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Saenger Theatre makeover under way

by Frank Donze | Mar 29, 2012
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012, 6:15 PM

The Saenger Theatre's marquee has been stripped away to reveal the rusted beams that held it in place. Plastic chutes that funnel construction debris into trash bins dangle from the roof. And much of the back wall has been ripped out, exposing the innards of the iconic Canal Street playhouse.

Makeover Image
View full size Michael DeMocker, The Times-Picayune

At the Saenger Theatre, construction crews dismantle the existing stagehouse and install steel bracing on the two original stagehouse sidewalls Thursday so that they may remain in place as the theater is restored.

To passers-by, it's not a pretty sight. But for the development team leading the effort to resurrect the Saenger, the view from the sidewalk is a vision of beauty.

"There have been lots of stops and starts on this project," said David Anderson, a top executive for ACE Theatrical Group of Houston, the Saenger's longtime private owner-managers. "But we're well under way now."

Anderson joined city officials Thursday morning to provide an update on the $51 million restoration scheduled to culminate with a June 2013 opening, more than a year later than originally planned.

At this point, less than 10 percent of the work is complete. But activity will ramp up in coming months as the two dozen or so workers now on the site swell to about 200.

Months of painstaking negotiations with lenders ended in December, clearing the last hurdle in the more than 3-year-old push to bring back the Saenger, which has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina.

ACE Theatrical executives say their goal is not just to repair the hurricane damage, which swamped underground infrastructure and orchestra-level seats, and trashed the building's ornate Florentine interiors.

Instead, the plan calls for the theater to be reborn to more closely reflect the way it looked when it opened in 1927 as a playhouse, before it morphed into the city's pre-eminent movie palace.

The developers want the Saenger to function as a multipurpose venue, featuring an expanded stage that will allow for larger productions, including Broadway and dance shows, music performances, film presentations, corporate assemblies, lectures and community events.

While ACE finalized its financing, a city agency agreed last year to advance the development team $1.1 million to resume interior electrical, foundation and demolition work and elevator installation.

Soon, more detailed aspects of the project will begin as artisans replicate the building's original decorative elements and ornamentation, including a plan to restore the trademark constellation pattern adorning the Saenger's ceiling.

Among the major changes will be greatly improved accessibility for people with disabilities.

The current budget includes no money to restore the Saenger's fabled Robert Morton pipe organ, which entertained audiences for more than 80 years, from the silent movie era to modern times during revivals of classic motion pictures.

But the head of the Canal Street Development Corp., which is overseeing the renovation, said she is looking at staging a memorabilia auction to raise part of the estimated $400,000 to $600,000 needed to repair the flood-damaged organ.

Cindy Connick, the development corporation's executive director, told board members this week that items such as posters, chandeliers, chairs, signs and ushers' jackets are available for sale.

Connick said while she has no firm proposal in place, she hopes to recommend a plan in the near future.

Meanwhile, plans are progressing to develop the former La Salle Hotel, the vacant structure that shares a roof line and a facade with the Saenger.

A representative of North Carolina-based Reliance Housing Foundation said this week that the purchase of the four-story building at 1113 Canal St. is imminent.
The nonprofit housing developer plans to invest $11.6 million in a restoration that will bring 32 affordable rental units and street-level retail space to the site.

Reliance CEO Robert Jackson has said his organization is committed to working with the Saenger development team and City Hall to offer leasing priority to artists, musicians and employees of performing-arts venues.

Anderson of ACE Theatrical said his group also is interested in renting the ground-floor retail space that fronts on Canal Street for a ticketing center.

As for the residential space, Anderson said "We could probably fill it with our in-house staff.''

Frank Donze can be reached at or 504.826.3328.
© 2012 All rights reserved.

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