Florentine Splendor: Why the Saenger Theatre is of Paramount Importance

Florentine Splendor: Why the Saenger Theatre is of Paramount Importance

By Joey Kent

NOT QUITE FIVE YEARS AGO, the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street reopened after a $53 million restoration, its opulent marquee shining forth as a beacon of hope in the post-Katrina era. Once more, it fulfilled the promise of its creator, Julian Saenger, as “an evidence of our faith both in the amusement-loving public and in the commercial future of the city.” As Hollywood struggles to find its footing amid the latest torrent of scandal, it is worth noting that the movie industry in this country might look very different today were it not for the vision of the Saenger Amusement Company of New Orleans. Allow me to elaborate.

Our story begins in 1890. Rabbi Israel Saenger has just moved his family from Norfolk, Virginia, to Shreveport and assumed the reins of the B’nai Zion congregation. His seventeen-year-old son, Julian, takes a job as a clerk for a local druggist and begins pharmacy studies with his younger brother, Abraham. Within five years, the two enterprising young men establish the Saenger Brothers Drug Company on Milam Street, among the first “open all night” drugstores in America. Julian and Abe run a successful business, and the soda fountain is soon a favorite gathering spot for area teenagers.

Fast forward ten years. In a corner of the drugstore sits a small amusement machine, called a kinetescope or penny arcade, through which viewers can watch short visual displays of still images flashed in rapid succession for the price of one penny. The huge popularity of this early movie machine is not lost on the brothers, and they begin to consider possibilities in the entertainment industry. In 1911, they open a vaudeville theater on the second floor of the drug store. The following year, the two meet and befriend E.V. Richards Jr., a former vaudeville performer who sells them on the latest concept of motion picture houses. The Saenger Amusement Company is officially chartered by summertime with Julian and Abe in partnership with their brother-in-law, L.M. Ash, and the enthusiastic Richards, who oversees the conversion of the Saenger Theatre to this new medium and finds a lifelong friend in Julian.

One by one, the Saenger concern acquires the theaters of Shreveport that suffer and fall under the demise of vaudeville. Through a series of new partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, Julian and E.V. rapidly expand the company and leave the drug store in the capable hands of Abe, who is content to sit back and watch the movie money pour in.

In 1917, the Saenger Amusement Company joins forces with Herman Fichtenberg and his New Orleans-based theater chain, resulting in the ownership or control of 35 movie houses in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Florida. By virtue of this merger, the Saenger operation becomes the largest in the South, and New Orleans is proclaimed in the trades as “the most important exhibiting center outside of New York.” The newly expanded enterprise takes up residence in our city at 1401 Tulane Avenue (now part of Tulane Medical Center), and the Saengers’ quarter-million-dollar Strand Theater is born on the fourth of July.

With the death of his father the following year, Julian Saenger relocates from Shreveport to New Orleans, and the real expansion begins. Saenger and Richards are hailed as major players in the movie industry as offices expand to New York and Hollywood and movie houses are acquired or built throughout the South, more than doubling their holdings to 75 by the dawn of the Roaring Twenties.

In April 1921, the rumor mill of Hollywood is full of speculation as to the source of capital funding for a $3 million building spree announced by Julian Saenger and reported in the April 8 issue of Variety. Plans are unveiled for a new $800,000 theater in Shreveport, and one each in Texarkana, Monroe and Pensacola. Another state is added to their network as a venue for Arkansas is confirmed. Topping this impressive list is the flagship of the Saenger chain, its namesake theater to be built on fifty feet of Canal Street frontage in New Orleans at a cost in excess of $1 million.
“That’s a lot of money,” Variety observes, “and has everybody South rubbing eyes and making all sorts of guesses.” When asked where all the coin is coming from, Julian Saenger smiles knowingly and replies, “We never worry about money. It is always at our command.”

The Saenger Theatre in New Orleans would take nearly six years to finally come to fruition—at more than twice the stated budget. The result was described at the time as “a Florentine Splendor,” referring to the theater’s spectacular interior designed to look like an ornate Italian courtyard.

The Texarkana Saenger (now the Perot Theater) opens in November 1924, followed by a Saenger in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The Pensacola Saenger opens in April 1925, followed by Shreveport’s Strand Theatre a few months later on the Fourth of July weekend. All are hailed in their time as masterpieces of architecture and accommodation—and each has been spared the wrecking ball in the modern era, carefully restored to stand as great show palaces for their respective communities.

As the 1920s roar to a close, the Saenger chain of motion picture theaters grows to number 320 at locations in twelve southern states from North Carolina to New Mexico, as well as Cuba, Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica. Once more, the rumor mill swings into action as talk of the acquisition of the Saenger Amusement Company becomes daily industry fodder. As much as Julian Saenger enjoys the role of movie mogul, he is always quick to say “everything has its price.” In August 1929, the price turns out to be just over $10 million dollars, well shy of his “buy it now” price of $15 million, but still representing the largest financial deal of its kind in motion picture history to that date.

Paramount Pictures, in partnership with Publix Theaters, inks the deal with Saenger mid-month, and the August 29 issue of Variety reports “Julian and Abe Saenger, who lately disposed of their Saenger Circuit stock holdings to Publix and retired from the show business, intend to engage in the manufacture of airplanes, it is said.” E.V. Richards, an aspiring pilot, moves over to Paramount-Publix to administer the Saenger chain but tells Variety he is planning on partnering with the Saengers once more in their new venture. Less than two months later, however, the stock market crash changes everything for all parties concerned and the nation at large.

In 1932, like so many great companies in America, Paramount-Publix finds itself struggling to stay afloat. Faced with bankruptcy, the company files for protection from its creditors and is allowed to enter into receivership due, in large part, to the real estate holdings amassed by the Saenger brothers during their seventeen-year run. This proves too much for Julian Saenger, whose entire wealth is tied up in Paramount-Publix stock; his death that February is attributed to a heart attack brought on by excessive stress, although some contend he took his own life. E. V. Richards mourns the loss of his dear friend, later naming a son in his honor. By 1935, Paramount-Publix emerges from protection and goes on to become one of the giants of the movie industry to this day. Richards reclaims twenty of the Saenger properties and manages them for many years to come.

So, the next time you find yourself on Canal Street staring up at the marquee of the magnificent Saenger Theatre, take a moment to realize that were it not for the dreams of a couple of pharmacists from Shreveport and their belief in the commercial future of New Orleans as evidenced by the theater that still bears their name, the mighty Paramount Pictures would most likely not be around today. And that means no Forrest Gump, no Godfather series, no Shane, no Star Trek series, no Holiday Inn, no Breakfast at Tiffany’s, no Titanic … you get the idea.
Wow. Someone should make a movie about that.

[photos courtesy Joey Kent]

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