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Clash on Conti - Saenger Theater is 'ground zero' in Mobile's culture war

By Kevin Lee

AUGUST 21, 2012



The Saenger Theatre has been a lot of things in its 85 years on the corner of the Conti and Joachim: a vaudeville palace, a silent movie house, a spot to battle the oppressive Southern heat. The 61st in the chain of venues begun by New Orleans brothers Julian and Abel Saenger, it’s served as home to the symphony, hosted operas and featured some of the globe’s finest musical talent.

Of recent, it’s also become a battle zone, ground zero for a clash between eras, ideologies and approaches. How a ceasefire will emerge is unknown.
When it opened in 1927, the Saenger was the first building in Mobile with an invention that would forever change the South — an air conditioner. Under construction for a year at a cost of $500,000, the Saenger boasted luxurious French Renaissance styling, a 10-rank Robert Morton theater organ, four floors of dressing rooms and could fit over 2,600 attendees. Periodic renovations have reduced the seating capacity to just shy of 2,000.

By the early 1970s, the theater had become a burden to maintain. Just as owners ABC/Paramount had removed the projectors and were winding up the wrecking ball, the University of South Alabama bought it. It was partially renovated and reopened as the USA Saenger Theatre, a performing arts center.

In 1999, the city of Mobile purchased the Saenger and turned management over to the Centre for the Living Arts (CLA), a non-profit established by political/philanthropic power couple Palmer and Ann Bedsole. They turned the old Press-Register building just down Conti Street into Space 301, a contemporary art gallery, and drew up plans for an arts institution that would reinvigorate downtown.

Terms for the Saenger were easy enough. CLA would lease the building for $10 a month, but would earn that leeway with its own work.

Initial CLA Executive Director Carlos Parkman undertook a $20 million capital fundraising campaign resulting in a $6 million restoration that returned the showplace to its grandest state in 2005. The latest phase of that effort — the $100,000 reworking of the room’s massive crystal chandelier — was completed this year.

But dissatisfaction is afoot. Despite the gussying up, some who lean on the Saenger for a livelihood aren’t happy.

"This has been the worst summer we’ve had in five years, I can tell you that,” David Rasp said. Since 1998, he’s owned Heroes, a sports bar located at Jackson and Dauphin, adjacent to the Saenger’s rear entrances and Rasp puts the blame for the diminished numbers on the Saenger’s scheduling and in particular, the lack of pop music shows.

"Some of the acts, particularly things like Gov’t Mule and Pat Green we got tremendous activity,” Rasp said. "On days when it would normally be slow, Tuesdays or whatever, we would normally get impact and not just from customers, but the artists and road crew and other personnel.”

Across the block and out the front door of the Saenger, it’s a different story. A drop in Saenger activity has been noticed but with different effects.

"We don’t do well with country shows, or R&B shows or children’s shows or some of the rock shows,” Todd Henson said. "Our demographic is more likely to go to a symphony performance.”

Henson’s restaurant, Café 219 has been on the corner of Joachim and Conti for 11 years. He describes his clientele as middle-aged and older, white collar and college-educated. For shows like the February 2012 concert by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, a crowd sets upon Henson’s place like an invading army, but it takes a superb-selling popular music act to do the same.

"Robert Plant we did really well,” Henson said. "We did well with Willie Nelson; did well with Allison Krauss; did well with Neil Young.” All those concerts were sell-outs for the Saenger.

Henson has still noticed changes in the business pattern across the street. "It seems like in time past we might be open two or three extra days a month for Saenger events and now it might be two months since we’ve done that,” he said.

A quick glance at schedules from recent years confirms what these entrepreneurs say. In 2010, there were around 30 shows at the Saenger, including symphony, opera and comedians. The biggest grossing? Robert Plant and Neil Young.

In 2011, the Saenger hosted approximately 37 shows, among them a comedy tour, the Blind Boys of Alabama and two different Beatles tribute bands within a 12-month span. The top draw?  Wilco.

