Saenger Theatre
Mobile, Alabama

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10 Joachim Street South, Mobile, Alabama
Opened: January 19,1927
2500 seats
Decorator: N. A. Nelson & Company, St. Louis
Architect: Emile Weil

 


  Cartouche above the proscenium

The Saenger organization opened its theatre in Mobile, Alabama on January 19, 1927.

Across the street at the Lyric Theatre, Earl Carroll's "Vanities" run had followed one of Burns & Allen. A few blocks away, Billy Sunday's tent revival, pitched in an empty warehouse at St. Anthony & Royal streets, was packing them in while Sunday railed against the show at the Lyric. Clarence Darrow was resting from the Scopes "Monkey Trial" as a guest of the nearby Battle House hotel.

 


The stock issue for the Mobile Saenger Theatre dated from 1920, under the entities "Saenger Theatres of Alabama" & "Gulf Coast Amusement Co., Inc."

Saenger Amusements general manager E. V. Richards signed the certificates as President of Gulf Coast Amusement Co.



In July of 1925, the Saenger company publicly announced the impending construction of its Mobile theatre, & construction began in 1926. The theatre's opening was repeatedly delayed. In September of 1926, a major hurricane struck Mobile during the Saenger Theatre's construction -- an odd repeat of the major hurricane which struck in 1906 while Mobile's Lyric Theatre was under construction across the street. Then, revisions were made to the blueprints during construction for major changes to incorporate the installation of Carrier Air Conditioning unit #005 (#003 is in the Jefferson Theatre, Beaumont TX; #001 is in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.).

Specifications of the theatre included full stage facilities to accommodate large road shows: stage & wardrobe traps, 4 floors of dressing rooms, musicians' & chorus rooms.





1927 drawing showing the block-long covered sidewalk for the new theatre.

At the left rear of the building can be seen the fly tower over the stage area, and on top of that the cooling tower for the air conditioning.

Across Conti Street is shown the front of the Lyric Theatre, & a streetcar is shown on Dauphin Street.

The building's exterior was clad with yellow face brick & ornamented with false-granite mouldings, finials, & panels. The false-granite finish was created by an outer layer of sand & coal dust placed in molds before filling them with concrete.


The longest sidewalk marquee in a very hot, rainy city was constructed for the comfort of arriving theatre goers .




Joachim Street entrance, 1927  

Early drawings showed the theatre's main entrance on Joachim Street nearer Conti Street, in a direct line with the stage. By the time of construction, the architect had moved the entrance nearer to the center of the block. Emile Weil's relationship with Rapp & Rapp and other architects for the Publix organization had given him access to new approaches for the combined solution of traffic & noise problems in movie theatres. Typically, in earlier theatres up to this time, the front entrance doors were directly in a line with the street, auditorium & stage, often with no wall between street & stage at all -- the idea being to provide little impediment to traffic (& to conserve real estate). With larger & continuous turnover of audiences as the movies became established, management of the traffic and noise of arriving & departing patrons was resolved by adding separate "feeder lobbies" off the auditorium. Thus, noisy arrivals were given a chance to quiet down before being allowed through the lobby doors into the auditorium. In the Saenger Theatre in Mobile, two entrance lobbies at the sides of the back of the auditorium performed this function: one large lobby with access from Joachim Street & a smaller lobby connected to Conti Street.

An additional benefit of this design to reduce noise was evident shortly afterwards, with the arrival of talkies. Earlier-type theatres with no back wall in the auditorium had to construct one for acoustical isolation, but it was unnecessary at the Saenger Theatre in Mobile & other theatres where the auditorium had a back wall already.

 
 

The theatre's interior decoration was described in the press variously as "Spanish" or "the motif of a French palace of the Renaissance", & even "blue". These were taken from press releases for the opening recycled by the company & incompletely revised from descriptions for the opening of some of their previous theatres.

