Don’t light the candles or hang the streamers just yet. Before Mobile’s most venerated arts institution celebrates an imminent and monumental birthday, they need more hands on deck.
“The Friends of the Saenger is designed to help make capital improvements to the Saenger and help market it not for any specific concerts but just generally as a place for Mobile patrons to go see primarily musical events,” Robert McGinley told Artifice. A local attorney, McGinley has chaired the support group’s board through its vital beginning stages and inertia has been hard to break.
“We just got our nonprofit status about a year ago,” McGinley said. “We figure our best opportunity to find Friends of the Saenger members is at Saenger events. We don’t have enough capacity or manpower right now to attend every event so we’re trying to work with Chris (Penton, Saenger booking manager) to figure out perhaps some of the ones that have the potential to have the higher volume of potential members.”
In fewer than 24 months, the Saenger Theatre will turn 90. That represents more than four generations of Mobilians who’ve enjoyed the wide selection of artistic endeavors in our downtown Grand Dame.
When it opened on Jan. 19, 1927, the Saenger culminated a year’s construction at a cost of roughly $500,000 — or about $6.7 million in 2015 dollars — and it was the port town’s grandest showplace. Utilizing mythological motifs in a French Renaissance style, it survived decades of depression and war, silent movies and vaudeville, dramatic and musical productions and even the first America’s Junior Miss pageant.
By 1970, the theater had fallen on rough times so the University of South Alabama rescued it from demolition. In 1999, the city of Mobile assumed ownership then assigned management to the Centre for Living Arts (CLA) and they revamped the 1,921-seat showplace over the next decade at a cost of approximately $6 million.
Various chores were handled piecemeal after the initial big task. The $100,000 restoration of the chandelier in 2012 was the last of those major duties.
On the verge of their own restructuring and citing an average $331,000 annual loss from running the Jazz Age venue, CLA returned the Saenger to the city in spring of 2013. Months later, SMG was contracted for management but as they told Artifice last year, the regular upkeep isn’t their responsibility.
Maintenance is costly as Mobile’s notorious humidity is hard on older buildings of wood and plaster. Saturation, warping and corrosion all create slow demolition when left unchecked. That necessitates a near-constant flow of air conditioning and when the structure is the size of the Saenger, the electric bills are monstrous.
“The not-for-profit corporation is organized … to sustain the city of Mobile’s historic Saenger Theatre and to preserve it as an active venue for the performing arts and to support the performing arts activities of the Saenger Theatre,” the Friends organizing paperwork states. Noble purposes, but slim ranks.
“Our numbers are low and we’re building from scratch,” McGinley said, revealing a current membership of just 74 individuals. “We need to build those but don’t have any obvious paths to that.”
Owing to McGinley’s presence on the Mobile Symphony Orchestra’s (MSO) board and their regular usage of the Saenger as their “home,” he asked if the Friends could implement the MSO database of supporters. He also reached out to CLA, now Alabama Center for Contemporary Arts (ACAC) to access the contact information they hold. Neither was forthcoming.
“It’s understandable,” McGinley said. “You know the symphony and (ACAC) and other organizations are pretty tight on money so if I go to the symphony and say ‘hey give us your donor list; we’re going to ask them for $500,’ there’s going to be hesitation with any organization knowing primarily we’re going to ask them for money.”
The current chair said they are still talking with ACAC to see if anything can be worked out and hopes to approach MSO again. He said no overtures had been made to the list of arts supporters held by Mobile Arts Council, an umbrella organization with a stated goal of facilitating cultural endeavors.
McGinley added that tax-deductible Friends memberships run from $500 to $150 and carry advance notice of shows and access to tickets. The listing of levels and perks is available at mobilesaenger.com.
The Saenger deserves all the love and support we can muster. To set our cultural table without her is like Thanksgiving without an elder family member: the food might actually be the same, but nothing seems quite right.