One of the hallmarks of living in the Scenic 98 Coastal area is the abundance of great live performance venues. Nothing beats the real thing. Whether it's a beach bar, an outdoor amphitheater, a play on the Bluff, or a small community theater, there is plenty of great entertainment to enjoy throughout our communities.
For generations, the anchor is the Saenger Theater in Pensacola, Mobile, and the original, in New Orleans. They are where live performances reign supreme and draw some of the most well-known acts in the country. Whether it’s a Broadway play, a musical concert, or a holiday extravaganza, the Saenger Theater is the venue that allows us to participate in spectacular live cultural experiences. A little history is in order.
In 1912, The Saenger Amusement Company was organized by brothers Julian and Abraham Saenger and grew into one of the largest motion picture chains in the South. At their peak, they had 324 Saenger Theaters operating in 12 southern states, along with Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Panama.
They began their foray into the world of entertainment in 1911 with the construction of The Saenger, a vaudeville theater in downtown New Orleans. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans leaving the basement of the Saenger Theater filled with over 20 feet of water. After a push and strong show of support from the community, followed by an eight-year restoration, the venue reopened with as much historical accuracy as possible in 2013.
In 1925, the Saenger Theater in Pensacola opened. Called the “Grand Dame of Palafox Street”, it was a movie house until 1975 when the aging edifice closed its doors. That same year, ABC Southern Theaters who had purchased this Saenger Theater years ago, donated the building to the City of Pensacola as a cultural affairs center.
Because of a joint effort by the city and the University of West Florida, the theater was restored and returned to its standing as a center for the performing arts. The restoration project took four years and $1.6 million, and in 1981 the theater reopened and is listed in the National Register of Historic Sites.
In 1927, the 61st Saenger Theater opened in Mobile. Hailed as “Alabama’s Greatest Showplace” and “The Most Beautiful Playhouse in Dixie,” the $500,000 theater took one year to construct. Closed in 1970, on the eve of its demolition, the University of South Alabama bought the Saenger and saved it from destruction. Thank goodness!
The “Jewel of Joachim” was purchased by the City of Mobile in 1999, and a new non-profit organization, the Centre for the Living Arts. was formed in 2000 to operate the Saenger. With generous donations from the community, CLA restored the historic theater to its former glory at a cost of about $6 million. The Saenger is now operated by the City of Mobile.
I wrote about Linda’s and my recent trip to New Orleans to see Jackson Browne in July. It was fantastic, made more so by the beautiful Saenger Theatre venue. As I began writing this piece a few weeks ago, Jackson Browne was about to begin his show at the Saenger Theater in Mobile. I must mention that my son Bryan and his wife, Ally, saw Jackson Browne in Birmingham the following evening at the Alabama Theater, another beautiful, restored treasure. When asked how it was, he said, “It was great and we had a blast!”
These three Saenger Theaters are cultural icons in the Scenic 98 Coastal footprint. We feature performances that our readers might enjoy in each week’s Tidbits and Best Bets. We encourage everyone to get out, have some fun, and support these remarkable venues. Live performances whether it’s music, theater, comedy, or dance, enrich your life with unique, creative experiences. Support the arts and enjoy!