The Saenger Theatre
The Saenger Theatre was constructed in 1923-24 at the corner of West Second at Pine Street to replace an earlier theatre that had burned just after it had been remodeled. The Saenger was yet another theatre in a chain that extended over the Southeastern United States owned by the Saenger Amusement Company headquartered at New Orleans, Louisiana.
The theatre was designed by Emile Weil who planned many other theatres for the chain, including the Saenger Theatre at Texarkana, Texas, now known as the (restored) Perot Theatre. The Saenger Theatre in Pine Bluff was considered a "first class" theatre, such as the kind usually found in much larger cities. The local newspapers bragged that the construction cost was $350,000 - a tremendous expense for that time. The building interior was decorated in rich, dark, 'Old World' European colors of beige, bronze, royal blues and grays. The beautiful plasterwork of the proscenium and ceiling is the true glory of the building. It can seat 1500 people, 800 in the balcony alone.
The Saenger was originally designed to serve a double function - as a vaudeville theatre and as a silent film house. The Broadway-sized stage accommodated the traveling road shows of the day that included vaudeville troupes, 'girlie' shows, circuses and musical reviews.
For years the feature attraction was usually live stage presentations followed by the featured film. A Robert Morton theatre pipe organ, located in the orchestra pit, provided the 'voice' for the films as it accompanied them. For "Presentations Deluxe" the Saenger Orchestra would accompany from the orchestra pit.
By the early 30's film had found its voice in the 'talkies' and the public, weary of the Depression and the summer heat, flocked to the air-conditioned Saenger for relief from both.
Just a few of the famous personalities that visited or appeared on the Saenger stage in its early history includes D.W. Griffith, Norma Talmadge, Tom Mix and his Wonder Horse - Tony, Houdini, John Phillip Sousa's Military Band, the Ziegfeld Follies, George White's Scandals, Will Rodgers, Dale Robertson, and many, many more.
With thousands of military personnel and contractors stationed and working in Pine Bluff at The Arsenal during WWII, the theatre served the public and the war effort by raising money for War Bonds with special stage shows. It of course continued with its earlier and common tradition of having the finest in films as well, with the public kept up to date with the latest in news via Movietone Newsreels.
By the early 1970's shopping centers lured many merchants away from their old downtown base - and leaving the Saenger behind as well. Owners of the facility, Commonwealth Theatres, Inc., made the decision to finally close the theatre in l975. For ten years the Saenger suffered from water damage, neglect and vandalism. In 1985 the building was donated to the Heckatoo Heritage Foundation, a non-profit historical preservation group who began the process of trying to stabilize the structure.
In 1996 the theatre was passed to the Friends of the Saenger, another non-profit group, and eventually to Old Town Theatres Centre, Inc. (along with the 180 seat 1922 Community Theatre, directly across the street), which is dedicated to maintaining the theatres and working toward complete restoration. From 1992 to 1996, OTTC used the Saenger primarily as the main theatre for the Pine Bluff Film Festival.
Because of a lack of funds The Saenger has since been shuttered due to the enormous amount of work that needs to be done to clean, maintain and restore it to working condition. We have endeavored to stem the tide of wear and tear and blatant abuse that before we became involved were common problems. Without a steady flow of money to maintain the building year round, it has become a daunting task - but one which we have done nevertheless with relish and determination. We won't let the building down - nor will it allow us to.