Hovering over stacks of photocopies, historical documents and poster-sized photos of Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Judy Garland, Mason Wood seems more than a little flummoxed. As the Saenger Theatre's marketing manager, the 33-year-old Wood is receiving a crash course on the venerable house's history in time for this weekend's 75th anniversary celebration with the screening of three classic films: Some Like It Hot, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.
The anniversary coincides with a self-financed $300,000 makeover. Wood was hired five months ago, and already has become a house detective, uncovering secrets and trivia in order to prepare a fact sheet on the place. But before he's ready to take a visitor on a tour of the facility, Wood is being teased by a couple mysteries.
"I can't find the logo," he says, pointing to a photocopied picture of the Saenger logo featuring Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. "I've looked everywhere, and I can't find it." He's also trying to figure out how the original seating capacity of 4,000 has shriveled to the current 2,700. "What, were the seats smaller back then?" he wonders.
Wood has learned that the theater was named after the Saenger brothers, Julian and Abel, who were pharmacists when they purchased their first theater in 1911 in Shreveport. They opened the Saenger New Orleans in 1927, and eventually owned 300 theaters throughout the South and Mexico. The first film screened at the Saenger New Orleans: Blonde or Brunette, starring Adolphe Menjou.
The $2.5 million theater was designed by Emile Weil, whose Florentine Renaissance approach to the design included a famous night-sky effect on the ceiling complete with stars and clouds. "On opening night," Wood says, "one customer reportedly came in, saw the clouds floating about on the ceiling, and rushed out to his car to roll the windows up because he thought it was real and it was about to rain outside.
"The sad thing is the information is very scarce," says Wood. He plumps down what looks like a family photo album and flips through the newspaper clippings and photos. "There isn't a Saenger Preservation Fund, which is something I'd really like to see happen. Tulane has the only original playbill. If anybody out there has Saenger memorabilia, we sure would appreciate it."
As Wood tours the facility, he presents a view of the theater that the average visitor doesn't see or notice. "Usually, when you come in here, you grab your drink, plop down in your seat, maybe read the playbill, chat, and then the show starts," he says. "But when you really get a chance to soak it all in, it's something."
In the empty theater, it becomes apparent just how well the Saenger bounced back from 1964, when then-owners ABC Theatres walled off the balcony to create a second theater, and sold off precious artifacts including sculptures, chandeliers and drapes in what looked like a basement sale. A likeness of the Venus Medici survived and remains inside the theater; a statue of Napoleon's daughter, Paolina Borghese, wasn't so lucky.
E.B. Breazeale purchased the building for $1.2 million in 1978 and initiated a massive renovation worth more than $3.5 million, which included tearing down the wall obscuring the balcony. The Saenger reopened in 1980, and several pieces were restored and duplicated over the years.
Standing out in the lobby, Wood, Associate General Manager Scott Stewart and resident restorative artist Angelie Alciatore explain the attempts to improve on that beauty, which range from cosmetic work to serious infrastructure repairs: refurbishing the Canal Street marquee, waterproofing the building's exterior, making the main-floor restrooms wheelchair accessible, and enlarging the box office to expedite traffic on event nights.
A walk around the balcony reveals the Saenger's current beauty and charm, as well as its inconsistencies. The statues on either side of the theater's side walls are not uniform in number: there are seven on the left and four on the right, with two huge Florentine urns taking up three spots. Wood soaks it all in. "There are details about this place that are making me fall in love with it all over again," he says.
Moments later, while perched on the balcony, Wood is startled by a protruding detailed design looming over the entrance to the balcony entrance on the right-hand side. It's the logo of Neptune, in full glory.
Wood shrugs. "Another mystery solved."
Now, about that seating capacity.
- A $300,000 renovation is planned for the historic Saenger Theater