

The Times-Picayune, February 01, 2013