Renovations Impact Culture and Business in One Northwest Florida Community
By Kirsten Reed | Photography by Michael Duncan
What if getting a facelift promised to restore a bit of your treasured history and increase your life expectancy? Both hold true for one 82-year-old Pensacola native who plans to undergo such a restoration in order to keep herself center stage in Northwest Florida’s world of arts.
The Pensacola Saenger Theatre has a longstanding relationship with the public. The theatre has proudly donned her theatrical wardrobe over the years, bringing to its audiences countless shows, ballets, operas, and, most of all, memories. Although the wrinkles of time highlight her age, a $14 million renovation will keep her at the top of the cultural world where she is bound to outlive us all with her rich history and timeless beauty.
Born in 1925 during the popularity of Vaudeville, Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre opened to the envy of her peers. Incorporating progressive technology that included electric lights, she boasted beautiful paintings surrounded by glorious Spanish Baroque architecture in a Rococo style. No other theatre could rival her luxurious plush seats in such a beautiful setting as she played host to silent screen classics and Broadway plays.
Designed by New Orleans architect Emile Weil, the theatre was one of several that were opened in Pensacola by the Saenger Amusement Company. Over time, the Saenger evolved from Vaudeville, to cinema, to cultural arts center to meet the needs of the community.
General Manager Doug Lee was present for all of the changes that occurred in recent years. Lee began at the Saenger in 1981 as a truck loader, learning the operations as he worked his way up to general manager in 1994. During the past few years, Lee has witnessed Pensacola’s Grand Lady grow, bringing audiences new adventures and experiences.
When the Saenger was built in 1925, it was cutting edge because it had electric lights. Believe it or not, they weren’t sure if electricity was going to be a trend that lasted, so they went ahead and put in piping for gas lights so they would have it just in case.
Lee added, “In the 1940s, the Saenger was modernized and made capable of doing cinemascope.” For the duration of World War II, newsreels played on the Saenger screen 24 hours a day. She served her patrons well, bringing them the latest news from the war. During this time, all available metal was being used for the war effort. Therefore, when new seats were installed in the downstairs area, they were missing the typical metal springs, a condition that remains to this day.
Lee explained, “Twenty-five years ago, we converted the Saenger from a defunct movie house back into a place for cultural entertainment.” However, 25 years is a long time, and with time comes age. Unfortunately, an aging theatre is limited in terms of being able to stage modern performances and subsequently bring in revenues.
Restoring and renovating the building that is listed on the National Register of Historical Places is complex and expensive. In January, the City of Pensacola awarded the construction project to Dooley Mack Constructors of Sarasota, Florida, who bid $12.3 million for the job. Ground broke in early February, and the renovations are expected to be completed by early 2009. Funding for the renovations is being supported by the City of Pensacola and Escambia County through a local option sales tax which will cover $8 million of the cost.
Additional funding will be provided by a private sector group, Friends of the Saenger, which is the fundraising arm of the Pensacola Saenger Theatre. According to Kathy Summerlin, Development Director for Friends of the Saenger, “Our goal is to fund at least $1 million through Friends of the Saenger. So far we are at about $900,000. We are working hard to get the word out to our community so we can meet our goal.”
The results of survey research revealed that patrons wanted more comfortable seating in the theatre. Therefore, new seats will replace the outdated and uncomfortable existing seats. They will be one to two inches larger and will be more spread out to allow for additional leg room. As a result of the planned improvements, the theatre will lose approximately 200 seats, lowering the total occupancy to slightly more than 1600.
“We have found a historic replica of the original seats and a company who can give the same look but with modern hardware,” said Lee. “It will give our patrons a more comfortable, safer seat.”
Summerlin stated that the Friends of the Saenger is offering members of the community the opportunity to engrave their names in history by purchasing one of the new seats. With a donation of $1,000, patrons will have the option of having a seat engraved with their names or dedicated to honor a loved one.
In addition to new seating, renovation plans include expanding the stage, orchestra pit, and dressing rooms. Other additions include a multi-purpose room and updated technology with a computerized fly system. Although they are creating a new entrance on Intendencia Street, Lee stated that steps are being taken to keep the theatre as historically accurate as possible.
“We have brought in preservation specialists who did a microscopic analysis of all the paint layers and came up with a palette of colors we will use to restore the look from 1925,” explained Lee. “The entire inside, including the decorative paintings and gold leafing, will be restored. All of the elements will really pop!”
