The Saenger Theatre
The 2,000-seat Saenger Theatre first opened in 1927, part of a chain of theatres that were built throughout the South and in Cuba and Puerto Rico by J.H. and A.D. Saenger of New Orleans. Designed by New Orleans architect Emile Weil, the French Renaissance-style theatre featured mythological décor around a sea motif, and was one of the City’s first air-conditioned buildings. Entertainment included vaudeville shows, silent movies, and dramatic and musical productions, as well as live appearances by stars such as Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, and Mary Martin.
In 1971, the Saenger was purchased by the University of South Alabama to save it from demolition, and was later purchased by the City of Mobile in 1999. In 2000, the City requested the CLA to step in as the operating organization of the theatre. The CLA raised $6 million in private funds to restore the theatre as a year-round performing arts center, featuring about 30 CLA events annually, as well as additional events by other presenting organizations. The newly renovated Saenger opened in January 2005, with a sold-out performance by Alison Krauss and Union Station. Other programming highlights include performances by Norah Jones (2010), Neil Young (2010), Ray LaMontagne and Levon Helm (2010), Wilco (2011), Dance Theatre of Harlem (2012), and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis (2012). The CLA also presents two annual film series at the Saenger, showing films ranging from Hollywood classics to award-winning documentaries and independents, many of which are accompanied by Q & A discussions with filmmakers and scholars.
The first CLA exhibitions were installed in the window boxes of the Saenger Theatre as part of the “Art Off Centre” series, which ran from 2001 through 2004. In 2003, the Press-Register, Mobile’s daily newspaper, donated its downtown office space to the CLA. Concurrent with the $6 million campaign to renovate the Saenger, the CLA raised an additional $6.2 million to convert the former Press-Register building into Space 301, an art center that includes a 16,000 SF gallery, a studio space for educational classes and programs, and a 180-seat, 2,300 SF terrace used for film screenings, community events, and second stage performances. Space 301 opened to the public in 2003.
In 2011, under the leadership of new Executive Director Robert L. Sain, the CLA launched its new quest of community engagement through the arts. The first two annual cultural initiatives under the CLA’s new vision of unprecedented community engagement are The Memory Project (April—December 2012) and The Futures Project(April—December 2013).