The Saenger Theatre in New Orleans will reopen Dec. 10. (Courtesy Ambassador Group)

Historic New Orleans theater to reopen following forced closure due to Hard Rock Hotel collapse

The Saenger Theatre in New Orleans will reopen its doors Wednesday after a two-month shutdown due to the collapse of the adjacent half-built Hard Rock Hotel in October.

A crane toppled over at the hotel construction site the morning of Oct. 12 and crashed into the 350-room structure. Eight concrete levels crumbled, sending 18 people to the to the hospital and killing three.

The Saenger Theatre, which is across the street from the site, suffered damage to its roof and was immediately evacuated.

“We’re their next-door neighbor, separated only by a street,” said David Skinner, general manager of the Saenger Theatre and Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land, Texas, both owned by Ambassador Theatre Group. “We were in the middle of a three-week run of “Wicked,” and on that day, a Saturday, we had two shows scheduled. The first was at 2 p.m.”

The cleaning crew was in the building as well as a skeleton management staff.

“We were very, very lucky,” Skinner said. “Just an hour later and we would have had the full management team arriving and the actors and actresses would have been there, too.”

The small group in the Saenger Theatre that morning all escaped through doors on the other side of the venue just as they heard a loud crash.

“A support grid for the service elevator for the hotel hit our roof and caused a 5-foot-square hole,” Skinner said. “It also did damage to the support beams.”

The marble facia on the theater was damaged. A canopy that runs alongside the building was nearly destroyed. Still, Skinner believes the building caught a break.

“It could have been so much worse,” he said.

While the roof has been patched, the cost of repairs is still to be determined.

“Six weeks after the collapse they had to implode the (other) cranes because they were afraid they were going to fall,” Skinner said. “They used copper wiring to get that job done, which when blown becomes like shrapnel, and hundreds of pieces flew off and right onto our roof and onto other parts of the exterior of the theater.”

A new roof will most likely be needed, which Skinner estimates will cost at least a half-million dollars. Whether a lawsuit will be filed is yet to be decided.

“The roof repair is down the road. The lawyers and the insurance companies will do their thing and when that happens, and to what extent, we don’t know,” Skinner said. “Right now, we are focused on getting the theater back opened and the rest of the stuff will settle itself out.”

What’s around the corner is the grand reopening of the 92-year-old New Orleans institution.

“We will open the doors again next Wednesday, Dec. 11, with a Chris Angel show,” Skinner said. “It will be a challenge since part of the hotel is still standing, and Canal Street, the street that we normally use for a majority of the ingress and egress, is still cordoned off.”

Getting all the patrons into and out of the venue from just the Basin Street side of the building will be tough.

“We’ve put out word on social media and done some advertising, and we’re hoping the public will be understanding,” Skinner said. “We have great plans on paper. I’ll let you know how that worked out.”

Skinner said the Ambassador Group was not affected financially because all the shows on the schedule, except for the 12 remaining “Wicked” shows, were moved a few blocks away to the Mahalia Jackson Theater, which it also owns.

“Except for the loss of 12 “Wicked” performances, not a single show was lost,” he said. “We had to scramble a little as the Mahalia Jackson Theater is smaller.”

The relocation to the lower-capacity facility came with its own difficulties.

“The Saenger Theatre holds 2,800 people and the Mahalia Jackson only holds 2,200 people,” Skinner said. “That meant we had to add on extra performances and move seats.”

The guests were gracious. “Ninety-nine percent of our patrons have been understanding of what was happening and have worked with us,” he said.

This isn’t the worst that the theater has faced. In 2005, the Saenger was demolished by Hurricane Katrina. It reopened in 2013.

“New Orleanians are the most resilient community I’ve ever been around,” Skinner said. “We’ve faced hurricanes and floods and now a hotel collapse and we just keep going.”