Even in its state of disrepair, hints of The Saenger Theatre’s original grandeur and architectural significance shine through. Opened on November 17, 1924, The Saenger Theatre was called “The Showplace of the South.”
The Saenger Theatre wasn’t a one-off. It was part of a 300-theater chain that the Saenger brothers built in the South during the 1920s. The theater in Pine Bluff is one of just a few Saenger movie palaces still standing.
It all started in 1912 with a man named O. C. Hauber, who converted an old store building he owned into the Hauber Theater. The Hauber changed hands twice before becoming The Saenger, and this original structure burned to the ground when a lit candle had an unfortunate encounter with an open gas line.
The Saenger was rebuilt by architect Emile Weil, who constructed many other Saenger Theatres in the Southeast. At a cost of almost $200,000, an astronomical sum for the time, The Saenger Theatre was a Classical Revival brick building with an ornate interior featuring 1,500 seats on the lower floor and the balcony, marble floors, a crystal and prism chandelier, and a full-sized Broadway stage.
The initial opening of the magnificently rebuilt Saenger was a hotly anticipated event throughout southeast Arkansas. The theater’s week-long grand opening set attendance records and stars like Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, and producer D. W. Griffith were a part of the festivities.
Audiences regularly filled the theater’s 1,600 seats to watch performances by Harry Houdini, Will Rogers and John Phillips Sousa, as well as Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger. Al G. Fields Minstrels, Ziegfeld Follies, and other traveling theatrical groups performed at The Saenger Theatre. There were children’s shows on Saturdays, with the price of admission being an empty Coke bottle. School plays, high school graduations, and dance recitals were also held there. During the Jim Crow era, white patrons sat in front of the balcony, while African Americans entered by the side door, which led to the very top of the balcony.
What led to the long decline and eventual closure of The Saenger? Blame it on demographics. Sparkling new multiplex theaters in shopping centers on the outskirts of town lured people away from downtowns across the country. The loss hit Pine Bluff especially hard.
As The Saenger sunk deeper into disrepair, a succession of non-profit groups attempted to save it. In 1980, ownership transferred to a group called Heckatoo Heritage and in 1996, about a year after the theater was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, ownership was transferred to Friends of The Saenger, now known as Old Towne Centre Theatres, Inc. This group made substantial renovations, including a new roof and many improvements to the interior, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to what was needed.
In January 2012, Old Towne Centre Theatres, Inc. donated The Saenger Theatre to the City of Pine Bluff. The 2012 budget allocated $15,000 of city funds (although not tax money) for repairs to the structure, especially on its leaking roof. A 2013 grant from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program aided in paying for repairs to the roof.
These repairs were only a fraction of what was needed, so it will probably be a while before The Saenger is ready to host its next performance. In the meantime, the next time you’re in downtown Pine Bluff, why not pause to pay homage to The Saenger Theatre and its place in Pine Bluff history. Maybe someday soon it will be restored to its former glory.
Sources: Abandoned Arkansas, Encyclopedia of Arkansas