The Saenger Theatre at 90: A look back at the birth of a New Orleans landmark
By 1927, brothers Julian and Abel Saenger had already been operating their movie theater empire out of New Orleans for years. The one thing that was missing, though, was a flagship movie palace in the city they called home. That changed Feb. 4, 1927, with the opening of the $2.5 million Saenger Theatre on Canal Street. Built in the Italian Renaissance style — with the auditorium mimicking a Baroque courtyard, complete with a dazzling ceiling re-creating the night sky — it gave locals a monument to art and architecture as well as stage and screen all at once.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and New Orleanians were reminded of that when the Saenger closed its doors after suffering severe flood damage in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Eight years later, after a $52 million stem-to-stern restoration, it finally reopened, returning the city’s premiere performance space to its former glory and adding a touch of yesteryear’s luster to Canal Street.
- The theater’s massive organ, dubbed the “Wonder Organ” and designed specifically for the theater by the Robert Morton Organ Co., could mimic various string instruments, as well as replicating animal noises, cathedral bells and a car horn. Damaged in the flooding following Hurricane Katrina, it has yet to be restored. (Although a recording of it being played can be heard at the website SaengerAmusements.com.)
- Ticket prices at opening were 25 to 65 cents, depending on the time of day, with children’s tickets running 15 to 25 cents.
- In 1977, the Saenger was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
- The theater was designed by noted New Orleans architect Emile Weil, who designed many of the buildings in the Saenger chain. He was also the man behind Pelican Stadium, the Dixie Beer Brewery and the Whitney Bank buildings downtown and on St. Charles Avenue.
- The first movie booked to play the Saenger was the silent comedy “Blonde or Brunette.” It was followed in subsequent weeks by the Clara Bow comedy “It” (the movie that made her the first ” ‘It’ girl”) and the Harold Lloyd comedy ” The Kid Brother.”
- A performance by Johnny Carson re-opened the theater after a 1980 renovation. After its post-Katrina renovation, stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld was the re-opening act.
- By the late 1920s, the Saenger Theatre company, headquartered in New Orleans, boasted 300 theaters throughout the South as well as in Cuba and Panama. In 1929, the Saengers sold the chain to Paramount for $10 million — just before the stock market crashed.
- Upon the theater’s opening, The Times-Picayune ran a 20-page special section filled with stories about the theater and advertisements welcoming it to town.
- According to a 1927 story in The Times-Picayune, the 12 chandeliers originally lighting the theater’s lobby and arcade were purchased in a private sale in France and once hung in the royal Chateau du Pierrefonds in France. After they were sold off during a previous renovation of the theater, the restoration team was planning to buy duplicates when nine of the originals were discovered in The French Antique Shop on Royal Street. They have since been returned to the theater arcades.
- A small piece of the original carpet, part of Dr. Barry Henry’s collection of Saenger memorabilia, was used as a guide when designing the carpets for the renovated theater.
People in New Orleans are obsessed with their shared past, especially when it comes to lamenting beloved local landmarks or institutions that have vanished — or that “ain’t there no more,” in local parlance. Places like the Saenger prove it can be just as satisfying, and valuable, to celebrate and cherish those places that have survived the years. “Vast beyond any theater that the public of New Orleans has ever seen,” The Times-Picayune wrote in describing the Saenger upon its opening in 1927. “More luxurious. More artistic in every respect.” And, most importantly, it’s still there.