Ask McGehee: Who was the Saenger behind Mobile’s Saenger Theatre?

The Saenger Theatre in Mobile, AL

Brothers Julian and Abe Saenger established the Saenger Amusement Company in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1910. Twenty years earlier, they had moved to that city from Virginia and established a retail drug store. When they saw the increasing popularity of moving pictures, they built their first theatre adjoining their drug store. Patrons could stop in at their soda fountain or buy candy between shows.

Mobile’s Theatorium

Penny arcades and Nickelodeons located in modest storefronts showed the original flickering images to curious Americans. At first, they were filmed in the New York City vicinity. 

Mobile’s first “Theatorium” appeared in the 1907 city directory and was located on Dauphin Street just east of St. Emanuel Street. Within two years, that number was up to four including the Crown, the Pictorium and the Victor, all with addresses on Dauphin Street.

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During the next decade, the movie-making business grew, and so did the size of the theatres. Hollywood was becoming the new film capital, and America suddenly was discovering movie stars. By World War I, however the theatres were still rather simple and featured a piano player to accompany the silent films.

In the early 1920s, the movie industry began churning out epic films and stars began to demand epic salaries. By the middle of the decade a star like Gloria Swanson was earning $7,500 a week — the equivalent of over $133,000 nowadays. As the Hollywood juggernaut picked up speed though, a new invention was getting increasingly popular: the radio.

Commercial radio began offering live transmission of sporting events, and then added musical entertainment to the mix. As the percentage of households owning a radio began to approach 50%, theatre owners saw a marked drop in movie attendance. Their solution was to improve the experience of movie audiences.

The Cathedral of the Motion Picture

In 1910, the first palatial movie theater was built in Paris, but the idea was slow to reach the United States. Competition from the radio changed that in a hurry. In 1924, the Saenger brothers built the Strand Theatre in Shreveport. New Orleans architect Emil Weil, who had previously designed a variety of mansions, banks and even the Touro Synagogue, was hired to create the new movie theatre.

Weil reportedly spent seven months in Europe, Egypt and India for inspiration in the design of this and future Saenger theaters. When the Stand opened in time for Christmas, patrons discovered marble floors, plush carpets, luxurious drapes, $50,000 in light fixtures, ladies’ parlors, a men’s smoking room and 2,500 seats beneath an elaborate dome. Gone was the single piano, now replaced by a 20-piece orchestra, and patrons could enjoy specially cooled air propelled by a “typhoon fan.”

Mobile’s Royal Palace

The construction of Mobile’s Saenger Theatre was announced soon after and described to be “of Spanish style of architecture and to seat 2,700.” The grand opening took place on January 19, 1927, and the Mobile Register gushed, “No royal palace could contain more palatial arrangements for comfort.” Its architectural style at completion was reminiscent of “a French palace of the Renaissance” and was created by Weil.

The $750,000 showplace featured “hangings of blue velvet fringed with metallic gold” and patrons could enjoy “retiring parlors for women patrons and smoking rooms for men.” The theater advertised seating for 3,000 when completed.

One of the most important features of the theatre is what the news account described as “an ingenious ventilating and refrigerating system to provide manufactured weather.” The cost was $125,000 for the equipment furnished by the Carrier Engineering Corporation.

Music would be provided by a 25-piece orchestra or the Robert Morton organ, which was described as “equal in volume to a 100-piece orchestra. Every known musical instrument is represented and all the sounds of nature from song birds to crashing thunder can be portrayed.” The black and white films could be enhanced by “a mammoth switchboard allowing color interpretation of moods and the intermingling of colors.”

Mobile schools were given a holiday for the occasion and a parade featured the Boy’s Industrial School Band and open cars carrying the mayor, city commissioners and representatives of the Saenger chain. Also in the procession was a float for the YWCA, four fire chiefs’ cars and eight fire engines. There were “usherettes and program girls clad in the special costume of the Saenger” to greet them as they entered the lobby. 

As a possible nod to the Saengers’ 1910 theatre, the lobby was connected to the Ligget’s Drug Store next door which had spent “$25,000 to remodel their store to conform in style to the new theatre.”

After hearing speeches by Mayor Harry Hartwell and J. L. Bedsole, president of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, the lights dimmed, the orchestra warmed up and the audience watched the credits roll for The Eagle of the Sea, a swashbuckler set in New Orleans.

By 1930, 70% of Americans were going to the movies once a week, and the movie industry had apparently won the battle. The Saenger brothers had sold out their interests in their theaters a year before and Julian died in New Orleans in 1932 while his brother Abe died in Shreveport in 1945. Of Julian, an editorialist wrote “As a theater manager he won the love of all his employees by his courtesy and thoughtfulness.”

New Competition – Again

In 1960, with the widespread popularity of television, less than 10 % of Americans were attending a movie each week. Suburban sprawl led to drive-in theaters and multiplexes and the abandonment of downtowns across the nation resulted in the demolition of the aging “cathedrals of the motion picture.” 

Mobile was no different. The Saenger closed in August 1970, and a newspaper account announced, “the theater will be demolished. A parking lot may take its place.” In June of 1971, the University of South Alabama accepted the deed to the property and in 1972, it was renamed the University Theatre of the Performing Arts.

In 1999, the property was transferred to the City of Mobile and the next year the non-profit Center for the Living Arts took over its operations. Today, it is Mobile’s most popular venue for live music concerts of all types and summer film series. The Saengers in Pensacola, New Orleans, Hattiesburg and the Strand in Shreveport have all undergone restoration and survive as well.

The suburban movie theaters which replaced so many of this country’s grand movie palaces have largely vanished over time, a victim themselves of changing technology and consumer tastes.

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