The moment should have been magic. Yet true to my nature, all I saw were warning signs.
After a couple of years away, a traditional holiday show had returned to the Saenger Theatre and kept attendees enraptured. For some of the people there, it was a symbolic triumph. Their public hand wringing over the historic venue escalated to the point of accusations of mismanagement and many acted as if the underutilized “Jewel On Joachim” was sinking into the mire of ruin.
In mid-2013, the Centre for the Living Arts (CLA) ceded control of the 76-year-old money pit back to the city. To their credit, CLA had spearheaded and supervised a $6 million renovation in the previous decade that had the Grand Dame of Mobile showplaces in better shape than she’d been in a generation or more. However CLA was tired of pumping money into the Saenger all while fending off an endless barrage of allegations from the public. It was taxing and counterproductive.
After the bidding process, the rudder was handed to two companies, internationally known SMG (with similar contracts for other city venues) and Huka Entertainment. The latter of that pair is a meteorically successful homegrown booking agency that moved beyond its Azalea City nursery to operate out of New Orleans now.
To listen to some folks, Huka would open the heavens and lead a parade of talent both living and dead across its stage, leaving Mobilians so bedazzled they might forego that fourth drink at the bar in the lobby. I was personally holding out for the Miles Davis and Igor Stravinsky collaboration. I heard Hank Sr. was opening.
But standing in the Saenger this December, I spotted several rough spots, paint curling back from the plaster. Humidity is slowly disrobing the gussied up ol’ gal and it has no good intentions in mind.
Gabriel Tynes / Lagniappe
Historic buildings by their nature are expensive. Those spots where the paint’s peeling for instance: if you allow those to remain, they quickly saturate, become heavier and spread. Prevention translates to energy used on climate control. Lots of Mobilians boast abundant experience with historic structures and can tell you if you don’t stay on top of it, it explodes from “manageable” to “why did I buy this dump.”
SMG maintains its responsibilities only go so far as day-to-day operations, not upkeep. Considering how dormant the theater remains, sounds like they drew the long straw.
Suffice to say, the schedule at the Saenger hasn’t really mushroomed as hoped. The Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) is still based there, filling a couple nights in each of the upcoming months. Those slots almost take care of themselves.
According to the Saenger website, February has seven shows scheduled, three of which are the MSO, one of them a night of Beatles works. The remaining four are a country act, a Bayfest-level blues act, a jam band and a comedian so controversial I’m waiting to see if he’s burned in effigy before or after the bar closes.
March shows one act, Leon Russell. In fairness, they are battling Mardi Gras until March 5.
April has a couple of MSO shows, another jam band and a touring collective review of regional acts that normally play smaller venues.
May thus far just has the usual MSO shows. Overall, this schedule is underwhelming.
“We had hopes the combination of SMG and Huka would make the Saenger a more attractive venue for local artists and organizations and we’d see more nights with the lights running but to date that hasn’t been the case,” Mobile Arts Council Executive Director Bob Burnett said. “We remain hopeful they will come up with a dynamic range of programming that’s going to appeal to the local community.”
The key phrase there is “dynamic range.” For years, Artifice has listened to arguments from various camps as they carp about shows designed for a limited demographic. Past programmers will tell you the Saenger is merely looking to pay the bills and acts on the city’s track record of support and ambivalence.
Now, with the new administration in office and new contracts for the theater, people are expecting more personal satisfaction from the schedule. In fairness, Huka only received the nod back in August and the ink wasn’t on the contract for a couple of months afterward, but moribund years are taking their toll on public expectations. Perhaps they should have bitten their tongues a little on the teasing tidbits of “big shows soon to be announced.”
Add to the nervousness another big change: Saenger doings formerly would have been the purview of the Office of Cultural Development in Government Plaza but that department was axed in a cost-cutting measure from Mayor Sandy Stimpson. The institutions under its wing – the History Museum of Mobile, the Mobile Museum of Art and the Mobile Film Office – all answer directly to Stimpson Chief of Staff Colby Cooper now.
On one hand, it could appear they moved up the food chain. Then again it could be they are just further responsibilities to one of the most harried jobs in Government Plaza. Will Cooper be able to make the time for these cultural players or will they just get lost in an already cluttered desk?
And if the Saenger follows the tattered and unsatisfied path of the Civic Center, who puts on their butt-kicking boots to handle the problems? It’s not on the city’s official flow chart, but since Cooper is dealing with the rest of Cultural Development’s former duties, eyes would naturally turn in his direction.
With the budgetary and infrastructure issues on the city’s plate right now, let’s hope the Chief of Staff has the time to put the nuts and bolts of cultural pursuits on a par with employee pay and storm water management. It sounds like a lot of minutiae to be sitting that far up the totem pole.