126 Iberia Street
Every Building Has a Story
New Iberia is a small town in Louisiana, a town that speaks more than its people. It tells the story of a past generation dormant yet still pulsating with life to this very day. This generation does not have to tell its story; instead, it uses the buildings built in the past to tell their story for them, just as books do. The Essanee Theater, located on Iberia Street, is a prime example of one of these “books.”
Stashed remotely in a subtle and cozy location in New Iberia, the Essanee Theater was and is home to many plays, musicals, and a great deal of New Iberia’s downtown history. Located at 126 Iberia Street, originally serving as a movie theater for the public in its heyday, the Essanee was built in 1937. The architect was Owen James Southwell who is known for his contribution to the building of many historical sites in New Iberia such as St. Peter’s Catholic Church. One unique attribute of the Essanee is that it has never been owned by the government but by individuals and small businesses only. The owner of the land that the Essanee was built on was D. H. Castille who sold the lot to Julius Scharff and Elias Elias on April 2, 1937 for $5,000. The land was 157.37’ on the west side and 157’ on the east side by 50’ with an extra 15’ by 50’ used by D. H. Castille and a 10’ alleyway used by Frank J. Dauterive. Scharff and Elias named the Essanee after the first letters of their last names, “S & E”. The grand opening of the Essanee was in November of 1937, and over the years, the Essanee changed owners (see bottom of section). When the Essanee was built, it was a movie theater. The screen was built into the back wall of the theater, and the rest of the building was filled with rows of seats on the floor and in the balcony. In its original form, the Essanee held over 500 people along with the balcony. The ceiling was covered in acoustic tile to project the sounds in the theater. The Essanee also had a basement that was used for projecting sound. There was also a balcony that was reserved for African Americans only because of segregation. African Americans would use the door on the right side of the building to access the ticket window and then go up to the balcony using a secret stairway, never interacting with whites.
In 1980, the Essanee closed, and it remained unused for many years. When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, the Essanee suffered blows to the roof as well as to the interior. In 2000, Frederick DeCourt was the owner, and he sold the Essanee to Iberia Performing Arts League (IPAL). IPAL was able to remodel and restore the Essanee, patching up the roof as well as repairing damaged chairs. A stage was built, and most of the chairs were taken out from the stage area and the areas along the walls, changing the maximum seating from 500 to 200. The original chairs are still used today. The balcony served as a storage area for sound equipment and props.
The Essanee is home to a distinguished theater group made up of local talented artists and actors. As one looks back on the Essanee’s past, he or she will come to realize that the building has gone through so much to provide entertainment for New Iberia’s townspeople as well as tourists. It is also home to a part of New Iberia’s history, reminding us about how even though the world around us changes, some things are able to stay the same. This immovable novel, with its pages pasted inside its walls and in the people it has touched over the years, has left an imprint on the beloved city of New Iberia, Louisiana and will remain forever in the hearts of past, present, and future generations.
- Scharff and Elias to Julius V. O’Quinn on January 20, 1956
- O’ Quinn to Dick V. Coor on August 9, 1958
- Coor to New Iberia Theater Corporation on April 1, 1960
- New Iberia Theater Corporation to Frederick DeCourt on March 25, 1998
- DeCourt to Iberia Performing Arts League on October 31, 2000
If Walls and Windows Could Talk
When taking a stroll down Iberia Street, many tourists as well as native citizens might feel as if they have taken a step back into the past when coming across the Essanee Theater. Built in 1937, the theater was designed to be “one of the finest and most beautiful picture houses to be found in any city New Iberia’s size in the country.” Owen James Trainor Southwell, a well-known noted architect for his many architectural contributions to the city of New Iberia, drew up the plans for the building’s construction. The theater was built in the Art Deco design, which was a very popular style during that time. With its original metal casement windows and original hardware still on the doors, the Essanee Theater is truly a building from the past that has been well preserved. One particular architectural detail that Owen Southwell is known for is his use of mosaics, and this detail can be seen at the very top of the Essanee building where a beautiful mosaic frieze design is located. At the bottom of the building there is glazed tile, and at one time, the concrete on the sidewalk was even stained to match the tile. As for alterations, the original sign boards are intact, but the original marquee has been changed. However, for the most part, the Essanee Theater has been preserved and kept to look the same as it did seventy-four years ago.
A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words
Photo of the Essanee taken in 1980 from American Classic Images
Note that the two photos above were taken from the same angle.
Voices from the Past and Present
On May 11, 2011, JoLena Broussard and Albony Martin interviewed Mrs. Anne Patout on her fond memories of living in New Iberia and attending the Essanee Theater.
“About IPAL.” Iberia Performing Arts League, 2009. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://iberiaperformingartsleague-com.doodlekit.com/home/about_ipal_>.
Essanee. 1980. American Classic Images. Web. 12 May 2011.
Broussard, JoLena, and Albony Martin. Essanee Photographs. 2011. Photographs. Private Collection. JoLena Broussard.
Edwards, C.J. “Essanee Theatre Draws Big Crowd on Opening Day.” The Weekly Iberian 25 Nov. 1937: 1. Iberia Parish Library. Microform.
Edwards, C.J. “Essanee Theatre Opening Date Is Set for Nov. 23.” The Weekly Iberian 1 Nov. 1937: 1. Iberia Parish Library. Microform.
Essanee Theatre. Advertisement. The Weekly Iberian 13 Jan. 1938: 2. Microform.
Iberia Parish. Conveyance. Book 129, Folio 158, Entry 52358. 2 Apr. 1937. Print.
Iberia Parish. Conveyance. Book 278, Folio 439, Entry 98 686. 20 Jan. 1956. Print.
Iberia Parish. Conveyance. Book 338, Folio 191, Entry 10 9783. 29 Aug. 1958. Print.
Iberia Parish. Conveyance. Book 370, Folio 179, Entry 11 5416. 1 Apr. 1960. Print.
Iberia Parish. Conveyance. Book 1153, Folio 486, Entry 98-2562—. 25 Mar. 1998. Print.
Iberia Parish. Conveyance. Book 1207, Folio 800, Entry 13249—. 31 Oct. 2000. Print.
Lopez, Greg. “Essanee Theater’s Final Film Tonight.” The Daily Iberian 28 Nov. 1985: 1-2. Iberia Parish Library. Microform.
Martin, Carroll. I.A. and Carroll Martin Collection. Photographs. Private Collection. Glenn Conrad.
Patout, Anne. Personal interview. 11 May 2011.