Mobile's Saenger Theater gets a facelift. An APR News feature

Feb 13, 2020

February may sound a little early for spring cleaning, But, that’s not the case with the Saenger Theater in Mobile. The ninety three year old venue is just now reopening after dealing with a case of mold.

“In August, we had, for lack of a better term, a mold intrusion, not sure quite how it got into the building,” says Brad Christensen, director of real estate asset management for the city of Mobile, which owns the Saenger. “We ended up hiring a service company to go in and remediate all the mold,” he says.

“It took them about three months to finish that up. We’re clean now. It was mostly on the ceilings of a number of areas throughout the theater. But we have it all remediated and trying to do our best to keep it from happening again.”

During the closing, the city also cleaned the stonework on the front of the theater and performed an architectural inspection of the Mobile icon. Officials aren’t sure when the Saenger’s last face washing was, but it was a long time ago.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

“Surprisingly, though for its age, it really has performed better than some of our newer buildings,” says Christensen. “In the architect’s assessment, he said the building is really in great shape. The outside masonry walls are really in wonderful shape, no signs of cracking or real major deterioration. It’s really holding up well,” he says. “The roof is doing fairly well. Of course, it has been reroofed in the last 20 years or so, but overall, it’s really held up well.”

The Saenger was built at a cost of three quarters of a million dollars. If that sounds like a bargain, remember when that was. The Saenger was built in 1927. Silent movie goers at that time were lining up for films like The General with Buster Keaton. The Saenger’s first showing was “Eagle of the Sea” with Florence Vidor and Ricardo Cortez.

The Saenger Theater had the added the novelty of air conditioning.

“You could come down, ride the street car, come downtown, see a movie for a nickel, get a popcorn for a nickel and actually sit in the air-conditioning,” says Chris Penton. He’s the booking director for the Saenger.

“We average about 115, 120 usage days a year. That’s everything from concerts, stage plays, dance recitals, graduations you name it,” he says. That included vaudeville shows back in the 1920’s, and more recently, the very first Junior Miss Pageant…

“We’re the home of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra. They perform 18 shows a year, a weekend every month for nine months. It’s a very wide range of performances.” “

The Saenger has entertained generations of Mobilians,” says Jennifer Zoghby, city spokeswoman for Mobile.

"My father came as a schoolboy from his downtown school to watch movies at the Saenger and his oldest sister was born in a house on this block before the Saenger ever existed,” she says.

“So generations of Mobilians have connections with the Saenger and it is vital to downtown and our whole city identity.”

Chris Penton says the Saenger’s story has been intertwined with local and national history for the last century.

“We hear stories from all walks of life. Back when the balcony was segregated, about how they remember going through the Colored Entrance and having to sit upstairs to ‘I got proposed to sitting in the balcony upstairs at a show,” he says

“People have told us they sitting in the theater watching a movie when the lights came up and over the PA it was announced that we had just been bombed at Pearl Harbor. Every kind of story that you can imagine,” says Penton.

“We’ve got fourth generation dancers on our stage, because great grandma, grandma, mom and now daughter have all taken from certain dance schools that have been dancing in here for decades. This building is interwoven into people’s lives and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s so special and part of the reason why it continues to thrive and survive.”

Credit Mobile Symphony Orchestra

Nostalgia notwithstanding. Chris Penton says The Saenger has been a lynchpin in the effort to bring businesses back top downtown Mobile. 

“I started in 1999 and there was a tremendous amount of vacant property on Dauphin Street and surrounding us. You had a handful of bars and restaurants that had ventured downtown and they kind of started that revitalization,” Penton says.

“Mayor Mike Dow at that time had an idea called string of pearls and the Saenger was kind of that major pearl in the necklace so to speak and he felt like if he could get control of the Saenger and we could get the level of activity to grow, that would give people a reason to come back downtown and if he could get people to come back downtown, they would need a place to eat and drink. They would want it to be safe and clean. It would put money into parking lots and hotels. It was like throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the ripples effect start in the center and go out from there.”

The move away from downtown in Mobile and other cities led to the Saenger closing as a commercial movie theater in 1971. The University of South Alabama took over the theater just before work began to demolish the building. The city acquired it in 1999.

“The theater is in great shape. We put an $8 million renovation in the building back in 2005 and we do everything in our power to make sure that it’s maintained,” says Penton.

Credit APR's Guy Busby

“The city of Mobile owns the building and they are very cognizant of the fact that the building is as old as it is and they do everything in their power to make sure that we have all the resources that we need to maintain the Jewel on Joachim.”

As they say, they just don’t’ build them like this anymore.