As a crown jewel of Hattiesburg and part of the Saenger Amusement Company, the 1000-seat movie palace was one of 7 Saenger Theatres built and operated throughout the South by the Saenger brothers, Abe and Julian. Designed by New Orleans architect Emile Weil, the Saenger Theater is one of Mississippi’s 2 examples of the movie-palace type.
The Saenger Theater has characteristics typical of the Neo-Classical Revival Style and Art Deco Style, including Mayan-inspired elements. Built in 1929, the Saenger was built as a venue to show silent movies. It was constructed at a time when theaters were among the first public structures to benefit from “air conditioning” systems. The theatre boasts a 778-pipe Robert Morton Pipe Organ which was designed specifically for the Saenger’s acoustics. It is one of the only Robert Morton organs in the United States still in its original position.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and renovated in 2000, the Hattiesburg Saenger Theatre sits polished and ready to host a number of cultural events.
The Saenger Theatre opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1929, to much fanfare. The admission charged was $.06 for children. One of the outstanding features was an organ, which was played before the beginning of a movie, and then between shows. Theatre organ sound is different from the “regular” organ sound, and today it still brings instant memories to those who heard it in the earlier years. The chandelier was something to behold in the small city of Hattiesburg and surrounding area. Some mothers admonished their children not to sit under the chandelier, as it might fall!
For many years, feature movies often changed three times a week: one on Monday and Tuesday, another on Wednesday and Thursday, another on Friday and Saturday. Although there were a number of other “picture shows” in Hattiesburg (the Rose, Lomo, Buck and Strand, to name four), the Saenger brought the most popular and first-run movies to town, and was the “elite” movie house.
During the 1940's the theatre sought to open on Sundays (in violation of Sunday Blue Laws) and caused quite a stir. A compromise was soon reached, and movies were shown from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., so as not to impinge on “church hours.’
The movie menu included “coming attractions,” advertisements, sing-alongs, cartoons and organ recitals. One of the “added attractions” was Bank Night, when a “door prize” was offered, sometimes as much as $50.00. The winner had to be present to win. The theatre did not empty out between shows, and many would stay through several showings, especially on Saturdays when a first-run Western (“Horse Opera”) was shown.
The Saenger closed in the late 1960's, and was given to the City. Some activity was had in the building for a number of years. Mayor Bobby Chain, in the early 1980's, with limited funds available, did an admirable renovation project, located the original organ in private ownership in Meridian, had it repaired, and it is still played today. In 2000, a 3.75 million dollar renovation was completed, restoring the Saenger Theater much to its original grandeur. The Saenger Theater is a focal point for many more activities, and will surely draw a greater number of people to Downtown.