HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WLOX) - The future of Biloxi’s Saenger Theater is in limbo. It’s been out of use for more than a year and in desperate need of repairs.
While Biloxi city leaders explore ways to resurrect the nearly century-old facility, another historic theater about an hour to the north is thriving.
In Hattiesburg on a summer night, outside the Saenger was bustling with activity as part of the Festival South Best of the Pine Belt Awards. Inside the theater, Jennie Blackwell performed on a stage she loves.
“My dream was to perform at this theater; I thought it was as big as the world gets. That was my world at that time and now here I am,” Blackwell said.
Like in Biloxi, this theater has also gone through its tough times. The 90-year-old Hattiesburg Saenger saw limited activity in the ’90s before a partnership with the city and the Hattiesburg Convention Commission made a $4 million renovation possible.
“It’s an iconic place, and we’re thrilled that somebody took the time to get it back to its original form and make it something special,” said performer Bart Jones.
The complete overhaul was finished in 2000, and Michelle Howells took part in the first production following the renovation.
“It felt so glamorous with the fresh paint, the detail they showed to everything in the theater as well as bringing back the old organ, and we had a full orchestra and full cast,” said Howells said. “It was just a wonderful feeling knowing that Hattiesburg had one of its crowning achievements back.”
Along with the Saenger, the Hattiesburg Convention Commission also independently operates, maintains and staffs three museums and the zoo.
“Because we use the same staff on all of these facilities we are able to take on more and more projects, bigger things and continue to grow,” said Amanda Hargrove, Hattiesburg Convention Commission marketing director.
According to Hargrove, almost 20 years after the renovation, the nearly 1,000 seat theater turns a profit and is occupied for most days of the year.
“The Saenger hasn’t always operated in the black. This is a recent development and operating in the black is recent for the Saenger,” Hargrove said.
Now they’re focused on attracting big name acts. Jimmy Buffett even came back to his college town for a performance last year.
In Biloxi, city leaders have a development vision for downtown with places to live, work and play centered around Howard Avenue. In Hattiesburg, a downtown development vision is already taking place in the blocks around the Saenger Theater where new bars and restaurants are popping up with the Saenger serving as the focal point.
“There are a lot of festivals, a lot of things going on downtown and we’re just glad to be a part of it,” said Nelson Haskin, restaurant owner.
Haskin owns and operates three restaurants in downtown Hattiesburg including the Blue Jazz Cafe. He said when the Saenger hosts events, business booms.
“We have people from all over the Pine Belt, not just Hattiesburg, that are coming to downtown. This is their opportunity to get down here so we get a lot of people coming in all at one time, and business is definitely better when the Saenger is open,” Haskin said.
Even though the theater now turns a profit, Hargrove said money for the Saenger Renaissance, including upkeep, initially came from bond proceeds that were financed by a 2% restaurant tax.
“This makes for an incentive to be cost effective and push the sale side of the operation,” Hargrove said. “For the Saenger, this means that profit-taking shows are a focus as well creating additional revenue such as street parties.”
For those who regularly attend events in the theater, the investment was worth it not just for them, but for future generations.
“It gives them a chance to come, sit and be a part of a live performance, which I believe is so important in young people’s education,” Howells said. “Not only do you have the musical aspect of art going on here, you also have the visual arts that you need to come and look at this theater to see what it has to offer.”
While future generations are set to enjoy the Saenger in Hattiesburg, Biloxi city leaders are exploring funding options for a $2 million renovation for the Saenger.