Additional bathrooms and improved acoustics and sound equipment will provide patrons with a more enjoyable experience. Further, behind the scenes activities at the Saenger will also be positively impacted by the renovations, enabling the theatre to host bigger and better productions. The renovation will increase the total area of the theatre from 38,000 to 62,000 square feet. In addition, staff offices for the Saenger will now be located in the building, and off-site offices will no longer have to be leased.
One of the most important behind the scenes improvements that will significantly impact the quality and scope of shows is the addition of a covered loading dock and freight elevator. “Because the Saenger is an old Vaudeville-style theatre, it was originally designed to suit much smaller acts that carried their scenery in a trunk,” explained Lee. “Today most shows travel in large trucks, and there is just no place to put scenery between acts.” In order to accommodate larger shows, the staff would schedule longer intermissions, allowing crews more time to move the scenery in from outside. Often times, weather would cause even more problems because the scenery would sit in the rain, and the production crew would have to take time to dry off the set before beginning the second act.
According to Lee, “We missed a lot of bigger shows like Les Misérables because of our space issues. We did Cats, but it was a smaller tour with fewer props, so we weren’t giving our audience the full effect.”
The renovations assure better programming for the future. “These improvements allow us to have shows we couldn’t accommodate before,” Lee asserted. “If we can attract more shows to Pensacola that include major productions, we can definitely influence the future financial picture of the Saenger.”
The expansion of the orchestra pit is also integral to luring larger productions to the theatre. “Our pit was designed for Vaudeville musicians, seating only six to ten players. Now, we are a full arts center, and need at least 20-30 players,” stated Lee. “As it is now, they are almost sitting on each other. If one of the musicians needs to use the bathroom, the entire row has to file out.”
Another benefit of the renovation is additional lobby and meeting space within the theatre to accommodate groups and cast parties. The new entrance on Intendencia Street will provide the theatre with a second lobby, easing congestion in the main lobby. A 3,000-square-foot multi-purpose room will also be added to the theatre for receptions and meetings among members of the Pensacola business community.
Unquestionably, the expansion and renovation of the Saenger Theatre will positively affect the business climate of Pensacola. Rick Harper, Director of the Haas Center for Business Research at the University of West Florida, expects the improvements to Pensacola’s cultural icon to strengthen the business and cultural community.
Harper stated, “There is clearly an economic impact from the Saenger renovation. The three main areas impacted by the renovation are; construction and the jobs that it brings, supporting downtown and its businesses, and strengthening the cultural fabric of Pensacola by providing a quality of life for residents. The Saenger serves as the anchor for downtown and clearly impacts the downtown economy by bringing shows to Pensacola. About 80 percent of revenue for the downtown restaurants comes from show nights and it brings people downtown that would not otherwise come here. But the Saenger is also an important part of the cultural fabric of Pensacola and Northwest Florida, providing cultural entertainment to people who value it.”
The financial impact of the Saenger restoration will also extend beyond the immediate community to the tourism industry. A number of visitors returning to Pensacola cite the variety of cultural events the city offers in addition to the unspoiled beaches as reasons for their visits.
Ed Schroeder, Director of the Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, realizes the importance of the Saenger project. “Pensacola is the only destination along the Gulf Coast that offers what we call the Big Five – theatre, opera, symphony, arts, and a ballet. You can find aspects of those throughout the coastal area, but not all in one community. Pensacola supports all five and they are thriving here. They don’t have separate venues; they share them and the crown jewel is the Saenger Theatre,” says Schroeder.
Schroeder added, “It is one of the classiest theatres in the South, and automatically plays an important role in getting high quality entertainment to our area, plus attracting repeat visitors who value cultural offerings.”
Tourists and locals alike are bound to Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre through the incredible experiences she has provided over the years. Lee recalls one of his most memorable nights at the Saenger 15 years ago when he met Lucille Ball. Ball was there to speak about her career and some of her favorite skits she performed throughout her life.
“It was one of my favorite memories. She really enjoyed herself,” recalls Lee. “She was charming and a class act.”
Although the Saenger closed its doors temporarily following a Beatlemania show in June 2007, there is no doubt that the “Grand Dame” of theatres will return in spectacular grandeur bringing new emotions, laughter, adventures, and memories to last a lifetime for each of her patrons.
“We hope this latest renovation will once again make the Saenger Theatre a competitive force for arts and entertainment,” said Lee.
At 82 years of age, the Saenger remains young and moves toward a brighter and bolder future. She will certainly outlive us all.
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For more information about the Saenger Theatre, please contact Kathy Summerlin at (850) 595-3880 or visit the website at www.friendsofthesaenger.com. If you prefer, you can mail your tax deductible contribution to:
Friends of the Saenger Attn: Renovation P.O. Box 13666 Pensacola, FL 32591