The decoration was in fact another clever Emile Weil twist on Adam-style decoration - this time inspired by Mobile's coastal location. Along with Adam-style classical interior plaster ornamentation such as Dionysus above the proscenium, Maenads encircling the chandelier in the lounge & Pan beneath the organ grilles, Poseidon is cast above the main entrance & various stylized seahorses, shells, & fish ornaments are found throughout the theatre. The color scheme of the interior was primarily sea-green walls with some drybrush modeling, maroon & gold trim, stencil decoration of the ceiling, & a sea-green grand curtain. The arcade's central lighting fixture is an abstraction of bubbles. Adjustable three-color lighting in the coves & chandeliers constantly modified the highlights, shadows, & appearance of the modeling of the ornamentation in the auditorium.

The organ console can be seen in the house left side of the orchestra pit in this photo from just before the theatre's opening.

 


1927 advertisement for the Saenger Theatre in Mobile  

A two manual, 10 rank Robert Morton theatre was installed in the theatre, its console packed with about as much as could fit.

Along with the large set of traps and tuned percussion instruments, the organ in Mobile's Saenger organ substituted for trumpets a rank of tubas that could when desired produce growling bass punctuation like a battery of tubas in a Mobile Mardi Gras marching band.

John Metz, advertised as the theatre's premier organist, was a former demonstrator for the Robert Morton company in New York City.



Listen to the Robert Morton organ in Mobile's Saenger Theatre here!


Like many other Saenger theatres, the Saenger Theatre in Mobile underwent several changes through the years.

 

The facade above the main entrance later acquired a large vertical sign.
A smaller version was attached to the building at the corner at Conti & Joachim streets.

The theatre's original signage, installed by the Rodwell Sign Company of Mobile in 1926, consisted of a sign on Conti Street, a sign hanging over Dauphin Street, & a sign on Government Street. The Government Street & Dauphin Street signs had been removed earlier, leaving the Conti Street sign as a legacy.

 


The original sidewalk marquee was replaced with a more modern marquee & a small corner program sign.






 

It may seem unlikely now, but originally food wasn't allowed in most movie palaces. This was one of the ways movie palaces differentiated themselves as being higher-class than vaudeville theatres (which had audiences snacking through the show on peanuts & candy sold by "candy butchers" strolling the aisles). However, as a result of seeing other merchants right outside the theatre selling candy to patrons who'd smuggle it in & later general efforts to increase revenue, theatres began to build concession stands.

A concession stand (called the Candy Hut) was constructed in the arcade.
It was later removed & replaced by a concession stand constructed in the lobby (the Candy Bar).,

 



 

With the arrival in the 1950s of VistaVision, Paramount's initial entry in the widescreen movie revolution, came a chain-wide removal of the opera boxes in the Saenger theatres to pre-empt any possible sightline problems resulting from the new, wider screen. The opera boxes, located beneath the organ grilles, were removed from the Saenger Theatre in Mobile as they were from the Saenger Theatre in Pensacola & the Strand Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Also around this time, the seats on the floor were replaced with more modern American Bodiform seats & re-spaced, reducing the theatre's seating capacity to about 2200.

 

 

 

In July of 1968, the pastor of St. Pius X Catholic church in Mobile arranged with ABC Mid-South Theatres to acquire the Robert Morton theatre organ in the Saenger Theatre in Mobile. The organ was removed by technician Tom Walton & Keith Hoover, refurbished, & installed in St. Pius church.

Following the opening of its new Capri Theatre in outside of downtown, ABC/Mid-South Theatres on August 5, 1970 closed the Saenger Theatre in Mobile. The best offers for the property were from developers planning to demolish the theatre & use the space for a parking lot.

 


 

   

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Dr. Frederick Whiddon, president of the University of South Alabama in Mobile, began negotiations with the building's owner ABC/Mid-South towards acquiring the theatre. On June 25, 1971, the eve of the planned demolition of the building, the deed was turned over to the University. Considering that the property was then valued at $1.5 million dollars, it was an exceptional act of generosity & gesture of goodwill toward the university & the citizens of Mobile. ABC/Mid-South president Kermit Carr remarked that the company was pleased to donate the property.

