The Saenger story

The 75-year history of New Orleans' Canal Street show palace is as grand and epic as the movies and plays that have graced its stage

06/23/02

By Judy Walker
Staff writer/The Times-Picayune

It was as grand an evening of entertainment as New Orleans had ever seen.

"Canal Street was packed; you couldn't get through at all," Rosa Rio recalls of Feb. 5, 1927, the day the curtain rose on the first show at the Saenger Theatre.

"The place was crowded outside, all kinds of cameras going off. Everybody arrived Hollywood-style, Oscar-style, in big cars. . . . It was very glamorous. Everybody came dressed in tuxedoes and evening clothes."

They came to see music leader Castro Carazo's 35-piece Saenger Grand Orchestra and see the Publix New York Stage Show, which depicted a "Creole Days" tableau of Lafayette's landing in New Orleans, followed by the orchestra playing "Songs of the Southern States."

They came to see the Publix Players put on "The Inaugural Banquet," starring Helen Yorke and a cast including Rita Owen, billed as "New Orleans' very own late Star of Ziegfeld Follies," and to take in the featured event of the evening, "Blonde or Brunette," a feature film starring Adolphe Menjou and Greta Nissen.

But maybe most of all, the capacity house of 4,000 entertainment-seekers -- among them Paramount Pictures studio head Adolph Zukor (whose name was misspelled on the program) -- came to see the Saenger itself. The ersatz outdoor palace where stars twinkled and clouds floated overhead had been built at a staggering cost of $2.5 million -- nearly $26 million in 2002 dollars.

"It was very important," Rio, a legendary theater organist who now lives in Tampa, said of the theater's opening. "The Saenger was THE theater of the South."

In the 1920s, Americans went to vaudeville shows to be entertained, but movie palaces were where they went to dream. And businessmen such as Julian Saenger -- who operated 150 theaters in 50 cities in 11 southern states, Panama, Havana, and Central America -- invested heavily in those dreams during the decade. All three of the city's remaining landmark theaters were built in the 1920s -- the Orpheum in 1921, the Loew's State in 1926, and the Saenger in 1927.

The Orpheum was used strictly for vaudeville, no film, whereas the Saenger was built for a combination of silent pictures and live stage presentations.

"It always tried to be a step higher than vaudeville," said local theater historian Rene Brunet, whose father and uncle ran Uptown New Orleans theaters when motion pictures were in their infancy. "The Saenger always considered itself to be the premiere theater in New Orleans."

An indoor-outdoor theater

The Saenger is what theater historians now call an "atmospheric" theater, meaning that the interior gives the illusion of being outdoors. Each side of the building is richly detailed to look like facades of buildings with tiled roofs, with columns, pilasters, turrets, railing, arches, and spans of graceful ironwork over openings.

Near the stage on one side of the auditorium is a large fountain; on the other side is the niche that framed a soloist at a white grand piano. Statuary still lines the top railing.

The builders called the intricate and highly detailed decor "Florentine Renaissance" and declared that it was "an acre of seats in a garden of splendor."

Shopping trips to furnish the theater took the owners to Europe as well as Royal Street antique shops. The set of 12 lead crystal chandeliers, weighing 15,200 pounds, supposedly came from the Chateau Pierrefonds in France and cost $25,000. There were four large ones, of which the magnificent one near the entrance to the balcony survives. Four were fitted into corners and four were mounted on stands. The largest chandeliers were suspended from the painted wooden beams of the arcade from the Canal Street entrance.

The "salon d'art" was an unrivaled feature. The statuary included replicas of Michelangelo's "David," Myron's "The Disc Thrower," Cleomene's third-century Venus of Medici and Antonio Canova's "Venus of the Baths." The extensive art list included nine Reubens reproductions. Brunet remembers a marble Leaning Tower of Pisa and a statue of a nude Madame Borghese reclining on a chaise lounge.

This was the flagship of the Saenger Theatre chain, and, Brunet said, the finest theater in their circuit. Julian Saenger's company hired local architect Emile Weil, who designed the three terra cotta statues that still grace the exterior and much of the detail of the interior plastering, which is so elaborate that the $250,000 contract for it was said to be the largest plastering contract in the South. The ornamental plastering, by Lachine & Company of Toulouse Street, is remarkably intact.

