Mobile’s grandest of arts showplaces is ready to climb back on her feet. All it took was making it to the dry season.
The Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) has been closed since mid-September after moisture seeped into the city-owned building and mold found a favorable home in the plaster. While ServiceMaster Recovery Management began extensive mold remediation work, Saenger staff shuffled the venue’s schedule around the delay.
On Oct. 29, Saenger management company ASM Global posted a statement to social media assuring patrons their estimated goal of a November finish would be met.
“Unfortunately, as with most projects of this scope, challenges and setbacks, along with our team’s number one priority of ensuring the preservation of the 92-year-old theater, did not allow us to finish in the aggressive time frame we had set for ourselves,” the statement read. “However, the silver lining is that the project will be completed on time and we do not anticipate having to relocate or reschedule any further events.”
The Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) season-opener on Sept. 21 and 22 was moved to the Mobile Civic Center on short notice. MSO Director Celia Mann Baehr said Civic Center and Saenger staff gave a “herculean effort” to pull off the last-minute change.
“It’s hard to tell if attendance dipped. I can tell you it was better than in some years when other things were competing,” Baehr.
“ServiceMaster has been fantastic, the project manager has been amazing and the city has been, too. It’s been obvious they’ve made this building a priority and we couldn’t have asked for anything better from them,” Senior Marketing Manager Mary Lee Gay said.
While the work is complete, access will take a little longer. The volume of scaffolding makes the theater the world’s largest indoor jungle gym, currently. It took roughly two weeks to erect it and will likely take the same to extract it.
“We’re talking five stories of scaffolding here,” Saenger Director of Booking Chris Penton said. “There’s probably not any left anywhere else in the state because it’s all here.”
“When you walk in, it knocks the breath out of you. I was just in tears when I saw it,” Gay said.
Penton has been at the Saenger 20 years. He was there when the theater’s “18-month, $8 million renovation” was finally unveiled in 2005, then under management by the nonprofit Center for the Living Arts (CLA).
“That was done with a mix of funding from private, business sector, grants and loans,” Penton said.
After CLA ceded management back to the city in 2013, Penton said a new support base was built from scratch. The nonprofit Friends of the Saenger was formed with membership not only buying perks for supporters — ticket access, amenities, preferred seating — but also funding upkeep and improvements.
“One hundred percent of [Friends funds] goes back into the building. We bought brand new sound consoles, a laser projector and a new light console to run house lights and stage lights from that funding,” Penton said.
He approximated Friends membership at around 300 and said it remains “pretty consistent.”
In the view of this columnist, the Friends program is every bit as vital as city ownership. A similar program in Pensacola has proven a godsend for their Saenger Theatre. Increased membership in Mobile can only work toward upkeep and maintenance of a vulnerable structure.
Hurricane Ivan raked Mobile while the Saenger was shuttered for its most extensive overhaul, then Katrina came calling the following year and others have flooded downtown since. It’s astounding the theater hasn’t been damaged worse than it has to this point.
Since the Saenger is maintained with tax dollars, anything beyond that is vital to our grandest showplace. If everyone who has attended a handful of shows there were to join Friends, it would pay for a lot in a building where a full-blast air conditioner is all that staves off humidity’s deterioration.
Tangentially, among the shows juggled to new dates was the announcement of comedian Louis C.K.’s Jan. 30 slot. The TV and stage star was branded “controversial” in reports owing to 2017 accusations of coercing females to relent to sexual behavior. He subsequently apologized to the women.
Despite robust social media discussion over his upcoming show — most of which seemed defensive on the comedian’s behalf — local reaction hasn’t been outrageous.
“As far as any controversy goes, no. No one has called and asked me about it. No emails either. Tickets are on sale. They’re actually pretty good,” Gay said.
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