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The Saenger Theater reopens with fanfare

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The $52 million restoration of the Saenger Theater paid attention to every tiny detail of the 1927 original.

The Saenger Theater reopened in September after a massive restoration of the original Art Deco design, including restorations and recreations of the original finishes and color schemes.

But first a word or two about The Book of Mormon, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s musical play, the winner of nine Tony Awards and the renovated Saenger’s opening Broadway in New Orleans presentation.

This is not a musical for those who do not appreciate the comedy-writing duo's seriously irreverent other works, among them the Broadway smash Avenue Q (definitely not family-friendly puppets in that one) and television’s South Park (redolent with, shall we say, less-than-adult humor). So why one local newspaper/website would decide to send a former opera critic and ex-seminarian to review it is a mystery. His dyspeptic, indignant review (“vile,” “tasteless”) is hardly surprising given his pious perspective on language and high art. But, given who the authors and producers are, why would one expect The Book of Mormon to be anything other than a completely insubordinate show containing scatological lyrics and language and scathing religious parody (downright "blasphemous," according to said reviewer).

Bottom line: If you’re really, really easily offended, don’t go (above reviewer says the musical reflects an “American culture … slouching towards the abyss”). But if you’re still curious -- and have a wicked sense of humor -- the cast is terrific and the production values superb (even if you yet may wonder how it ever merited nine Tonys).

All this cultural controversy takes place in what may be the most gloriously renovated theater space in the city -- perhaps in the entire region. For David Skinner, General Manager of Arts Center Enterprises-New Orleans, which operates both the Mahalia Jackson Theater in Armstrong Park and the Saenger, it has been a labor of love.

“We wanted to return the building to its 1927 grandeur,” he says. So, infused with more than $52 million raised through a mosaic of tax-funding opportunities, workmen and artisans have, according to Skinner, redone “every square inch of the building.”

“For the past two and a half years we have had artisans repainting the entire inside of the building,” Skinner says. “Bigger seats and wider aisles, from my standpoint, are two of the things I love the most.”

Skinner, a native “many, many years ago” of Charleston, grew up in the public assembly world, a description used for those who run arenas, stadiums, convention centers and theaters.

“My father was in this business,” Skinner recalls. “He ran the arena in Charleston, before moving to Norfolk, Virginia. My first full-time job was in the Omni Arena in Atlanta. Then there were quite a few other stops along the way before I came here in ’77.”

Skinner was part of the original private management company, owned by the Hyatt Corporation, that opened the Superdome. When that company was bought out, Skinner’s non-compete clause required him to stay out of the public assembly management business for a number of years. He plunged back into it post-Katrina when he returned first to take over the refurbishment of the Mahalia Jackson Theater and then the Saenger.

By now, most are aware of ACE-New Orleans’s almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail in the refurbishment of the Saenger: the reproduction of the original carpeting; the hunt to find the exact chandeliers; the golden S woven into each seat; the fiber optic ceiling stars (no more light bulbs to be changed in this firmament).

For Skinner, the refitting of the Saenger has been the highlight of his life.

“It’s a crazy business, but I’ll be honest, I love what I do,” Skinner says. “I could talk about this building forever. This is my adopted home; it’s my wife’s actual home. So I know there are still people who, when they come here, have memories of this building: a first date, a special outing. What has been the most fun for me is that I have been fortunate enough to take those memories and continue them for future generations."

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]