When Mobile's Saenger Theatre opened on January 19, 1927, it was the sixty-first Saenger theatre of a chain founded by J.H. and A.D. Saenger of New Orleans. There were Saenger Theatres located throughout the South as well as in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Hailed as, "Alabama's Greatest Showplace" and, "the most beautiful playhouse in all of Dixie," the Mobile Saenger Theatre took a year to construct at a cost of about 500,000 dollars. Designed by renowned architect, Emile Weil, the Mobile Saenger Theatre featured the following : three-color auditorium lighting, a two-manuel, ten-rank Robert Morton theatre organ, full stage facilities to accommodate large road shows including stage and wardrobe traps, four floors of dressing rooms, musicians' and chorus rooms and 2,615 seats. Around 1950, the seats on the floor were replaced and re-spaced, reducing the seating capacity to about 2,200. Seating capacity today is 1,921.
The Saenger Theatre's decoration was described as, "the motif of a French palace of the Renaissance." It was inspired by classical Greek mythology and Mobile's coastal location. Poseidon is cast above the front entrance and the interior plaster ornamentation includes: Dionysus above the proscenium, Maenads encircling the chandelier in the lounge, Pan beneath the organ grilles and various stylized seahorses, shells and fish throughout the theatre. The color scheme of the interior was primarily sea-green with maroon and gold trim. The ceilings featured a variety of trompe l'oeil decoration.
The building was designed in a continental style, intended to resemble European opera houses. The theatre's opera boxes that were located beneath the organ grilles were later removed to improve sightlines when the larger Cinemascope movie screen was installed. Other outstanding architectural features of the original building included: the tilted arcade, grand marble staircase, ornate lamps, chandeliers, statuary and door frames, a mezzanine and promenade. There were lavish furnishings in the men's "Stage Room," and the ladies' "At the Sign of the Lipstick," lounge which included magnificent draperies and carpets with the name of the theatre woven into the fabric.
At the dedication ceremonies on January 19, 1927, then Mayor Harry T. Hartwell and State Senator John Craft were joined by J.L. Bedsole, then President of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, in addressing the large crowd gathered for the auspicious occasion. Mrs. W.G. Ward, a representative of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, presented a portrait of General Robert E. Lee for the Theatre's foyer, as the dedication date was the General's 119th birthday.
Through the years, the Saenger provided Mobilians with outstanding theatrical entertainment on the live stage and motion picture screen. The Saenger hosted silent movies, vaudeville shows, movies, dramatic and musical productions and was the setting for the first America's Junior Miss pageant. However--as was the case with many of these grand movie palaces--ownership changes, high maintenance costs and various other issues rendered many of these beautiful buildings nationwide, "white elephants." In fact, any were demolished to make way for parking lots and general urban development.
Then owners, ABC/Paramount, closed the Mobile Saenger and removed the projection equipment in early 1970. One the eve of demolition, the University of South Alabama bought the Saenger and saved it from destruction. It was partially renovated and re-opened as a performing arts center called the USA Saenger Theatre.
On October 1, 1999, the City of Mobile purchased the Saenger from the University of South Alabama. A new non-profit organization, called the Center for the Living Arts, Inc., was formed early in the year 2000 to operate the Saenger. The Center for the Living Arts with generous donations from the community restored the historic Mobile Saenger to its former glory, at a cost of about six million dollars.
The Saenger Theatre of Mobile now functions as a performing arts center and is the official home of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra. The Saenger features an annual Summer Movie Series and presents numerous concerts, lectures and special events. The Saenger Theatre is a historic landmark, dear to the hearts of Mobilians for its architectural grandeur and ties to our cultural history as well as for the extraordinary caliber of entertainment it offers our community today.
Erected in January of 1927, the stately, European-style Saenger Theatre in Mobile has witnessed thousands of top performers, acts, ballets and musicals throughout its almost eighty years of existence. The Saenger Theatre is a historic landmark, treasured for its architectural beauty and ties to our cultural history, as well as for the caliber of entertainment it offers our community today. With its newly renovated and upgraded electrical system, VIP facilities, stage rigging and state of the art sound system, the Saenger Theatre truly lives up to its reputation as, "Alabama's greatest showplace."
photographs courtesy of the University of South Alabama Archives