During its heyday, Pine Bluff’s Saenger Theater attracted patrons from all across southeast Arkansas by featuring famous stars and stage acts like Harry Houdini and the Ziegfeld Follies and catering to Pine Bluff’s youth with its Saturday “Coke Shows.”
Image Credit: www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
Image Credit: www.facebook.com - Save Saenger - Photos
On November 17, 1924, the Saenger Theater opened in Pine Bluff. It was quickly nicknamed “The Showplace of the South'' as it drew patrons from towns across southeast Arkansas, making Pine Bluff an entertainment hub. It was a “motion picture palace” that cost almost $200,000 (almost $3.6 million in today’s market), seated over 1,500 patrons on its lower floor and segregated balcony (“crow’s nest”), and featured Italian marble floors, ornate plaster work, and a crystal prism chandelier.
During the 1920s, Pine Bluff’s Saenger Theater was one of the over 300 Southern theaters built by the Saenger brothers and designed by Emile Weil, the Saenger Amusement Company’s staff architect. Today it is one of the most historic pieces of architecture in downtown Pine Bluff and one of the few remaining Saenger theaters.
The Theater’s week-long grand opening set new attendance records for the matinee and evening performances. Movie stars like Gloria Swanson, Norma Talmadge, Judy Garland, and controversial producer D. W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation) sat on the front row, along with the theater’s owner Julian Saenger.
During its prime, the Saenger Theater’s full-sized broadway stage featured famous acts like magician Harry Houdini, humorist Will Rogers, composer John Phillips Sousa, and Western star Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. The Ziegfeld Follies musical revue, Al G. Fields Minstrels, and other traveling theatrical groups performed at the Saenger Theater. The Theater also catered to the Pine Bluff communities children by hosting school plays, high school graduations, and dance recitals.
The Saenger Theater was especially memorable to Pine Bluff’s youth because of its Saturday “Coke Shows” where the price of entry was an empty Coke bottle. The theater doors would open to swarms of children holding Coke bottles and ready to watch their favorite show. Many still reminisce about the Saenger Theater’s “Coke Shows” even today.
Unfortunately, in 1975 the Saenger Theater permanently closed its doors as new shopping center theaters took its place, and fewer people visited downtown Pine Bluff. The Theater was first given to non-profit groups Heckatoo Heritage in 1980 and Friends of the Saenger, later known as Old Towne Centre Theater, Inc., in 1996.
Under the management of Old Town Centre Theatres, Inc., some crucial repairs were made. A new roof was installed, volunteers painted the bathrooms, and local prisoners cleaned out the projection booth, orchestra pit, and basement. Five hundred seats were placed downstairs. The orchestra pit was covered, and several sump pumps were installed in the basement to prevent further water damage. A new movie screen was installed and gold curtains donated by the Miss America Pageant were hung in front of it. Another bathroom was installed behind the remodeled concession stand. The front of the building was painted after the old marquee was taken down. Murals were also painted on the front of the building. Even with these repairs, vandalism and water damage took their toll on the theater.
In January 2012, the Saenger Theater was donated to the City of Pine Bluff. In 2012, $15,000 of city funds were allocated for the theater’s repairs, specifically focusing on its leaky roof. In 2013 a grant from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program helped fund the roof repairs. On July 5, 2023, the Pine Bluff City Council approved further restoration efforts to the Saenger Theater, focusing on repairs to the roof and plumbing. According to an estimate provided by Reynolds Construction & Commercial Roofing Co., the roof repairs will cost $46,205. It will also include storm drain piping from the exterior of the building to a manhole.
Kathleen Majewska, an advocate and guardian of the theater as part of Old Town Theatres, Inc. spoke in favor of the resolution at the city council meeting. According to Majewska, a renovated and operational Saenger "would open up a world of possibilities for Pine Bluff. Our beautiful theater, once restored, will help revitalize downtown and be a magnet for tourists."
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard