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Bright Lights Lit Up Canal Street

All photos courtesy of the Saenger Theatre

It was an era of decadence, all glitter and glam in the midst of a booming national economy, and the Saenger Theatre fit right in when it opened on Canal Street in 1927. Designed by New Orleans architect Emile Weil as an atmospheric movie palace, the Saenger auditorium transported you into an Italian villa courtyard, complete with marble statues and staircases beneath a night sky with winking stars.

You could catch any number of popular silent films complete with a live orchestra and magnificent pipe organ (capable of producing sound effects and music) that seemed to rise out of nowhere. Julien and Abe Saenger, brothers with a passion for the movies, dotted Southern cities with their namesake theaters, selling the line to Paramount just before the stock market crash of 1929.

But the New Orleans’ Saenger was built of sturdy stuff. It weathered the rocky years of the Great Depression as well as the evolution of “talking pictures” even as it changed up how people experienced Saenger shows. By 1933, the silent film performances ended, gone was the old elegance of a live band and a sound-affecting pipe organ. The theater converted to a “talkies only” space, and in 1964, the balcony was walled off to show widescreen movies.

The Saenger earned a designation on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and a new owner began major renovations to return the theater to its live performance roots. Johnny Carson kicked off the revamped space and renewed vision in 1980. Since then, the Saenger stage has seen a variety of performances—from plays and musicals like My Fair Lady and Camelot (with the likes of Richard Burton) to comedians like Richard Pryor, bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers (though they broke the Wonder Organ) and performers like Cyndi Lauper.

Carole King was the last major performance before the floodwaters of Katrina came in 2005, forcing the theater to close for eight years.

On September 27, 2013, the Saenger re-opened its doors once again with another funny man taking the stage: Jerry Seinfeld. As the $52 million renovation restored the auditorium to its Italian courtyard elegance, the stage became large enough to hold whatever touring Broadway shows could throw at it and a state-of-the-art technical system meant that the Broadway in New Orleans series—and a host of other live performances—wouldn’t be held back in any way.

This year’s Broadway in New Orleans series boasts, among other acts, Les Misérables, Hamilton, School of Rock and The Book of Mormon, which graced the stage after the theater reopened post-Katrina. In between Broadway performances, you’ll find pop stars like Christina Aguilera and games shows, like much-loved The Price is Right, taking the stage. It’s hard not to find something to suit your taste. When the New Orleans sky fades into the grey-black of evening, those 6,787 bulbs that make up the Saenger marquee sign do their thing best—brightening up Canal Street and the lives of locals and tourists alike.

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