I recently started volunteering with the City of Phoenix Convention Center as an “Arts Ambassador”. It is a snappy title, to be sure, and means I usher at events at Symphony Hall and the Orpheum Theatre. I will blog about the training in due course and, of course, I look forward to writing about the performances I see.
One of the factoids I learned in usher training at The Orpheum is that the City offers docent-led tours of the theatre twice a month for, wait for it…..free! I love old theaters and, lord knows, I love free stuff.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1985, the story of the Orpheum is, in many ways, a familiar one. Originally a palatial movie and vaudeville theater, it changed hands, was adapted for other uses, fell into disrepair and was closed for a time before a restoration campaign brought it back to life and much of its original glory. The City of Phoenix now owns and operates it as a performing arts space. Sadly, they no longer show movies.
Rickards & Nace; operators of a chain of movie and vaudeville theaters throughout Arizona commenced construction of The Orpheum in 1927. It opened in January of 1929. At one time there were eight movie theaters within a five-block radius in of the city center in Phoenix. Rickards & Nace owned most of them and they were massive. The Rialto opened a few years earlier and could seat 1700 patrons. The Orpheum, one block north, could seat 1550 when it opened. Design changes for live performances and accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act reduced seating capacity to the current 1360.
Sondheim’s lyrical reference notwithstanding, the theater was called The Orpheum as a reference to Orpheus but it was never part of vaudeville’s “Orpheum Circuit”.
Rickards & Nace sold their Phoenix and Tucson theaters to Paramount in 1929 though Nace continued to manage them for another 20 years. They continued to own and operate their theaters in smaller Arizona communities around the State. At some point, I am unclear on the date, the theatre was renamed The Paramount.
In 1949, a protracted anti-trust suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department against the major movies studios was settled. The settlement required the studios to divest their theater chains. This, along with the suburbanization of the area after World War II, caused the theatre the decline in the 1950’s and early ’60’s.
In 1968, the Nederlander company purchased the theatre. The Nederlanders produced Broadway-style touring shows in the theatre for almost a decade. The first show in the newly re-christened Palace West Theatre was “I Do! I Do!” staring was Mary Martin and Robert Preston. A few years later, the Nederlanders brought “HAIR!” to the Palace West, a source of some controversy in the conservative, and heavily Mormon, Valley of the Sun.
In 1977, the Nederlanders removed the theatre from their touring schedule because of it’s deteriorating condition and leased it to a local entrepreneur who operated it for a few years as a Spanish-language movie house. The theatre closed in the early 1980’s and the Nederlanders sold it to an investor who deeded it to the City of Phoenix for restoration.
15 years and $14.5 million later, the theatre reopened as The Orpheum. The first show was “Hello Dolly” starring Carol Channing. It continues to host live performances for concerts, touring shows, and productions by local companies and schools. We’ve attended a number of Ballet Arizona performances there. It was the home of Arizona Opera’s recent production of Don Pasquale and it was the temporary home of the Phoenix Symphony during the renovation of Symphony Hall a decade ago.
The original registration as an historic place and much of the early fund raising was provided by the local Junior League. They also provided a lot of elbow grease in restoring the balcony seats which are re-upholstered but original.
The Friends of the Orpheum Theatre is an active group. They work with the City to train docents for the tours and to educate other volunteers, such as Harper’s Keeper, to respond intelligently when asked questions about the theatre. They also coordinate fund-raising projects with the City on smaller items needed for historic accuracy but which hall outside the City’s procurement guidelines.
The Modern Lobby is a bit of an anomaly. Originally it was retail space, separate from the theatre. The city acquired those spaces when it purchased the theatre. Only one of the 14 exits to/from the auditorium exit into the Modern Lobby and, while there is no longer a wall separating the Modern Lobby from the Historic Lobby, the customers’ experience of the theatre is not diminished. It is possible to enter, enjoy and leave the theatre without entering or passing through the Modern Lobby.
A note about spelling. As an American, I know the word theater ends in ‘er’ and not ‘re’. The subject, however, is called The Orpheum Theatre. I have attempted to us ‘…re’ when referring to the Orpheum itself and ‘…er’ in other contexts.