To date, 2012 has seen just shy of 20 events penciled in for the Saenger. That number includes no comedians and doesn’t account for the dance recitals that bloom like mushrooms during the late spring and early summer.

Scattered between the big sellers in past years were shows that pulled respectable though hardly lucrative numbers. Was that philosophy working?

"You know we finally got the Saenger making money and making enough really to support the Centre when all of a sudden they fired everybody over there,” Ann Bedsole said. "And after the programs that had already been contracted for ran out, then they seemed not to be able to pick up any more.”

Bedsole, a former state senator who ran for mayor of Mobile in 2005, not only founded the CLA with her late husband Palmer, but sat on its board of directors for years. That ended in 2010.

"The search committee and some of the people who were responsible for major funding wanted to become an international organization and I felt the Centre should serve the people of this community first,” Bedsole said. She and then-Board Chair Carol Hunter exited.

Current CLA Board Chairman Mike Rogers and CLA Executive Director Bob Sain take issue with Bedsole’s assessment of the Saenger’s financial health. In a Dec. 11, 2011, Press-Register article signed by both men, they described the theater as operating in the red.

"The truth is, the Saenger has lost money eight of the last 10 years, attendance is dwindling and the audience is narrowing,” they wrote. "To move forward, it is essential we correct the perception that the Saenger is profitable. Many believe the Saenger, through ticket sales, subsidizes the other arts programs of the Centre for the Living Arts. It is, in fact, the other way around…It is only through outside contributions and income generated by Space 301 that we have been able to offset the losses of the Saenger and keep it afloat.”

Rogers told Lagniappe that aside from occasional sell-outs, most Saenger shows fell short of breaking even. A succession of moderate attendance added to deficits.

"We were what is known in this industry as a ‘roadhouse,’” Rogers said. "So somebody would call and say, ‘Hey we’ve got Bonnie Raitt and she’s playing in New Orleans on a Saturday. We can get her to play y’all on a Wednesday night and it’s going to cost you X amount of dollars.’ For the most part, it was (national promoter) AEG and the big boys deciding what they were going to bring us. It’s not a good model. The demographics we were dealing with, we were kind of one-sided in who we were playing to.”

The newly streamlined schedule is a contentious point these days. The fallout from personnel changes at the CLA has echoed throughout the community and there’s still confusion and anger rumbling around.

"I hear from record labels about tours we know would do very well at the Saenger and they’ve basically been turned down or can’t get in touch with any one,” Tim Camp said. "One example is Robert Plant’s on tour right now and he’s going to play Birmingham and not play Mobile. Robert Plant and the Band of Joy sold out the Saenger the last time they were here.”

Camp is the director of operations and programming at WZEW, a locally owned radio station of regional and national renown. The station – 92 ZEW – has worked with concert promoters as a matter of course. A Mobile native, Camp has been behind their boards for 20 years now and makes no bones about the person he holds responsible.

"Sain may be wonderful at what he does, but if you look at his experience, it’s in museums and art education and things like that,” Camp said. "Many times, people who live in an academic world like that don’t translate very well to a business world. Running the Saenger Theatre has to be business. If the city had some sort of multi-million dollar endowment, it might be different, but we don’t.”

The raised hackles from Camp aren’t unique. Discontent was stirred when Sain fired former Saenger manager Chris Penton in September 2011 amidst claims the CLA sought a different direction.

According to Camp, he sat for years on a Saenger advisory board comprised of downtown merchants, media and entertainment industry figures. When Penton was axed, board members were disappointed. Some spoke publicly.

One of those was A.J. Niland, a Mobile promoter whose start-up company, HUKA Entertainment had risen to the point its centerpiece achievement — the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores’ beach — had earned a national reputation. HUKA regularly fed acts to the Saenger, along with the agency AEG Live.

After Penton was canned, Niland told the Press-Register the concert business was built mostly on relationships, between managers and venues and promoters and artists. He didn’t like the personnel changes.

"I think it (the theater) just took a 10-year step backwards,” Niland was quoted as saying. Thereafter, Niland arranged a meeting with Sain, in hopes of seeing where they stood.

