BWW Interviews: The Saenger Theater is Back!
So many New Orleaneans, like myself, have a "Saenger story." My story happens to be one that my former teachers would probably frown upon. When I was kid, I remember my grandmother and my mom checking my sister and me out of school to go see matinee performances at the Saenger. One that I particularly remember was a tour of Rodger and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA making its way through New Orleans, but this wasn't just any production. Oh, no. This production starred none other than Barry Williams (aka Greg Brady) as Captain Von Trapp. As an avid Brady Bunch watcher, you can imagine that this had my 6th grade self in a fit of giggles.
The Saenger was originally designed by Emile Weil and first opened in February of 1927 as a vaudeville house. A Times-Picayune article from February 5th of that same year describes the events of the opening evening as one full of excitement and wonder, and notes that this beautiful new theater could only be rivaled by those in Europe. It even highlights the "sky ceiling" that New Orleans theatergoers know all too well.
After being closed for what feels like an eternity due to intense damage from Hurricane Katrina, the historic Saenger Theater is once again opening its doors to the greatest city on Earth.
I recently spoke with Cindy Connick, Executive Director of the Canal Street Development Corporation (CSDC), about the recent renovations to the theater. "It will be more beautiful than you remember," Connick assured me when I asked if the theater is going to look similar to the way I remember it as a kid. Connick stated, "We conducted studies on what the theater looked like when it was built in the 1920s, and peeled back the layers of paint and varnish and just general wear and tear to get back to the base of what was in the theater."
Leading the renovations was Gary Martinez of Martinez + Johnson Architecture, who has experience in restoration of historic theaters around the country. Other major players in the renovation process were Ace Theatrical Group and EverGreene Architectural Arts. To you all, we owe many thanks for bringing our beloved Saenger back to us.
Connick explained that everything from the proscenium (the stage's arch) out into the rest of the theater underwent a complete historic restoration process, while the backstage area was completely taken out and expanded. Since the basement was flooded up to the orchestra level during Hurricane Katrina, it was decided that all mechanical and electrical equipment should be housed on the roof of the building. That basement space has been refurbished into dressing rooms for performers. Other amenities that visitors can expect to utilize within the theater are additional restroom areas and bars.
The opening gala, to be held on October 3, 2013, will include dinner for about 250 guests. Proceeds from ticket sales will go towards restoration of the Morton organ that the Saenger houses.
David Skinner, General Manager of the Saenger Theater, spoke with me about the upcoming season, and I must say it's looking mighty fine! The first performer to hit the brand new Saenger stage for the first time last weekend was Jerry Seinfeld. How was Mr. Seinfeld chosen as the first performer? Skinner explained, "Jerry has always had a good connection with New Orleans and with our company, and we wanted somebody that had very good national exposure." Selling out all performances, Seinfeld proved to be a hit.
Coming up next on October 5th is none other than Broadway favorite Kristin Chenoweth. According to Skinner, Chenoweth was an obvious choice due to experience on Broadway, as a recording artist, and as a TV/big screen actress. She has the whole package. For those of you who are lucky enough to attend her concert this weekend, Skinner says you are in for a real treat: "We are kind of putting in our own ending to the show that has the New Orleans flair and flavor in it. She has been very kind and considerate in working with us to end her performance and take into account what we are in this city."
The Saenger's Broadway series will begin on October 15th with THE BOOK OF MORMON, and will be followed by GHOST THE MUSICAL, SISTER ACT, RAIN: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES, DISNEY'S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, MEMPHIS, and War Horse. Visit www.saengernola.com for more details.
According to Connick, the Saenger Theater is "the quintessential theatre experience for many New Orleaneans, and it is critical to the health of the city for it to come back." Skinner says, "If there's any one thing we do, it's create memories. That's what's happened in the past, and that's what we want to get back to for the new generations." As a life-long New Orleanean as well as theatre fan, I cannot wait to visit the Saenger Theater again and to create new memories and "Saenger stories" in a place that I have grown to love so dearly.