Ask McGehee: Didn’t Mobile’s Saenger Theatre originally have a pipe organ?

According to news clippings from the opening in January 1927, the Saenger Theatre had every luxury at the time – air-conditioning, uniformed usherettes and “program girls, ”a French Renaissance interior, as well as an impressive pipe organ installed to the left of the spacious stage.

Hollywood had entered a Golden Age, and Americans were flocking to the movies in ever-growing numbers. Ornate movie palaces were built coast to coast to entice those audiences. While earlier theaters included a piano to accompany the silent films, Mobile’s $750, 000 Saenger had a 25-member orchestra and an organ boasting more than 800 pipes. The orchestra and organ would entertain patrons with a concert before the film began and then provide a synchronized score for the featured movie.

The Robert Morton Organ Company in California custom built the organ for the Saenger. Although half as big as their competitor, Wurlitzer, Robert Morton organs were being produced for dozens of the best movie palaces around the nation. The $2.5 million Saenger Theatre in New Orleans was completed a month after Mobile’s and also featured a Robert Morton organ.

Prominent New Orleans architect Emil Weil, who created many of that city’s memorable mansions and commercial structures, designed Mobile’s Saenger. He flanked the stage with double height sound chambers for the organ’s pipes and provided basement space for the huge blower unit to produce the necessary air pressure.

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Although many equate an organ with the music heard in a church, theater organs were more powerful and had all the bells and whistles – literally. Advertisements at the time claimed the Saenger organ “equal in volume to a 100-piece symphony orchestra” and able to duplicate “every known instrument and all sounds of nature.” The theater owner declared that the organ was “a constant source of pleasure to the public and personal pride to us.”

Created with silent films in mind, the organ at the Saenger could mimic a harp, a pair of castanets or a concert grand piano. Films could be accompanied by the realistic sound of clapping thunder, cars honking, cows lowing, or the sound of mice behind a wall. Even a row of sleigh bells was included.

Mobile’s Saenger enjoyed a spectacular opening and quickly became the city’s favorite theater. Barely nine months after its completion, Al Jolson starred in the first “talkie” and that novelty would be the death knell for grand theater organs and in-house symphony orchestras.

Out of Tune with the Times

In 1931, the Robert Morton Organ Company closed its doors, a victim of the nation’s economic slump and the triumph of talking pictures on the big screen. It wasn’t long before the organ at the Saenger was covered by a tarp and forgotten.

In July 1968, while the Saenger was showing “Rosemary’s Baby, ” St. Pius Catholic Church was nearing completion on Sage Avenue. While parishioners were able to boast that the structure was the largest round cast-in-place concrete church, funding for an organ was lacking.

Arrangements were made with the owners of the Saenger to remove the organ and install it in the new church. By that time the instrument had not been played in nearly 40 years, and its interior cavities were filled with decades of dust and the generational filth of vermin. 

The organ was taken into the basement where it was dismantled for the move. As the building had been built around the massive blower unit in the basement, it had to be cut into pieces for the trip west. 

By August of 1970, two volunteers had put the organ in working order at St. Pius Church, and plans were underway to close the Saenger. The last movie to be shown was an R-rated documentary of the previous year’s Woodstock Festival. Times and movies had changed, and not for the better. Demolition of the vacant building looked imminent.

Instead of hiring wreckers, the owners donated the Saenger to the University of South Alabama, which put it to good use.

A decade later, St. Pius installed a new organ and sent the old one back home to the theater. Currently, the Saenger belongs to the City of Mobile and since 2000 has been operated by the Center for the Living Arts. It has been handsomely restored and is once again home to an orchestra – the Mobile Symphony.

The well-traveled Robert Morton organ continues to await a necessary restoration. Its sister organ, still down the road in New Orleans, a victim of Hurricane Katrina flooding, is in even sadder straits.

text by Tom McGehee

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