"We contacted each other,” Niland told Lagniappe. "I wanted to talk about ways to bring back the shows they had booked in the past. He (Sain) just told us we weren’t welcome there anymore.”
Had Niland’s quote done harm? Did Sain say that was the reason for the severance?

"No, but that was the feeling I got,” Niland said. "He just explained his change in direction to a ‘difference in vision.’” Maybe it was something else.

"Would the city be better off turning management of the Saenger as a live performance venue to someone else, either hiring their own city-employed manager to run it or turning it over to a management company?” Camp said "That’s what got A.J. Niland and Bob Sain into it sideways because that was his (Niland’s) suggestion to the city that they do just that. He even offered the names of several companies that managed theaters like the Saenger.” Camp said. Niland explained the situation to him in email.

Nilanbd confirmed he broached the idea of outside management with Sain and Jim Cox, an advisory board member. Sain’s reaction? "Unresponsive,” Niland said.

Well liked in the area, Penton was helped by local businesses. "He still does contact work for us,” Niland said.

Penton had other avenues, too. "He’s still working in sales part-time here,” Camp said.
Fallout continued from the fractured relationship. Niland said Sain made life difficult for HUKA regarding the remaining shows they had booked.

In November, Sain discovered Penton was at the Saenger as a HUKA show loaded in, reportedly in conjunction with his work for the promoter. The CLA head sent email to Niland requesting the "former employee” not be on site in that capacity.

"By not allowing Penton on the premises, it created unfavorable working conditions for HUKA,” Niland said.

What if Sain offered to let HUKA book shows without Penton being involved?

"Well, that’s a hypothetical and I don’t want to get into that,” Niland answered.

When Lagniappe asked Sain about the removal of Penton following the incident, he responded, "Isn’t that what a lot of companies do, ask former employees to leave the premises?”

Niland told Lagniappe CLA has ceased reaching out to AEG Live. When CLA announced their new schedule for the 2012 – 2013 season, they introduced Martha Jones, CLA’s new director of artistic programming and founding partner of SnowHill Strategies in Boston. The agency’s website describes close to four decades of work Jones has working with fine arts performers of exalted caliber. Jones promises the schedule will fill out with more popular music acts as tours unwind, just as it did before.

But it doesn’t impress everyone. Decades on Dauphin Street speak louder to some.

"You look at the fall schedule and you’d say, ‘Who booked that?’ Then you’d say, ‘Where do they live?’ It just doesn’t feel like anybody around here did it,” Rasp said. "I want to know who hired these people. They say CLA and that’s nice, but I want to know who are the decision makers who brought this guy (Sain) in here to do this.”

 Which brings us back to the change in focus from the CLA board. According to the man at the head of the boardroom, they were tired of playing third fiddle.

"We’re a contemporary arts center so we were like, ‘if we’re going to be a contemporary arts center then let’s just go shoot for the moon and see what happens,’” Rogers said. "That’s where the fundamental difference was in that we wanted to do a national search for the best candidate we could afford that would have us.”

Rogers feels that is Sain. "When the head of education at the Guggenheim recommends somebody, that’s saying a lot,” he said. "I told the mayor and anybody that would listen, ‘We have a rock star in Mobile and an economic development project in this one man with his vision.’”

But what about the Saenger? What about the schedule?

"There are acts out there that we think could fill the house but they’re $75,000 – $100,000 while we’re sitting here with a budget that is so fragile, every time we sign one of those, we’re taking a big gamble,” Rogers said. "We book, say six big ones a year and it’s going to cost us $600 grand. We can’t take that risk. When Palmer (Bedsole) was around, he was kind of a backstop. He could just say we’re doing it anyway and cut a check at the end of the day if everything went south. We don’t have that anymore.”

Rogers said previous conflicts with dance recitals penciled in on nights where concerts could have taken place have to be adjusted. The new performance season has its own measure of dancers, acrobats, even a unique performance combining theatrical drama with symphonic accompaniment.

