Recently at one of the new Palace Theaters, I saw large pictures of old theaters and wanted to know if you can tell me more about them and where they are located if they are still around.
These splendid pictures -- The Palace, The Orpheum, Loew's State, the Saenger, the Pitt, the Coliseum, Airline Drive-In, and the Algiers Drive-In -- in the Palace Theater at Clearview Shopping Center remind me of the days when New Orleans had theaters everywhere. Almost everyone had a theater in his neighborhood, and if you had a car there were many drive-ins. But the really grand theaters were to be found on or near Canal Street.
The Palace Theater of yesteryear had its beginning in 1904 as the Greenwall Theater. Located on Iberville and Dauphine streets, it was built by Henry Greenwall, a successful theater owner-manager in New Orleans and other southern cities. Originally meant for live performances, the theater ended its career as a movie house before it was demolished in 1963.
However, still standing are the three other grand theaters. The Orpheum Theater at 129 University Place was built in 1921 and renovated in 1989. It was typical of many European opera houses, and many stars came to perform in this vaudeville hall before it became a premier movie house. Of course, today it is home to the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Loew's State Theater -- now the State Palace Theater -- on Canal and Rampart streets opened on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1926. It was magnificent and gorgeously appointed. Luxurious and spacious, it boasted a beautiful foyer and wide staircase. The balcony, with its tiers of loges and wide aisles, offered a view of the house from almost any seat. The acoustics, too, were superb, and a $50,000 Moeller organ had been installed just the day before. And perhaps best of all -- the theater was air-cooled! In the 1930s the live concerts and vaudeville performances were all replaced by "talking pictures."
The Saenger Theater across Canal Street opened in February 1927 and, like Loew's, it began life as a magnificent establishment for enjoying silent pictures, stage plays and live music from the Saenger Orchestra and the 778-pipe Robert Morgan Wonder Organ -- all in the same performance. Like Loew's, the Saenger saw the end of the performance element in the 1930s and the beginning of many years as a movie theater. The theater was sold in the late 1970s and within a few years was renovated and reopened to become one of the best places for live theatrical, musical and performing arts entertainment.
At one time there were about 50 neighborhood theaters in New Orleans. The Coliseum and the Pitt were two of them.
The Coliseum -- located on the corner of Coliseum and Thalia streets -- served the Coliseum Square neighborhood for more than 40 years. It closed in the early 1970s. About 10 years ago, the building was purchased and renovated and is now home to Ron Calamia Photography.
The Pitt was at 6203 Elysian Fields Ave. Built in 1944, it closed for a time in the 1950s while a conflict occurred over zoning restrictions. It eventually reopened and lasted until 1995.
Drive-ins became very popular after World War II. Beginning in the late 1940s, we could choose from the Drive-In Movies at 4000 Jefferson Hwy., the St. Bernard at the end of St. Claude Avenue, the Crescent at 1761 Airline Hwy., the Skyvue at Gentilly Boulevard. and Downman Road, the Do-Drive In at 801 Metairie Road, the Airline at 4000 Airline Hwy., and the Algiers at 3424 General Meyer Ave. And there were others. However, over the years the popularity of this American institution declined. As pictures became more explicit, fewer families went. Also the new suburban shopping centers included air-conditioned movie theaters that drew the crowds. And, of course, there was television. Still, in 1977 there were seven drive-ins in the New Orleans area, but the last one closed in 1982. All over the city you can see old theaters that have been converted to other uses. There is but one remaining single-screen theater: The Prytania.