Saenger Theatre
Hattiesburg, Mississippi

201 Forrest Street
Opened: November 27, 1929
1500 seats
Architect: Emile Weil

 

 

The Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg ready to open, from the Hattiesburg American

The Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, shortly before opening day



 

The Hattiesburg Saenger Theatre opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1929. It was architect Emile Weil's last Saenger Theatre - the Saenger chain had been sold to Publix while the theatre was under construction.

The theatre opened with its advertising referring to it as "A Publix Theatre", instead of the usual "One of the Saenger Theatres" mentions. The founding Saenger brothers & organization received little mention. The newspaper spread focused on the heads of Paramount's Publx theatre chain: Adolfph Zukor, head of Paramount; Sam Katz, formerly with the Chicago Balaban & Katz theatre chain which was absorbed by Publix, Katz landing in the Paramount theatre arm as president of Publix; and E. V. Richards, formerly general manager of Saenger Theatres, Inc., landing the job of general manager of Publix theatres.

 

 


Opening day newspaper ad for the Hattiesburg Saenger Theatre. 1: Sam Katz, president of Publix Theatres, Inc.; 2: Adolph Zukor, president of Paramount-Famous-Lasky; 3: Walter P. Richardson, district manager of Publix, with offices in New Orleans; 4: George Goethals, manager of the new Saenger in Hattiesburg; 5: E. V. Richards, general manager of the Publix chain; 6: R. J. O'Donnell, division manager for the Publix-Saenger circuit; 7: C. B. Stiff, assistant division director of the southeastern circuit; (lower center) pen sketch of the new Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg.


 
 

The Hattiesburg Saenger Theatre was another marker of a significant change in theatre-going & exhibition. The 1917 Saenger's Strand in New Orleans represented the beginning of movie palace presentation & broader public acceptance of moviegoing; the 1925 Saenger- Ehrlich Strand Theatre in New Orleans represented the general local theatrical shift from live shows to movies, & the 1929 Hattiesburg Saenger represented the end of live music and involved stage presentations attached to movies in large theatres.

The theatre's design included facilities for stage presentations, an orchestra pit, a theatre organ, & facilities for the latest technical requirement of movie theatres, presentation of talking movies: acoustical design, construction materials to suit amplified sound & equipment for presenting both Movietone & Vitaphone talking picture formats. By opening day, movie theatre programs had so completely switched to films alone that the organ installation was not even completed, & the opening night program was touted as an "all-feature" program: talkie comedy short "The Fatal Forceps", a sing-along short film, & the Paramount talking picture "Sweetie".

Emile Weil was ending his architectural business, & with his last theatre for the Saenger chain, he completed an array of work featuring all the most famous styles of the movie palace era: Adamesqe, eclectic, atmospheric, & finally with the Hattiesburg Saenger Theatre, Art Deco. Many operators of theaters that have elaborate decoration will refer to it as "art deco", but Art Deco was a specific style relying less on applied ornamentation than integrated design, emphasizing geometric forms & utilizing materials such as metal, glass, & ceramics. Weil's Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg was Deco from the front facade's inset complex geometric design of tile & glass to the simplified, stylized interior pieces relying on neutral colors and sharp shapes to interact with colored lighting to produce eye-catching surfaces with shapes defined & set off by colored shadows & highlights.


Emile Weil's Art Deco theatre had some of its decoration obscured through the years, but it could still be seen peeking out here & there. Over the years, the theatre lost the urn finials from its facade, and decorative borders in the auditorium were painted over.


 
 
Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg - spring, 1999
Hattiesburg Saenger Theatre, spring, 1999, during renovation work
 
 
Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, 2009, photo by Barry Henry
Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, 2009, vertical sign & urn finials once again on the exterior.
Photo by Barry Henry
 
Photo of the house left organ grille by Barry Henry, 2009
Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, 2009, organ grille.
Photo by Barry Henry
 
 
 

Centre Chandelier In Big Auditorium Weighs Over a Ton

  The huge 2,200 pound chandelier which hangs from the vaulted ceiling of the main auditorium in the new Saenger Theater here is one of the most interesting features in the playhouse.
  It is suspended by a special crane concealed in the attic which will lower the huge fixture for cleaning and changing of globes.
  There are two banks of lights in the chandelier, which is of ground glass with dull nickel and bronze fittings. The fixture is about 10 feet high and 8 feet in diameter,at its widest point. Made in octagonal shape, it tapers from a small lower section in three banks to its largest section.
  With 48 colored lamps on the bright circuit and 15 globes on the dim circuit, the huge fixture can flood the theater with bright light or be reduced to a dim glow when the picture is in progress. It harmonizes in detail with the smaller chandeliers in the building and with the small wall lights.