This was the silent movie era, but the theater was full of music and sound. The orchestra and organist alternated with each other.

Rosa Rio attended the premiere in a professional capacity. When she was a student of Motion Picture Organ Playing at the Eastman School of Music, founded by Kodak magnate George Eastman, she met and married instructor John Hammond, the Saenger's first organist.

Hammond, who was billed as "America's Master Organist," played what the papers called the "Robert Morton Super-Unit Organ, built in the heart of movieland, Van Nuys, California." It was undoubtedly one of the biggest organs in the South when it was installed.

Tough early going

Not long after that brilliant opening night, the new theater quickly faced huge challenges. The first blow was a watery one, on Good Friday less than three months after its gala opening. Fourteen inches of rain fell on the city on April 15, 1927.

"We were there practicing on the organ" late at night, said Rio. "We suddenly heard this terrible sound. Water had broken through the glass of the basement."

Hammond ran and saved the organ by hitting the button that raised the console to its highest level, then jumped over the railing and tried to raise the orchestra pit, Rio said, but it wasn't possible.

"The boys had left their instruments, the bass drums and fiddles and everything, and it was all utterly destroyed," Rio recalled. "The (floor-level) rows were completely underwater. We took the draperies down and made a bed on the mezzanine and slept up there, because we couldn't get home at all. That was tragic."

The Saenger and the Loew's State suffered thousands of dollars of water damage to their stages, news reports said.

That was repairable. What changed everything, completely, was talking movies.

"We were there until the terrible talkies came in," said Rio. "The Saenger completely closed its organ music."

"The late 20s were a state of confusion," Brunet said. "Some people thought they were a fad." However, he said, for at least its first five years, all shows at the Saenger had both films and live acts.

Contemporary newspaper accounts indicate that by 1929 the Saenger showed talkies. That year, the Paramount Group acquired the Saenger chain.

Local organ enthusiast Dr. Barry Henry has a large collection of Saenger memorabilia. He said a lot of theaters simply stopped having live music at all by the early 1930s. The Depression was a big factor.

"There were problems with the musician's union and the projectionists," Henry said.

The dispute turned violent on May 29, 1933. An 18-year-old Saenger usher was burned when he removed a blazing sulfur bomb set off near the stage. The next month, three officers of the local Motion Picture Operators Association were charged in a conspiracy to throw stink bombs into six suburban theaters.

So the music stopped. But the Saenger survived the Depression, the war years and into the early 1960s with movies, punctuated by fund-raisers and occasional gala film premieres that brought the movie stars to town.

When homegrown star Dorothy Lamour appeared in a benefit for southwest Louisiana flood victims in 1940, she said of the Saenger, "I can hardly believe I'm going to be important there, when I think of how I used to stand in line for two hours to get in for 15 cents."

The Saenger's darkest day

In 1964, Paramount Gulf Theaters announced plans to drop a steel wall from the Saenger ceiling in front of the balcony to create a separate theater. The number of seats in the balcony were reduced from 1,300 to 750. It opened as the Saenger-Orleans with a newly installed escalator and a separate entrance on Rampart Street.

This prompted what Saenger employees and fans call the saddest day in Saenger history. On April 28, 1964, many of the paintings and 13 statues were sold at auction.

"The Saenger is still beautiful," Brunet said, "but it's only a patch on when it had all these works of art."

All but one of the chandeliers were also sold, somehow, somewhere, to somebody, prompting subsequent years of speculation and stories.

One story places one in a French Quarter antique shop. Henry could swear he spotted one at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco.

"It looked identical," he said.

Despite the opening of the Saenger-Orleans, by the early 1970s the Saenger had started to decline. Some longtime Orleanians remember rats running in the aisles. The organ had fallen into disrepair.

But the locals' love for the old theater was still strong. A group called City Lights, with Henry, Julian Saenger's niece Henrietta Wittenberg, and others, got help from former ambassador Lindy Boggs to get the Saenger on the National Register of Historic Places. Then they turned around and did the same thing for the Orpheum, scheduled to be turned into a parking lot.

New Orleans is fortunate, Henry said, to have saved its historic theaters.

