NEW ORLEANS (AP) — With its grand arches, intricate plaster moldings, faux facades suggesting a centuries-old European villa and blue domed ceiling dotted by pinpoint lights, the Saenger Theatre was typical of the opulent movie palaces and playhouses built around the nation in the 1920s.
But bits of its flapper-era splendor were sacrificed over the decades as various owners tried to roll with changing times.
Chandeliers were sold. A clunky escalator was installed and the balcony walled off to form a second movie theater in the 1960s — a pre-multiplex-era architectural affront that was undone in the '70s.
"They were just trying to hang on as best they could," Errol Laborde, local magazine publisher and New Orleans historian, said of the various changes.
Although diminished, the Saenger's grandeur endured. It remained a venue for concerts and touring theatrical productions until 2005, when water from levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina rose shoulder deep in front of the stage, deteriorating plaster above and inundating electrical equipment on the floors below.
As is the story with much of the city, the Saenger's recovery has sometimes dragged, slowed by complex financing. In 2010, its marquee announced a grand re-opening in 2011. A spring 2013 deadline also has been missed.
But, when the touring production of Broadway's "The Book of Mormon" takes the Saenger stage for a grand re-opening in October, it will mark the end of a long-sought and meticulous $51 million renovation, restoration and replication effort that will bring a long-missed landmark to its pre-Katrina health and recreate some of its 1927 glory.
"To have it restored, again, not the way it was but the way she always should have been, is a theme that symbolizes what we're trying to do with rebuilding the city of New Orleans," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said this month as he joined other city officials for a ceremony marking the installation of a key steel beam.
"It will look clean, well kept, but with a patina of 80 years of life," said David Anderson, a principal in the Saenger Theatre Partnership, which donated the theater to a city-established nonprofit corporation in a complex redevelopment and operating agreement. A subsidiary of the partnership, ACE Theatrical Group LLC, will operate the theater. Anderson was interviewed last week while giving a tour of the facility, where much of the work remains masked by networks of scaffolding and a layer of construction dust.