On a refurbished and modernized stage, surrounded by painstakingly recreated 1920s architecture and before a crowd of starstruck fans, the Saenger Theatre reintroduced herself to New Orleans in dramatic fashion Friday after a more than eight-year absence.
A 3-foot-tall display of dancing lights bearing the venerable auditorium’s name lit up the darkened stage to applause. The message was clear: Showbiz has returned to the Saenger.
“Eight years ago, this theater, like everything else in our lives, got knocked to its knees,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “And one of the things that we all did collectively together is we decided that we were not going to let it go. We also decided that we were not going to build it back like it was.”
The Saenger was designed in 1927 by New Orleans architect Emile Weil in the style of Italian Renaissance architecture. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hurricane Katrina tore holes in the roof, and the flooding that followed the storm ushered 16 inches of water onto its street-level stage. As much as 4 feet swamped the theater’s orchestra level. The basement, where mechanical and electrical systems were stored, was inundated.
The water sat for two months before it could be pumped out.
The theater has been undergoing renovation since early 2012, both to undo the destruction wrought by Katrina and to revitalize and update the 86-year-old building.
Landrieu, like several other speakers at Friday’s grand unveiling, opened his remarks with “wow.”
The theater has been restored to look as it did when it opened to great fanfare in 1927 as a showcase for silent films. Carpets, chandeliers and the original paint scheme all have been replicated. However, the planetarium-like star display on the auditorium’s ceiling has brand-new fiber optic technology.
A 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.
More restrooms and an upgraded concession area were ready to greet patrons at Friday’s opening night performance by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
“Take a deep breath and look up and just take in for a second where you are and what you’re seeing,” Landrieu said. “Because it is the best symbol of resurrection, redemption and resilience, of building a city, not back the way she was, but the way she should have always been.”
The theater’s $52 million restoration was carried out through a public-private partnership among the city, the public-benefit Canal Street Development Corp. and ACE Theatrical Group, which will manage the 2,613-seat venue.
Several years of complicated financial deals — cobbling together new market tax credits, federal and state historic restoration tax credits, Broadway South tax credits, a sales tax rebate and private equity — were required to pay for the restoration.
“That was just an example of what is not often seen in government or certainly not seen in government enough,” state Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said. “That’s being nimble enough and creative enough to sit down at the table with partners you may not work with everyday, with a common goal for the good of the state of Louisiana, for the good of the city.”
With the reopening of the playhouse came a wave of remembrances.
A 5-year-old Jackie Clarkson saw her first theatrical production, “The Nutcracker,” from one of the theater’s seats.
“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” the City Council president said. “Everybody still alive in this city of any age, living anywhere in the metropolitan, perhaps in all of Louisiana and around the country, still remembers the first time they walked into this gorgeous theater.”
When the Saenger began showing cinema classics, Councilwoman Karen Gisleson Palmer said, she was a frequent patron, along with her father and sisters.
Palmer said she watched Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s doomed romance unfold in the movie “Casablanca” under the theater’s starry sky.
In addition to comedy shows and musical concerts, the Saenger will host six Broadway plays this season, beginning Oct. 15 with a two-week run of “The Book of Mormon.” Movies-turned-musicals “Ghost” and “Sister Act,” along with Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” “Memphis” and “War Horse,” will also play the theater through May.
Lauren Reid, president of Broadway Across America, a producer and presenter of live touring productions, said the refurbished Saenger rivals the best playhouses in New York and across the country.
“We are excited that Broadway is back at the Saenger Theatre,” said Reid, whose company operates in 43 cities. “The city is already universally known for its food and its culture and its entertainment. You attract visitors from across the world, and now it’s truly a destination for Broadway’s best.”