Can Biloxi’s crumbling Saenger Theater be saved?
To the west, the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, with its stunning $53 million renovation after Hurricane Katrina, recently hosted the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.” Tickets are hard to come by on Broadway, and it was just announced the show will return to New Orleans next season.
To the east, the Saenger Theatre in Mobile remained open through a more modest $6 million restoration and is presenting a mix of concerts, hosting country star Alison Krauss in October, a Summer Classic Film Series and another season of Mobile Symphony Orchestra concerts.
The Saenger in Biloxi sits in the middle, in the dark, its future uncertain, its roof leaking and parts of the building unsafe. The 90th anniversary in January passed unmarked by any celebrations.
Millions were spent on renovations of the Biloxi Saenger since the city purchased the theater for $10 in 1975. Millions more will be needed to make critical repairs and modernize what was once advertised as “the most modern theater in the South.”
A campaign to “Save Our Saenger” brought a full house to the June 18 Biloxi Council meeting. Earlier in the month, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich asked the council to approve a construction contract and designate $2 million of a recent $14 million bond issue to stabilize the building to prevent more damage.
Council members said the bond money was borrowed for much-needed infrastructure issues, and suggested private money and grants should be sought or perhaps the building shouldn’t be saved.
Gilich issued a request for proposals, attempting to find someone to renovate, operate and basically save the Saenger. He doesn’t know if anyone will step forward, Gilich said, “But one thing I do know is that we cannot continue to let this theater deteriorate.”
At lease one proposal is being readied for the July 15 deadline.
Gem of the Gulf Coast
When it opened on January 15, 1929, the Saenger in Biloxi boasted silk damask walls. A plaster expert was brought from Scotland to create the decorative trim work. A Wurlitzer pipe organ was installed, along red leather seats, inch-thick carpets in a pattern to match the ceiling medallion and velvet drapes from Maison Blanche in New Orleans. It was believed to be the first air-conditioned building in Biloxi and boasted a 57-foot-tall fly-wall to pull backdrops above the stage.
Pages of the Daily Herald newspaper were filled the day before the 1929 opening with details of the new Saenger.
Congratulatory telegrams from Hollywood movie stars and producers like Louis B. Mayer, Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford arrived. The newspaper reported that 500 formally-dressed theater-goers were turned away from the 2 p.m. opening show when the then 1,500 seats were filled. Tickets were 50 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
Fast forward 90 years and The Gem of the Gulf Coast, now on the National Register of Historic Places, has walls held together with duct tape. The celebrated fly-tower is a danger. Much of the millions of dollars spent on renovations over the past 40 years was erased by a leaking roof, water seeping through the brick walls and neglect.
The damage and a plan
Rafe O’Neal’s grandmother worked at the theater before he did, and he organized previous campaigns to raise money for repairs.
Now he and others are pulling together a plan for Biloxi that will be delivered to the city in two weeks, he said, ahead of the 11 a.m. deadline on July 15 for proposals to restore and operate the theater.
“It’s not just fixing the building,” he said. The Saenger also will need to be managed properly.
In Mobile, the Saenger was saved when University of Alabama bought the building the night before it was to be demolished. The city then bought it from the university and a new nonprofit was created to operate the theater. That nonprofit, the Center for the Living Arts, restored the theater with donations from the community.
The restoration of the Saenger in New Orleans was a National Rehabilitation Tax Credit project. More than 14 feet of water flooded into the theater during Katrina, and the restoration was a public-private partnership between the City of New Orleans, Canal Street Development Corp. and ACE Theatrical Group, a company that specializes in preserving historic arts buildings.
O’Neil said he envisions a similar type of partnership in Biloxi. A new nonprofit will need to be established to raise funds for the Biloxi theater, he said, since the Friends of the Saenger seems to have disbanded.
“There is no Friends of the Saenger anymore,” confirmed Cecilia Dobbs Walton, public affairs specialist for the city.
She said the study of damage assessments by Dale Partners took longer than expected because there weren’t good records describing the design and construction materials of the Biloxi Saenger.
The city put out bids for repair of the fly tower, replacement of the air conditioning system, repair of the north, south and east masonry walls of the auditorium and the roof of the auditorium. All work must be done to standards of historic properties.
The show must go on
Gwen Gollotte was born the same year the Saenger Theatre in Biloxi opened. When the city purchased the building, she was the one who organized the volunteers and got the first phase of the restoration done before the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. When she spoke to the Biloxi Council on June 18, the council members and everyone in the room gave her a standing ovation.
“It was one woman’s dream to build the Saenger in 1929,” Gollotte told the Sun Herald in 1989, speaking of Norita Lopez Yerger. “And it was my dream in 1975 to save it for use as a performing arts center,” she reiterated to the council. She was one of the first presidents of the Friends of the Saenger Theatre, and money and volunteers were a challenge right from the start.
Gollotte said that after the original chandelier was found, several contractors told her it would be too costly to repair. Staff, students and parents from Notre Dame High School restrung the 30,000 graduated beads, “prism by prism by prism,” she said. She enlisted airmen from Keesler Air Force Base to help clean and restore the building.
Others residents told the council how the community needs the Saenger, which over 90 years has hosted Broadway shows, concerts, dance recitals, political debates, fashion shows, the Sounds of the Holidays, “American Idol” tryouts and many other events.
“It cannot be reopened as a historical gem once it is gone,” said Katherine Blessey, who said the city should explore tax credits and sponsorships by local and national companies to fund the repairs.
Historian Edmund Boudreaux said the city lost 100 historical building and landmarks to Katrina. “The Saenger is in your hands,” he told the council.
Is it needed?
Several stages that compare in size to the Saenger bring a parade of national entertainers to Biloxi casinos.
Three performing arts centers of various sizes are under construction across the Coast in Pascagoula, at Biloxi High and at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
So is the Saenger obsolete?
O’Neal says the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center in Ocean Springs shows what a 90-year-old theater can do for a city. Last year it generated more than $100,000, he said. This spring the theater staged “Mama Mia” and O’Neal said 74 people tried out for a part, “We did seven performances and all of them were sold out,” he said.
By his count, South Mississippi has 14 theater production groups. “That’s more than there have ever been in the history of the Coast,” he said.
“It’s proof of concept that people want to get dressed up and go someplace nice,” he said.
3 Saenger Theatres side by side
|Opened||February 1927||January 1927||January 1929|
|Location||French Quarter||Lower Dauphin St. Historic District||Downtown|
|Original architect||Emile Weil||Emile Weil||Roy A. Benjamin|
|Restoration date||2013||Around 2005|
|Restoration cost||$53 million||$6 million|
|Owner||Canal Street Development Corp.||Center for Living Arts||City of Biloxi|