Just this week, things seem a little more familiar at the corner of Conti and Joachim. Maybe it’s the open door, maybe it’s the face behind the glass.
Chris Penton is back at the Saenger Theatre. His duties sound familiar, too.
“Chris was hired as the booking manager on April 14,” General Manager Bob Brazier said. “ I’m just very pleased to have him back at the Saenger. I look forward to him doing a great job for us as a team member of SMG. I’ve known Chris for a while and he can’t be anything but an asset for us at the theater.”
Brazier added Penton will be working with agents to manage his old haunt plus two others, the Mobile Civic Center and Civic Center Theater. He will also deal with potential renters for the facilities.
Penton had worked for the downtown entity for a dozen years before being dismissed by then-Saenger steward Centre for the Living Arts (CLA) in September 2011. The fallout from that move sprinkled down for years afterward.
The return of a man who saw some of the theater’s most successful shows isn’t the only reprise on the playbill. Accessibility has been addressed.
“People wanted someone physically at the Saenger and wanted the box office open to buy tickets during their breaks and during their lunch period,” Brazier said. “They didn’t want to get into their automobiles and go over to the Civic Center to get tickets.”
The GM said the box office will be open weekdays, 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. He said they will monitor activity as well.
The city of Mobile has owned the Saenger since 1999, when CLA was formed to oversee operations. It became the object of love and friction during CLA’s term as managers when they sank $6 million into renovations a decade ago but then led a public discourse on the financial drain the facility became.
Apparently, CLA felt a direction change was warranted and relieved Penton of his duties. The move created sparks with an advisory board filled with local merchants and other entertainment industry figures.
In spring 2013, CLA returned control of the venue to the city citing cost as a chief factor. The city subsequently signed a management contract with SMG and locally born booking agency HUKA Entertainment some months later. SMG was already responsible for managing the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center and the Mobile Civic Center.
Earlier this year, SMG dismissed longtime Civic Center boss Jay Hagerman, leaving Bob Brazier holding the reins for all their facilities. He felt Penton’s return would salve some wounds.
“We were looking at ways to increase the visibility at the Saenger and knowing he had previously been there, we thought he would be an ideal person for that position,” Brazier said.
A new organization, Friends of the Saenger, has been formed with an eye on maintaining the property and requesting membership from the public. The Saenger website spells out membership levels of platinum ($500 donation), gold ($300 donation) and silver ($150 donation) and perks such as advance access to tickets and artist “meet and greets.” That’s as far as it’s gotten with no contact information available.
“The Friends of the Saenger is on the front plate and Chris is going to be working on that along with some other people in the very near future,” Brazier said. “We hope to have it up and running within the next month.”
Dealing with three facilities is enough trouble for one man. That Penton would be willing to have his hands in a patrons support group would seem a whole other reason to reach for the aspirin bottle in and of itself.
“Well, Chris is a man who loves headaches and the thing with him is he’s a team player and wants to help in any way he can so he will certainly be a part of Friends of the Saenger,” Brazier said. “Our corporate offices now are putting this together. We’ll know more in the coming weeks.”
From the Artifice perspective, this looks to be a good decision for not only the Saenger, but the other venues and downtown as a whole. Penton knows the market and the proven pattern of mainstream blues, country and rock that puts tails in seats.
The quick turnaround in re-opening the Saenger box office also looks great. Less than a year after shutting it down, SMG showed they have their ear to the ground with local moods and patterns. That kind of responsiveness seems commercially sound.
When poring over Saenger records as part of a Lagniappe cover story I penned in August of 2012, it was apparent that though they weren’t all sell-outs, the Saenger was active far more in the previous decade than it has been since. While part of that scenario is certainly the economic malaise of the last few years, most of it is just scheduling.
But more than the logical aspects, Penton’s return is also an adroit move PR-wise. He’s well liked in these parts and humans are emotional creatures. We’re also fond of our habits, probably nobody more so than Mobilians, and seeing things return to a familiar pattern will provide comfort in certain quarters.
Now the only missing component would be feet on the sidewalks. It will take more than the “same ol’ same ol’” to get there this time, though.