Opened in 1927, the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans is home to Broadway musicals, rock concerts, and stand-up comedians. Currently, the Saenger is hosting one of the national touring companies of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical, Hamilton. The theatre, with its famous starry ceiling, has long been a staple of the New Orleans entertainment scene. Throughout its history, the theatre has seen its fair share of ups and downs, culminating in its recent renovation that has restored it to as much of its original appearance as possible.
Construction on the Saenger Theatre began in 1924 and was completed three years later at the cost of $2.5 million. Located on Canal Street, the theatre quickly attracted large crowds, who paid 65 cents for a silent movie and a production of a stage play. A live orchestra would accompany both the movie and the play.
The Saenger was once the flagship theater of the Saenger Amusement Company. In the 1920s, Julian and Abe Saenger constructed theaters across the Gulf Coast, including in Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans. The two brothers, who began their careers as pharmacists, bought their first theater in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1911. In total, they owned 320 theaters across the South, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and Puerto Rico.
|A postcard view of the theatre from 1940|
The Saenger brothers opened and operated their theatre chain during a transformative era in American popular culture. The post-World War I economic boom in America—coupled with runaway borrowing and lending—meant that Americans had more money in the pockets and wanted to spend it on the new entertainments and technologies of the 1920s. The twenties saw the rise of jazz, flapper culture, and the modern film industry. American popular culture soon became obsessed with celebrity as musicians, actors, and actresses became mainstays of magazines and newspapers. Modern technologies like movies, radio, cars, and the airplane transformed the ways Americans sought out and experienced their entertainments.
Tapping into this era of prosperity, the Saenger brothers hired architect Emilie Weil (1878-1945), who designed the Dixie Brewery, Pelican Stadium, and the Whitney National Bank in New Orleans, to conceive of and oversee the construction of the New Orleans Saenger Theatre. Using an Italian baroque style courtyard as his inspiration, Weil installed 150 lights into the theatre’s ceiling. He arranged the lights to take the shape of constellations in the night’s sky, lending the theatre an exotic appearance and appeal. Local advertisements described the interior as “an acre of seats in a garden of Florentine splendor.” The interior contained statues, crystal lighting fixtures, and oiling paintings. It had a seating capacity of 4,000.
In 1929, the Saenger brothers sold the theatre to the Paramount Publix film studio. The company converted the Saenger into a movie theater and ran it throughout the Great Depression. By 1964, the theatre's management decided to divide the theatre into two movie auditoriums. They separated the orchestra level seating and the balcony into two, making a 900 person upstairs theater and 1,900 person downstairs. In December 1977, the theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1978, the theatre was sold to a group of investors who converted the Saenger into a performing arts venue. At the cost of $3 million, the group restored the building to its one theater set-up with seating for 2,736. Comedian Johnny Carson was the first performer at the renovated theatre. In the ensuing decades, the Saenger would host rock concerts, musicals, plays, and show films with a live orchestral accompaniment.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina effectively destroyed the Saenger. While the building remained standing, floodwaters reached a foot above the stage and filled the basement and orchestra seats. The theatre’s vintage Wonder Organ also suffered some damage. In 2009, the city of New Orleans took ownership of the theatre and leased to the newly formed Saenger Theatre Partnership. As part of a 52 year lease, the Partnership has to host at least 80 shows and sell 100,000 tickets per year. The new partnership also benefited from state and federal aid, tax credits, and private donations to rehabilitate the theatre for $38.8 million.
The newly renovated Saenger reopened in September 2013 and has once again become a center of entertainment and culture in New Orleans.