The theatre operated for a while with ongoing gradual repairs, & then was closed for extensive repairs & renovation. During the repairs, the original complex sea-green decoration was re-done in a simple white, red & gold, and the adjustable color lighting was re-lamped with all white bulbs. As a result, the Mobile Saenger's original dramatic Adam-style Atlantean interior then resembled a less-decorated version of Saenger's Strand Theatre in Shreveport, LA. In an original poster case next to the box office in the arcade, a display was created with portions of the original gold-fringed green grand curtain & the original carpet with inwoven 'SAENGER' logo that was unique to the theatre.

The University arranged for the return of the theatre's original Robert Morton theatre organ to the theatre, where it was stored complete but uninstalled.

When re-opened, the theatre functioned as a performing arts center under the name of The USA Saenger Theatre. The University of South Alabama operated it on a mostly self-sustaining basis: the University assumed costs of maintenance & repairs for the building, but the theatre had to cover its operational costs with its own programming. "Bus & truck" road shows were hosted, as well as concerts & educational programming. The University's restoration & return to operation of the Mobile Saenger Theatre is credited as having been one of the major forces in the revitalization of downtown Mobile.

In 1994, the theatre was again closed by the University of South Alabama for repairs & renovation. The seats on the floor were again replaced, this time with new seats of the original design from American Seating, the supplier in 1927 of the original seats. The seating was also re-spaced, & the seating capacity of the theatre was then 2028. Original seating in the balcony, some of which had unpadded, wooden backs, were re-upholstered to match the replacement seats on the floor. The original allegorical murals over the grand staircase were covered with a new painting of a regional wetlands landscape.

 

Last look at the auditorium prior to installation of the lighting bridges on the ceiling & partition wall across the back

The USA Saenger Theatre produced its own Saenger Series of touring Broadway shows & summer film series, hosted the Mobile Symphony, & independent rentals each season.

Technical specifications of the USA Saenger Theatre


Movies returned to the Saenger Theatre in Mobile on April 22, 1995 with a showing of "Singin' in the Rain".

The empty projection booth had earlier been converted to a follow spot booth by removing much of the front of the booth & installing a large sheet of glass. Later, 35mm projection equipment & a screen from the closed Capri theatre were donated to the Mobile Saenger. By utilizing a platter system, a single projector was installed between the follow spots in the booth with no hindrance to the operation of either the spots or projector.

Want to see the projection booth in 1999?


December 31, 1999
In 1998, the University of South Alabama replaced its president & revised many of its operations. The Mobile Saenger Theatre was sold in October, 1999 to the City of Mobile.


 

After acquisition by the city of Mobile, a local independent nonprofit foundation, The Centre for the Living Arts, was formed to operate the theatre.

In March of 2000, an ornamental statue of Pan, still in its original verdigris finish from when it originally located in a niche in the mezzanine lounge, was returned to the theatre by a private citizen. The statue was repaired, then painted white and returned to the mezzanine lounge. In December of 2000, the false granite finish was stripped from the exterior mouldings & ornaments by pressure-washing. In September of 2003, the Conti Street sign was removed, citing deteriorating supports. Rather than repair the supports of the existing historic sign, it was decided that the sign would be removed entirely.

In June of 2004, the theatre was closed for extensive remodeling, including construction of a permanent orchestra pit cover & stage apron extension, construction of a large lighting bridge attached to the auditorium ceiling, construction of a partition wall in the rear portion of the auditorium, reconstruction of the opera boxes under the organ grilles, removal of the 3-circuit auditorium lighting, & changing the auditorium trim color from red & gold to light green & gold. After re-opening in 2005, the theatre continued operation as a local concert venue & home to the Mobile Symphony.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Other information:

 

Mobile Saenger Theatre, official web site

Saenger Theatre, A theater in Mobile, Alabama, interior photography of the Mobile Saenger Theatre, by Ed Jurich
American Seating, build your own Saenger Theatre, one seat at a time, with genuine Saenger seats from the historic styles of the original supplier


 

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Copyright 1997 - 2010, William Hooper.