"New Orleans is actually quite unique in having three," he said. "That's very unusual. Most cities are lucky to have one."

The Saenger was 50 years old when it was designated a historic landmark in 1977. The same year, the building found new local owners. A company called Moonraker, Inc., paid a little more than $1 million and spent $3 million renovating it.

The savior of the Saenger was Moonraker President E.B. Breazeale. He said at the time that he was buying it because no one else had.

"I'm restoring it because it's just like a lady that fell down into the gutter; she's got to be cleaned up," said Breazeale, who died in 1988.

The restoration included removal of the Saenger-Orleans steel wall and screen. After three years of renovation, the theater reopened in 1980. It 1985, it sold again, for $2.5 million, to its current owners, a group of managers and local private investors.

Preserving pieces of the past

Since its reopening in 1980, the Saenger has been a venue for touring Broadway shows, performances of all kinds, corporate and private events, even weddings. Thousands of people remember movies in its early days, and thousands more have gone in the last 20 years for plays, comic acts, rock concerts, Jazzfest performances, children's shows and much, much more.

The rest is current history, but members of specialty theater and organ groups still keep their appreciative eyes on the Saenger's historic roots.

Ty Tracy is the southern regional director for the Theater Historical Society of America and also belongs to the League of Historical American Theaters. The THSA holds annual pilgrimages to see old theaters in different cities around the world. When Tracy hosted the THSA here in the late 1980s, they toured the Saenger and "went berserk, they loved it," he said. "It's lasted because it's unique. I think the Saenger is one of the most beautiful atmospheric theaters around."

The Saenger organ is one of about 400 in the world still in use from that era, according to the American Theater Organ Society. John Hiltonsmith of Memphis has been working on the Robert Morton organ since 1994. Robert Morton was the number two organ manufacturer of the time, after Wurlitzer, and the Saenger organ was a prototype built to demonstrate the company's prowess in an attempt to capture market share.

Hiltonsmith ranks it as "probably one of the 10 most important Robert Mortons, and probably one of the top 20 or 30 most important instruments, period.

"So many things make it significant. It's one of the few theater organs in its original configuration. It was never tonally altered. It was never removed from its original installation. And it's one of relatively few Robert Mortons, and the largest Robert Morton theater installation ever built."

When he started working on it, about 20 percent of the organ could be played, Hiltonsmith said. Now, close to 85 or 90 percent is playable.

Rosa Rio can't wait to get her hands on it again. In addition to her regular gig playing a restored theater organ for silent film nights in Tampa, she travels around the country to play other historic organs in theaters that communities have spent millions restoring. She wants to come here and play this one, she said, and she's disappointed she won't be able to do so for next weekend's 75-cent movie screenings of "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Some Like It Hot" in honor of the theater's 75th anniversary (see accompanying story). Hiltonsmith and Brunet will play the organ before the movies.

"I would love to see more activity with that organ there," Rosa Rio said. "It was one of the top organs."

Saenger general manager Cynthia Argo said the theater hasn't shown any movies for the public in the more than three years she has worked there. Saenger management and staff will be watching reaction to next weekend's event to see if there is enough support for a summer movie series.

"We would be happy just to show epic movies," Argo said. "The Alabama Theater and the Louisville Palace have great summer movies series."

The Saenger's two projectors need about $8,000 worth of work to put them in perfect working order, Argo said.

"We are just making sure the audience wants to do it."

Though the theater has had its financial ups and down since 1981, it has operated in the black for the last six or seven years, Argo said.

"With that comes a heightened sense of responsibility for taking care of the theater," she said. "We are slowly moving towards a better box office operation, and revamping some of the seating areas where the seats are worn down. And at some point in the next four or five years, I would like to see the horsehair ceiling put back to where it truly looks like the night sky. Right now it has a sort of Frankenstein scar from the Saenger-Orleans."

And right now is an exciting time for the theater, Argo said.

"In the next three to five years, with the Canal facelift, we're now poised to be part of the upper Canal Street redevelopment," she said, adding that the Downtown Development District has designated the area an entertainment district, and the Saenger is in the best shape of all the area venues. "We're happy to work towards that goal as well."

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Staff writer Judy Walker can be reached at jwalker@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3485.

The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.