As Pine Bluff struggles to save its own Saenger Theater, several others around the south have been saved. But one, like Pine Bluff’s, is still facing an uphill battle for restoration.
Three Saenger Theaters within driving distance have been renovated, but the one in south Mississippi is dark, with a leaky roof and unsafe areas. The same goes for Pine Bluff’s theater.
Millions of dollars have been spent to renovate the Biloxi Saenger Theater, which opened in 1929 as a movie palace with silk damask walls and red leather seats, and millions more will be needed to repair and modernize it.
After the Biloxi Council refused in June to designate $2 million of a recent bond issue to prevent more damage to the building, Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gillich has asked for proposals to renovate, operate and save the theater. Council members said the bond money was needed fir infrastructure, suggesting that if private money and grants couldn't be found, perhaps the theater shouldn't be saved.
Gilich said he didn't know if anyone would bid. "But one thing I do know is that we cannot continue to let this theater deteriorate," he said.
At least one proposal is being readied for the July 15 deadline.
Rafe O'Neal, who organized previous campaigns to raise money for repairs, told the newspaper he's working on the new proposal.
The theater — believed to have been Biloxi's first air-conditioned building — is among seven lavish movie houses built and run around the South by brothers Abe and Julian Saenger. Three of them are within a two-hour drive of Biloxi, in New Orleans, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama. Others are in Texarkana, Texas; Pensacola, Florida, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
New Orleans' Saenger underwent a $53 million renovation after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, with a public-private partnership and National Rehabilitation Tax Credits.
The one in Mobile remained open through a $6 million restoration — though it was saved because the University of Alabama bought it the night before demolition was scheduled. The city bought it, and a nonprofit created to operate the theater restored it with public donations.
Hattiesburg's completed a $3.5 million renovation in 2000.
Biloxi's, which the city bought for $10 in 1975, now has walls held together with duct tape. The celebrated fly-tower is a danger. Leaks and neglect undid much of the renovations on which millions of dollars was spent over the past 40 years.
O'Neal, whose grandmother worked at the theater before he did, said he envisions a public-private partnership like the one in New Orleans. A new nonprofit will need to be established to raise funds for the Biloxi theater, he said.
The city put out bids for repair of the fly tower, replacement of the air conditioning system, repair of the north, south and east masonry walls of the auditorium and the roof of the auditorium. All work must be done to standards of historic properties.
The Saenger also will need to be managed properly, O'Neal said: "It's not just fixing the building."’
As for Pine Bluff’s Saenger, a lack of funds is what has allowed it to sit empty for many years. However, city leaders remain hopeful that something can be done to re-open the property.
Earlier this year, Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said she was planning to reinstate the Saenger Theater Task Force to try and drum up ideas about how to save the building.