Can Biloxi’s crumbling Saenger Theater be saved?
Since it opened in 1929, the Saenger Theatre in downtown Biloxi has hosted many events and had several renovations. The art community is looking for a way to “Save Our Saenger.”
Here’s a timeline of the theater’s history:
Saenger Theatre was built on the property of Noreta Lopez Yerger on Reynoir Street. The Saenger brothers of New Orleans hired Jacksonville architect Roy A. Benjamin to design the theater and Arthur Perry, also of Florida, to build it. The Saenger was the first building in Biloxi with air conditioning and also had sprinklers and extra exit doors in case of fire.
Theater opened Jan. 15. Paramount Pictures’ first all-talking movie, “Interference,” starring Evelyn Brent and William Powell was first show, followed by Fanny Brice in “My Man” and Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer.” Adult price was 50 cents and children 10 cents.
John Martiniere, theater manager, announced from the stage that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and all military personnel in the theater were to report immediately to Keesler Air Force Base.
Fire caused by a transformer on the roof badly damaged the theater and destroyed the original ceiling hidden beneath the lowered ceiling.
Biloxi bought the Saenger for $10 on Jan. 10, 1975, almost 46 years to the day after it opened.
The theater’s pipe organ reportedly was sold to the Saenger Theatre in Mobile to pay for the first renovation.
The first production after renovation was “The Messiah” by Keesler AFB personnel on Dec. 14, 1975.
Also, a check from an anonymous donor on Christmas Eve paid the $10,633 cost of the theater’s grand piano.
Fundraising continued and a Pete Fountain benefit concert had people dancing in the street.
Dedication after a year of work. First year of a three-year restoration plan brought new lighting system, installation of chandeliers in lobby and foyer, new house lights, extensive electrical work and complete plumbing repairs. Stage floor refinished and extended. Platforms extended the stage over the orchestra pit. Phase one: Marquee replaced. Phase two: new sound system and remodel of bathrooms. The stage will be renovated in phases four and five.
Vincent Price portrays Oscar Wilde in a Nov. 29 performance of “Diversions and Delights.” Hermione Gingold, stars in Broadway hit, “Side By Side By Sondheim.”
New carpet the same color and pattern as 1929 installed and lobby restored to look like it did when theater was built.
83 kids tried out for parts in “The Sound of Music.”
Save Our Saenger campaign seeks to raise $2 million for more restoration.
Study shows $4.6 million needed to restore and update the theater, more if the work is done in stages.
Renovations done to stabilize and improve the building. Stucco was sandblasted from the exterior walls when it was found to trap moisture. A new roof and air conditioning units installed. The theater re-opened in time for the 1999-2000 season.
Gala held for latest restoration.
Auditorium gutted in phase three of the renovation, which will cost $1.3 million. New catwalks built, new sound booth and ceiling lighting booth built, projection booth refurbished. Plaster and wood details replaced or reconstructed. 92 new lights added in ceiling. Decor returned to original colors of pastel rose, cream and green. The original cherubs over the proscenium cleaned. Auditorium chairs removed and replaced. Lobby down to bare concrete with smaller concession bar.
Roof damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
City prepares for another renovation. Specifications for Phase I, repairs to the roof of the downtown structure, are undergoing FEMA review. Expected cost is $183,000.
Another fundraising effort to save the theater. FEMA paid for some of the work needed and has allocated additional money to fix the crumbling plaster and other interior flaws. Before that, $400,000 is needed to seal the roof and stop water from getting into the brick walls that was not hurricane-related.
Biloxi Shuckers revealed at Saenger as the name of the city’s new minor league baseball team.
City makes application to Department of Archives and History for a grant to make repairs to the exterior of the theater, address moisture seepage and air conditioning system replacement. Estimated at $268,000 with $53,600 of that in matching funds from the city.
Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Glich holds 2017 inauguration in the theater to draw attention to its failing state, which included plaster falling from interior walls because of water seepage through the roof and exterior walls.
Assessment done by Dale Partners on repairs, including replacement of the roof and the rooftop air conditioning units, repairs to the entrance awnings, waterproofing of the exterior brick walls and Americans with Disabilities Act access improvements.
Biloxi is notified that $700,000 in improvements to the Saenger are not eligible for funding under Community Development Block Grant guidelines.
City closes the Saenger in March for at least a year. Initial estimates for repairs is $700,000 to more than $1 million
City asks for proposals to restore and operate the Saenger, which are due by July 15.