Renovated Saenger ready to reopen Friday

Dr. Barry Henry shared a swath of the theater’s original carpet from his personal collection to ensure the company replicating it would get it just right. A Royal Street antiques shop gave the city a special deal on the chandeliers that once adorned the playhouse’s entrance walkway.

A local restaurant is offering to usher its patrons, by charter bus, to the theater for post-dinner shows.

Ever since the marquee went dark following Hurricane Katrina, anticipation has been high for the reopening of the venerable Saenger Theatre on Friday.

“It just highlights the fact that New Orleanians are excited about bringing this theater back,” said Cindy Connick, executive director of the Canal Street Development Corp., the city agency in charge of the project. “They want to be a part of it.”

With just days left to go before doors open for a performance by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the city is keeping the renovated theater under lock and key until a Friday morning unveiling.

Construction crews are still putting the finishing touches on the renovation that has been eight years in the making. This week brought final fittings of the marquee, sidewalk cleaning and other last-minute projects.

The Saenger has been undergoing construction since early 2012, both to undo the destruction brought by Katrina’s floodwaters and to revitalize and modernize the 86-year-old building.

The 2005 storm tore holes in the theater’s roof and also ushered 16 inches of water onto its street-level stage.

The theater’s orchestra-level seating was swamped with up to 4 feet of water. The basement, where mechanical and electrical systems were stored, was inundated.

The water sat for two months, destroying carpets, elevators, walls, chairs and anything else it covered before it could be pumped out.

“We worked to stabilize it as much as we could,” said David Anderson, president and CEO of ACE Theatrical Group. “We treated it for fungus and mildew and (microorganisms) so it would not be a health hazard to walk in it.”

The theater sat largely untouched until last year as the city, state and federal government cobbled together a financing package to begin redevelopment.

The $52 million restoration is a joint project of the city, the Canal Street Development Corp. and ACE, which will manage the 2,613-seat theater.

The Saenger that opens to eager New Orleanians on Friday is designed to look much the way it did on opening night in 1927, before renovations in the 1960s, Anderson said.

The carpet that decorated the theater more than eight decades ago has been replicated. Nine of the building’s 11 original chandeliers, which were discovered at the French Antique Shop on Royal Street, have been put back in place.

The Saenger will open to almost triple the number of season ticket holders it had during the 2004-2005 season, Anderson said.

“The Broadway audience has been waiting for the Saenger to come back all this time,” he said. “Likewise the Broadway industry has been waiting for the Saenger.”

The “Broadway in New Orleans” series of touring shows will open Oct. 15 with “The Book of Mormon,” the hit musical comedy from the creators of the animated sitcom “South Park.”

Anderson said the Saenger anticipates 300,000 customers each year.

The changes that theatergoers are least likely to notice were done with the intention of attracting Broadway plays.

For example, the short stretch of Iberville Street between Basin and North Rampart streets was closed to traffic so that the Saenger’s stage could be made 16 feet deeper.

The loading area and dressing rooms also were expanded to accommodate larger productions that couldn’t have played at the theater until now.

Theater patrons will likely notice the addition of more restrooms and an upgraded concession area. They were added to create an environment that will make people want to linger, Anderson said.

“We want people to come early,” he said. “We want them to relax and enjoy themselves. The theater is spectacular, and we want people to walk around and look at it.”