Anyone who knows me can attest that I have always had a slight flare for the dramatic.
Whether performing on the stage or sitting captivated in front of it, the performance arts have always been my greatest passion. I may have grown up far from the Great White Way, but opportunities to be swept away on a song were never in short supply in the Pensacola Bay Area. Whether it's a touring Broadway production or a performance by our own professional ballet, opera, symphony or community theatre, there are endless opportunities to be entertained (and to entertain others!)
For much of my life, the Saenger Theatre and the Pensacola Little Theatre (PLT) have been my home away from home. Since I was a very young child I have played on these stages, and watched as others did the same. Though the Saenger and PLT have each played a vital role in my story, their credits include even bigger roles in the history of the oldest European settlement in America.
Photo by Steven Gray
THE GRAND DAME
The Saenger Theatre, also known as the Grand Dame of Palafox, first opened its doors in 1925. At the time, this Spanish Baroque style theatre played host to various vaudevillian acts, Broadway-style shows and silent films. Like many grand movie houses of the time, the Saenger was even equipped with its own beautiful organ. However, the Saenger owes much of its grandeur to the Pensacola Opera House, a venue that predated the Saenger and, at one time, was known throughout the South for its grand elegance. During the Pensacola timber boom in the 1880s, local businessmen capitalized on the economic prosperity of the region by creating the opera house. Eventually, the economic downturn and damage from a hurricane and another fierce storm caused the opera house doors to close in 1917.
It didn't take long before Pensacola was ready for a grand theatre once again, thus giving the Saenger the opportunity to pick up where they had left off only a few years earlier. Though the Saenger opened in 1925 and has since gone through two major renovations, much of its ornamentation is from the original opera house, including some of the stunning elements on the ceiling.
Today, the Saenger Theatre is even larger and grander than it was before, blending new luxuries with old-theatre charm and never sacrificing the beauty or historical integrity of the Grand Dame of Palafox.
That stage has hosted performers like B.B. King, Harry Connick Jr., Jerry Seinfeld and even Magician David Copperfield. In 2017, you'll be able to see the touring productions of "Chicago" and "Mamma Mia," Norah Jones, Gordon Lightfoot and even Celtic Woman, to name a few. In March, the Pensacola Opera will perform the Florida debut of Jake Heggie's dramatic new opera "Dead Man Walking." One of my favorite summer activities is attending the Saenger’s classic movie series, which allows you to watch some of your favorite classic films projected on a huge screen, much the same way they debuted.
Photo by Steven Gray
Knowing that so much history lives within those walls makes standing on that stage a very humbling experience. I had my stage debut there, as a very distracted 3-year-old ballerina. As children, my parents waited all week to sit in those seats and laugh at the Saturday cartoons. So many Pensacola residents can tell a similar story, which is why it's so important to preserve and support local arts venues. You're not only preserving the art, you are giving future generations the opportunity to make those same fond memories.
PENSACOLA LITTLE THEATRE
As if the Saenger weren't enough of a gem, we happen to be home to the longest continuous-running community theatre in the Southeast, the Pensacola Little Theatre. This place has always held a soft spot for me, because it's where I played in my first full musical and, years later, where I had my first lead role. PLT is not defined by the building it lives in, but by a sense of community and mutual love of the theatre.
Perhaps this comes from its nomadic beginnings, which can be traced all the way back to 1926, when a group of enthusiastic thespians put on shows at the historic San Carlos Hotel. The group was quite popular around town, until 1929, when the Great Depression rocked the country and entertainment was no longer in the budget for most Americans.
Recognizing the therapeutic value of the performing arts, the Works Progress Administration enacted the Federal Theatre Project in 1936, which established community theatres across the country, including the Pensacola Little Theatre. Though the company didn't have a true home for years, that didn't stop them from sharing their talents with this artistic community.
For decades the company held out hope that they would eventually acquire a permanent home to call their own. Truth be told, I doubt the group ever dreamed their eventual home would be the old county jail, a place of execution… But in the late 1980s, the county deeded the vacant building to the theater group. By the mid-90s, the Pensacola Cultural Center was established — and a site that had for years been filled with dread and despair transformed into a place of inspiration and joy. Though some still believe the theatre inherited a ghost or two.
Now, 80 years later, Pensacola Little Theatre is still inspiring audiences with its exciting productions and giving locals a place to shine. This year, you can enjoy such classics as "On Golden Pond," "My Fair Lady, " "Charlotte's Web" and "Footloose!"
Ballet Pensacola also calls the Cultural Center home, and will soon be performing their inventive takes on "Romeo and Juliet" in February and "Alice in Wonderland" in April.
FOR MORE INFO
The histories of both the Saenger and PLT are a testament to Pensacola's long love affair with the performing arts. "The show must go on" is more than just a saying here. For nearly a century, it has been a code we live by. That tradition carries on.