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Mississippi Arts: Nearing its centennial, Hattiesburg’s Saenger Theater is ‘the pride of downtown’

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

  • Since first opening in 1929, Hattiesburg’s Saenger Theater has entertained generations of Mississippians. Now it’s one of the leading live performance venues in the state.

The Saenger Theater in Hattiesburg, the centerpiece of the Hub City’s downtown renaissance, has written its own comeback story as a live-performance venue after nearly a century in the business. But just six years ago, the former movie house was still trying to find its place in the region’s music and events market.  

After having some success booking live acts following a renovation in 2000, one show made all the difference to the theater’s second act, according to Rick Taylor, executive director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, which oversees the property.

“I can credit Jimmy Buffett for changing the fortunes of the Saenger Theater, as it relates to the broader concert world,” he says.

The University of Southern Mississippi graduate was back in Hattiesburg for his induction into the school’s hall of fame in 2018. Just five nights earlier, as Taylor points out, Buffett played a stadium gig in Miami to 65,000 fans. But the night of April 26 was all for Hattiesburg and the decidedly more intimate thousand-seat Saenger.

“What that did for the Saenger was it put us on the map of the real players,” he says, noting national promoters Live Nation and Red Mountain, as well as regional outfits like the Jackson-based Ardenland, now bring concerts to the venue. “The facility is obviously small, but we were able to do it successfully.”

One of seven Saenger movie palaces built in the South during the 1920s — Biloxi also has one, as do neighboring cities Mobile and New Orleans — the theater opened in November 1929, just as the stock market crash found its bottom and brought the Roaring Twenties to a close. That grim occasion didn’t hold back the fanfare, though. Crowds lined up to watch movies for six cents a head in the city’s first public air-conditioned building. The theater continued showing movies until 1974, when the last reel rolled off the projector.

The neoclassical revival and art deco style building sat dormant until the 1980s, when Mayor Bobby Chain tracked down the theater’s original 778-pipe Robert Morton pipe organ and brought it home at his own expense. An extensive historic renovation in 2000, costing $3.5 million, restored interior features like the stage proscenium and added a green room, office space and ADA amenities. Additional work in 2022 preserved the exterior, and the original chandelier still hangs above the auditorium, just as it has since arriving from Germany for the grand opening.

But the pipe organ is perhaps the most impressive piece in the entire theater.

“If you climb up the catwalk and the ladders to the four pipe rooms, you will see the pipes, but you’ll also see literal instruments,” he says. “You can play a key on the organ, and it will strike a snare drum up in that room. There’s a lot of mechanical things that are founded around actual instruments, not just wind and pipes.”

In recent years, the theater has hosted performances by the Southern Miss Symphony Orchestra and events during Festival South, an annual, multi-week festival featuring music and other arts and entertainment. Top-draw touring acts like Lucinda Williams, the Lumineers and Greensky Bluegrass have also performed here. 

Live music isn’t the only entertainment visitors can find at the Saenger these days, though. Comedy shows have taken off, attracting talent including comics Tig Notaro, Nate Bargatze and Lewis Black. Demetri Martin will perform on July 26 as the headliner for Laughs 4 Life, a local charity that raises money for cancer research. 

“We started out picking up some of the YouTube comics that were starting to make a name for themselves, and a lot of them over the few years have gotten more into the mainstream,” he says. “We just did Dusty Slay recently, right on the heels of his Netflix special.”

Upcoming events at the theater also include roots-rockers J.J. Grey & Mofro, with support from two-time Grammy winner Cedric Burnside, who plays Hill Country blues in the style of his grandfather, R.L. Burnside, as well as performances of the romantic ballet “Giselle” presented by the South Mississippi Ballet Theatre.

Fittingly, on May 6, country singer Ronnie McDowell and members of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band will headline an event celebrating many of Mississippi’s musical legends — including, of course, Jimmy Buffett, who passed away in 2023.

“The Saenger Theater is a historical gem,” Taylor says. “It’s the pride of downtown.”

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read original article by clicking here.

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