A Saenger Renaissance

In case you haven’t heard or seen, Pine Bluff’s once (and still) magnificent Saenger Theater is in the first throes of a major rebirth. That renaissance effort is caringly and professionally overseen by Kathy Majewska and Jack Stradley. Stay tuned. Great things are in the works.

I had the pleasure of touring the old theater last fall during one of the open house days hosted by Kathy and Jack, who at that point owned it but later agreed to transfer ownership rights to the city. Having left the city after high school, I had not seen the interior of the theater since around 1963.

At the time of my viewing, the recent, largely completed work on the roof had not yet begun. Both rain and ground water had filled the basement and other lower levels of the building. And due to both vandalism and non-occupancy, the building’s once-ornate and colorful wall and ceiling decorations and chandeliers were either missing or badly deteriorated. Its seats were covered with dust, peeling paint and fallen plaster, but appeared largely intact, plush and waiting to be sat in.

As I listened to the still-acoustically balanced voices of myself and other open house attendees echo throughout the building, it still seemed to retain the architect’s sense of visual elegance and magic—a magic that came through despite the years of neglect and abandonment. The screeching, reptilian sounds of the movie “Gorgo” were still there and so was the large crowd that filled the theater when I first viewed that film around 1960.

Much work still remains to make the Saenger more than a magical remnant of the past. The groundwork is being laid for doing just that. Besides Kathy and Jack , much of the current hope for the revitalization of our town’s theatrical gem results from the city government’s willingness to partner in the effort. Mayor Carl Redus and other, designated city hall officials encouraged and prodded a sometimes reluctant city council to go along with the effort. He and they are to be congratulated for that effort.

In my last column in which I discussed the Saenger, I noted my own personal experiences apropos its racially segregated past. Indeed, while touring the theater last year, I walked into the balcony where Jim Crow dictated that we must sit, and lingered for a while. In that same earlier column I also pleaded for a racially united effort on the part of Pine Bluffians to save it and our other historic downtown buildings. This writing continues that appeal.

Given the newly initiated collaboration between the UAPB Vesper Choir and the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra, I propose the following: As the first public, musical event to be held in the new theater, those musical collaborators should together present a performance of “A Child of Our Time,” the oratorio written by the English composer Sir Michael Tippett. It interweaves two musical traditions, African American spirituals and post-Baroque English and continental European choral traditions. Music has a way of bridging all kinds of divides. It may be just the antidote for any remnants of Jim Crow still left in Pine Bluff.

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Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.