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History on Stage: New Orleans Theaters  

Get to know four historic New Orleans theaters: The Saenger, The Orpheum, The Joy, and The Carver.

orpheum nola
The Orpheum's exterior. (Photo courtesy Jamey Shaw)

While there are no famous actors or actresses in our family, we do have one claim to fame: My husband’s mother, who turns 100 in September, was at the grand opening of the Saenger Theatre in 1927. History repeated itself when her granddaughter was at the grand reopening after Hurricane Katrina 86 years later in 2013.

Like most people who call New Orleans home, the Saenger isn’t just a fixture on Canal Street – it’s a fixture in our lives. The same is true of our other great historic theaters, the Orpheum, the Joy, and the Carver .

Learn about the history and the enduring allure of these three historic theaters below.

Historic New Orleans Theaters

The Saenger

The Saenger Theatre is home to Broadway in New Orleans. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Saenger Theatre is home to Broadway in New Orleans. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

At one time, the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans was the flagship of Julian and Abe Saenger’s theater empire. Two years before the Great Depression, when the theater first opened, you could see a silent movie, a stage play, and listen to the Saenger Grand Orchestra for just 65 cents. Today, the theater is still home to the famous, 2,000-pipe “Wonder Organ” that played along with silent pictures.

A neoclassical hybrid, the Saenger features high-ceilinged arcades decorated in Spanish mission style; the area where the audience sits is Italian baroque (and don’t forget to look up!). The theater offers all the glamor of yesteryear with the technology of today.

New Orleans native George Ray, who has worked security at the Saenger for years, has some magnificent tales to tell of this old theater. When Andy Hardy star Mickey Rooney performed there, Ray taught him how to peel crawfish. And when Elizabeth Taylor’s name was on the marquee, her contract called for a dressing room with violet walls that matched her eyes and white carpeting that was next to impossible to keep clean. Ray said she arrived every night in a horse-drawn carriage.

Today, after a $52 million post-Katrina renovation, the glitz of yesterday is back. This month, you can see Jim Gaffigan (April 21), Alton Brown (April 26), and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue’s Treme Threauxdown (April 29), among other great shows. Up next in the “Broadway in New Orleans” series is Finding Neverland (May 9-14).

orpheum close up
Hand-painted details inside the Orpheum theater. (Photo courtesy Jamey Shaw)

The Orpheum

The Beaux-Arts-style Orpheum Theater, across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel, was built in 1918 and opened for vaudeville in 1921. It became a movie house soon after. In 1983, the Orpheum was scheduled for demolition but it was saved by the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, which gave it a $3 million makeover.

Like so many of New Orleans’ treasures, this National Register of Historic Places suffered serious damage after Hurricane Katrina. The Orpheum went through a succession of owners who failed to restore the theater until it was purchased in 2014 by Dr. Eric George, who partnered with Roland Von Kurnatowski, owner of Tipitina’s.

joy theater
The Joy Theater. (Photo via Facebook)

After a $13 million renovation, the theater became home to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), but the theater books other acts as well. This month, you can see Umphrey’s McGee (April 21), Sean McConnell (April 23) and St. Paul & the Broken Bones with Naughty Professor (April 27), and the Meters (April 29).

The Joy

In 2003, competition from multi-screen theaters forced the owners to close the  Joy’s doors. Fortunately, in 2011 visionaries turned the venue into a multipurpose theater for live music, stand-up comedy, and private functions. This month, the Joy is hosting comedian Louie Anderson (April 19), the Dark Star Orchestra (April 27 & 28), and STSN (April 29 & 30).

carver theater
The historic Carver Theater. (Courtesy photo)

The Carver

The Carver Theater, named after George Washington Carver, was built in 1950 in the heart of the historic Tremé, America’s oldest African-American neighborhood. Opened during the days of Jim Crow, the Carver was considered the finest theater for African-Americans in the country. Thanks to an $8 million post-Katrina renovation, this National Historic Landmark has come back better than ever with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. The theater pays homage to New Orleans roots with its $10 weekday music series: Monday Blues, Wednesday Jazz, and Thursday Brass.

VKIBC Ballet
Next time you’re in New Orleans, come see the ballet (Photo courtesy VKIBC on Facebook)

Even more theaters

Other venues worth checking out in New Orleans include the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts, where you can see the New Orleans Ballet and the New Orleans Opera. Or, Google what’s happening at the Marigny Opera House, a charming venue that offers more ballet and musical performances. Another gem is Le Petit Theatre Du Vieux Carré, a community theater off Jackson Square celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Whether you come for a show or are hoping to see the resident ghost – an actress who died dramatically here in the 1930s – you’ll never forget your evening Le Petit.

More cool trivia: The Orpheum and the Saenger weren’t the first movie theaters to along Canal Street. That honor goes to Vitascope Hall. The world’s first for-profit movie theater (now demolished) opened its doors at 623 Canal Street in New Orleans in 1896.

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