"You know you can bring in Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Allison Krauss, Robert Cray and all that and you can still broaden people’s horizons with tumblers and other performance type acts,” Rasp said. "They really don’t compete with one another. At times in the conversation it sounds as if one is being pitted against the other. I think by the Saenger’s very nature, its programming should be varied.”

"I’ve had people call me and ask why the shows we’ve been affiliated with in the past have stopped,” Camp said. "They’ll tell me, ‘well you know I joined the CLA and paid dues because the deal was if you were a member of the CLA, you got first shot at tickets.’ They’re like, ‘Well I’m not going to be a member now.’”

Rasp and Camp both point to shrinking tax revenue from downtown merchants as a reason for the city to be concerned in a time of economic hardship. Annual payments to the CLA from the city – $200,000 most recently – are threatened by the current budget crunch.

"The checks I’ve cut to the city have been less this year,” Rasp said. "That’s the return on that quarter-million-dollar investment by the city in CLA.” 

But to the folks atop the CLA pyramid, things look brighter. They want to mold a local economy around creativity.

"We’ve got artists from Paris, from Los Angeles, from Houston and Mobile in here now,” Rogers said. "When we have national magazines writing about us, when Garden & Gun is coming to town to see the Memory Project, that’s the recognition that we are on the right path.” 

Susan Hales says:

AUGUST 22, 2012
12:54 PM
  And I love this line, on second reading of your article:

"When it opened in 1927, the Saenger was the first building in Mobile with an invention that would forever change the South — an air conditioner."

I think that's a perfect image and I can just imagine my 27 year old Grandmother dragging her two year old son, my father, to the Saenger for some culture, hopping the train from the Warley farm in St. Elmo to come back to the city life she loved so much. No wonder my father returned to raise his family in this area. It was said that the Warley farm homestead was one of the first to have electricity, although the log cabin construction was not at all the type of home she had always dreamed of, having grown up on a block of St. Emanuel Street that is gone due to the new tunnel.
Susan Hales says:

AUGUST 22, 2012
12:39 PM
  Great piece, Kevin. When I moved to Mobile at age 50 to resume an art education that had been derailed in 1969 things were much different than they are today. There was no CLA, and Professor Kennedy was still in charge of the arts education program at USA. That all changed at the same time that I entered the university, and soon Pieter Favier had been replaced with Ben Shamback, which for me was a headspinning change not just from a focus on abstract art, conceptual art and acrylic and mixed media to a focus on more traditional art, including oils instead of acrylic, and of course no watercolor at all, which had been the case since Lee Hoffman retired. It was a change that was sensed if not spoken all across the campus, and the way I dealt with it is legendary.

I wore men's shirts upon which I drew and painted my opinion at a time when there are still people who remember me more for my protest shirts than for my art.

There were many good things about all these changes, and I certainly love Ben Shamback and others who were brought into this delicate academic balance,but there were downsides as well. We were in a more conservative period after the late 90's and the world felt less open to all of us, both here in Mobile, in my hometown in Fairhope, and in the focus of things like the availability of public radio and the support for the arts were all now very political as they are still today in some circles.

One could write an entire book on the ways in which free speech has been quietly silenced in the conservative south over that time period.

I attended the public meeting along with many of your readers when WHIL was bought by APR and one of my favorite comments was the one that I hear echoed in your piece. I really didn't understand how heavily "catholic" the upper crust of Mobile still saw itself, but I also know that if my grandmother were still alive, she'd have been horrified to think that it was anything other than Episcopal, as she was the one who taught me that even religion could be a source of false pride.

We need to step away from religiosity in all its forms. We need to find a way to be more ecumenical in our support of the arts, as well as our support of other institutions all around the bay area. That's something many of the publications that have survived the changes of the last decade are doing well, and your publication is one I include in that comment. Keep it up.

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What should be Mayor-elect Stimpson's top priority?

Examining the budget.
Evaluating city employees.
Addressing public safety issues.
Improving infrastructure.
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