Charming Color Scheme Gives Rich, Restful Air To New Publix Theatre

Comfort is Not Sacrificed for Garish Display, and Good Taste Predominates

  Beauty -- simple and impressive -- is embodied in the decoration of the new Saenger Theater here.
  Dignity and charm in the color scheme, lighting fixtures and fittings of Hattiesburg's new play house are a pleasant contrast to the gaudy and garish display which some theater builders feel they must indulge in to properly impress the public. The lines in the new "art moderne" trend in interior decoration gives a pleasing effect of richness and comfort. Quality and good taste are evident in every bit of interior work in what many consider the finest playhouse of its size in the South.
  From the time one enters the lobby with its floors of flowered tile in an unglazed finish and its walls of soft ivory-toned stippled plastering until one sits down in a bright theater chair with a blue leather back and red seat, an impression of restrained yet effective decoration is intensified with each glimpse of the theater interior.

Subdued Colors

The foyer, with the floor carpeted in dark blue with a large figured design in dull gold, has walls of soft Tiffany finish -- a rough textured plaster of pastel shades of brown, buff and red subdued by a dash of dull green and blue. Stairways lead up from each side to the balcony above. The stairways, carpeted with the same material used in the foyer, are flanked by wrought iron railings set in the walls.
  In the foyer one gets his first glimpse of the beautiful lighting fixtures. Modernistic and design, they are made of a heavy ground glass trimmed with plain dull nickel metal fittings. Several pieces of the glass placed one behind the other soften the light, lend a warm glow to the walls. Tinted lights of rose and blue are interspersed for variety in the interior lighting effects.
  As one enters the main auditorium, there is an impression of vastness unusual in a theater no larger than the new Saenger. A short balcony which extends only a few feet past the rear seats produces the effect. In addition to contributing to the beauty of the building, this small extension to the balcony adds materially to the effectiveness of sound and talking pictures. In fact, the short balcony was constructed so that sound could penetrate to the rear of the auditorium. The walls of the theater proper are made of a special acoustical plaster.

Utility Plus Beauty

  Utility combined with beauty is the keynote of the theater building. Specially constructed for sound pictures, Publix officials declare theat the new theater, in addition to being the finest of their smaller houses, will be the best playhouse in either Mississippi or Louisiana from the standpoint of faithful reproduction of music and the human voice.
  The vaulted ceiling of the theater, which is 65 feet above the sloping floor, bears the same finish as the walls. There is a wide decorative border which carries out the same color scheme and design as the friezes in the foyer and in the main auditorium.
  A huge chandelier 10 feet high and 8 feet across hangs from the two smaller chandeliers in the balcony, and two others of slightly different design near the stage serve to light the theater when a performance is not in progress. These fixtures harmonize with the small wall lights and three dome lights under the balcony. All are of a modernistic design, with angles and straight lines employed rather than curves.
  The walls of the auditorium are panelled in the same finish as the rest of the interior, and these divisions are intensified by a moulding of dull gold several inches from the flat fluted columns and decorative frieze which form a border for each panel.

Exquisite Hand Work

  The only portion of the theater where the decoration becomes lavish is on the proscenium walls, which taper from the full width of the auditorium to form an appropriate setting for the stage. In the walls are set huge wrought iron grills which hide the organ pipes, and smaller grills which conceal part of the large heat radiation surface.
  Here perhaps, is the most significant indication of the change in theater construction. Instead of the classic masks of "Comedy" and "Tragedy" usually used in playhouse decoration, are faces representing the two conflicting emotion, which form the center of effective straight line decoration.
  A huge curtain of wine red, flecked with silver, forms the final touch in a beautiful theater. The footlights are sunk in the stage floor at such an angle as to be entirely invisible from even the front row seats.
  One unique feature of the auditorium is the arrangement of the seats on a sloping floor so that every chair affords a clear and unobstructed view of the screen. The person in front, even if that person happens to be a fat lady who goes in for floppy hats, can't keep you from seeing the show since the seats are staggered to provide a clear view of the stage. Shoulder to shoulder courting, not generally done except on the back row, is about the only thing that would force a patron of the new Saenger to crane his neck in order to see the screen.
  Backstage, the romantic side of theatrical life which few of the cash customers get to see, is quite as interesting as the theater auditorium itself. A huge rigging loft high above the stage provides ample facilities for handling the sets of even the most elaborately staged road show or revue, and the huge switchboard on the left of the stage which controls every light in the theater is quite worth a story itself.
  The dressing rooms, placed one above the other in the rear of the building to the right of the stage, are large and comfortable. Rose and orange form the color scheme for the rooms where the chorines will don school girl complexion. On the side of each dressing room is a table for makeup and plenty of light so the girls may get their lips on straight.
  A maple "dancers' strip" is one feature of the stage which probably no spectator will notice. The small strip is laid at right angles to the rest of the flooring and is designed to give a sure footing.

