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8 years after Katrina, historic theater reopens

Friday - 9/27/2013, 7:40pm  ET

CHEVEL JOHNSON
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Eight years ago, Hurricane Katrina and massive flooding spurred by broken levees heavily damaged the historic Saenger Theatre.

On Friday, the theatre reopened for business following a $52 million renovation that restored the 86-year-old ornate movie theatre into what now hosts stage productions and live music concerts.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, elected officials and investors who partnered to bring the restoration to fruition stood on the newly renovated stage to celebrate the theatre's formal reopening. A sold-out performance by comedian Jerry Seinfeld later Friday will mark the theatre's return. Two more shows by Seinfeld are scheduled Saturday.

Landrieu and others used words like "wow," ''breathtaking," ''amazing" and "beautiful" to describe the Saenger's transformation. Designers returned the theatre to its 1927 grandeur with a historically replicated carpet, original and replicated chandeliers, and a historically accurate paint scheme.

Improvements also include technical upgrades, including new fiber optic stars in the auditorium, expanded restrooms and concession facilities. The theatre used to seat about 4,000 but now seats about 2,600, giving patrons more room and comfort, officials said.

Landrieu said the theater, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the city's best symbol of resurrection and resilience.

"This is just a spectacular moment for all of us," Landrieu said. "We don't want to be like Atlanta, New York and D.C. We want to take the old and the new and create that authentic New Orleans that can't be replicated anywhere else in the world. And we've done that. I encourage you to use it and enjoy it."

David Rubenstein, chairman of the Canal Street Development Corporation, said the theatre is another step in the revitalization of the Canal Street corridor.

"This is just another reason to come and spend the weekend in New Orleans," he said.

Former Mayor Moon Landrieu, the current mayor's father, recalled the first time he saw a movie at the Saenger.

"I remember looking at the ceiling, seeing the 'stars' (twinkling lights in the ceiling) and wondering if I was looking at the sky. I was so excited to be here. When I look at all the statuary in here ... they've restored everything exactly as my old memories tell me," he said.

Rick Isley, a New Orleans native and singer who dropped by to see the changes, said the facility is still as luxurious as he remembers. "It's just beautiful," he said. "This is where I first saw 'Enter the Dragon,' back in the 1970s. Now look at it."

City Council President Jackie Clarkson recalled entering the theatre on her 5th birthday "before World War II."

"This is the greatest comeback of all led by this administration," Clarkson said. "The memories it springs are so generational. Everybody still alive in this city can still remember the first time they walked into this gorgeous theatre."

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell said her now-husband took her to see "The Sound of Music" on their first date some 48 years ago. "It looks the same," she said, smiling.

She said she hoped the theatre would "further open up jobs for the city's residents."

"I'm thinking in terms of behind the scenes," she said. "Those doing the props for the productions, the caterers. I'm hoping the cultural economy will steer jobs to our citizenry so that this city becomes one where everyone can get a 'good' job."

Other upcoming theatre highlights include an Oct. 5 performance by actress Kristin Chenoweth and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a show by singer Diana Ross on Oct. 30 and the return of Broadway to New Orleans with the Tony Award-winning play The Book of Mormon on Oct. 15.


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