No Detail Slighted

  Painstaking attention to details is evident throughout the entire playhouse. The builders hardware and fitting on all exit doors are of a dull brass finish which harmonize with the rest of the interior decoration scheme. The exit doors are placed where the walls begin to taper toward the stage and hence are visible to most of the audience. Even the design of the automatic sprinklers which stud the ceiling as protection against fire is such that none but the most observant will even notice those necessary but often unsightly bits of metal.
  A final touch is the painting of the concrete floors, in which the seats are set, in a dark maroon color to match the coloring of the curtain and to harmonize with the finish of the walls and ceiling. Thick carpets of the same design and material as those used in the foyer are laid in the aisles between the seat sections.

-- Hattiesburg American, 11/27/1929

 

ABC Interstate Theatres donated the building in 1974 to the City of Hattiesburg, which planned to use the theatre as a performing arts center under the name of the Saenger Center. For a few years the theatre was unused, & the organ was sold. In 1978, the City of Hattiesburg began a modest renovation program, and the theatre was put back into condition for use as a performing arts center. Changes to the theatre at the time included structural repairs, simplification of the interior decoration scheme, conversion of storefront commercial areas to gallery space, & reinstallation of the original theatre organ. The theater was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in May of 1979.

In 1999, the City of Hattiesburg closed the theatre & began an extensive renovation campaign.

Reproductions of the original urn finials from the facade were created, along with a vertical sign similar to the original. The streetfront commercial spaces attached to the theatre were remodeled and integrated as additional lobby & restroom space.

 


  Photo of the organ console by Barry Henry, 2009  

Listen to the Robert Morton theatre organ in the Saenger Theatre, Hattiesburg-- Click here!

The Robert Morton theatre organ in Hattiesburg's Saenger Theatre is quite a show business survivor. It's also been on very close terms with the foremost organ technicians in the area from the date of its arrival.

 

Originally constructed for & installed in the Hattiesburg's Strand Theatre in 1927, the organ played overtures & accompanied silent films. In 1929, the organ was moved by Robert Morton Co. regional installer Roy Gimple & assistant Bob McRaney to the newly-opened Saenger Theatre a few blocks away. At the Saenger Theatre, the organ performed the usual functions of theatre organs in the talkie era: overtures & singalongs. It was also a mainstay of radio station WPFB's Hub Breakfast Limited morning program which was broadcast from the theatre. Organist for the radio program was Mississippi radio pioneer Bob McRaney, who just coincidentally had assisted in moving the organ from the Strand Theatre to the Saenger theatre.

 

By 1972, the organ had fallen into disuse & had suffered some damage. It was bought from the theatre by Frank Evans, a later business partner with Roy Gimple, for installation in the Evans residence. In 1980, Bob McRaney negotiated the sale of the organ from Frank Evans back to the Saenger Theatre, which had by then been bought by the city of Hattiesburg.

The organ came back to its second home in 1981. It was a little beefier than when it left. Originally a two manual, six rank organ, Evans expanded it to a three manual, eight rank instrument, & additional lower octaves were added during the re-installation in the theatre (a 16' Robert Morton Tuba extension to the Trumpet rank from Frank Evans, & a 16' Wurlitzer Diaphone extension to the Diapason from organ technician Don Mays.

 
Robert Morton theatre organ
Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
 1927  1981
Two manual console Three manual console
(Manual added in original large shell)
16 Tibia  (left) 16 Tibia
8 Vox  (left) 8 Vox
8 Violin I  (left) 8 Violin I
8 Violin II  (left) 8 Violin II
8 Diapason  (right) 16 Diapason
(16' Wurliter Diaphone extension added)
8 Trumpet  (right) 16 Trumpet
(16' Robert Morton Tuba extension added)
  8 Flute
  8 Clarinet
 

 

Other information:

  Saenger Theatre, official website of the Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, MS  
  Robert Morton organ in the Hattiesburg Saenger Center, a page showing the re-installation of the Hattiesburg Saenger's organ in 1978  

 

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