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The Orpheum we see today is not actually the original building. The original theater was not even called “The Orpheum” – that name wouldn’t appear on the front of the building until 1907. The original theater, built in 1890 on the southwest corner of Main and Beale, was known as the Grand Opera House. It was well known among theater-goers, and it was touted as the fanciest theater outside of New York City. It was managed by Frank Gray, a gentleman that had come up in theater, beginning his career as an usher. Mr. Gray was well-respected in the theater community for reliably booking only the best shows available, and was even nicknamed the “Dean of Southern Theater Managers.”
In 1899, the Grand Opera House was purchased by John D. Hopkins, already a theater owner in St. Louis and Chicago, who had a background in vaudeville and minstrel shows. The theater was renamed Hopkins Grand Opera. Hopkins immediately began making improvements to the theater, replacing the gas lamps with electric lighting and brightening the drab interior even further by repainting it in grey and gold. Even though vaudeville was the theater’s main focus, they also hosted more refined acts such as the great French stage actor, Sarah Bernhardt, during one of her world tours.
Unfortunately, sophisticated acts like Sarah Bernhardt merely acted as a facade for some of Hopkins’s seedier dealings. He was involved in a lawsuit around 1906 because of his plan to sublease the theater to the Eastern Burlesque Wheel. This was not a popular idea among the theater community, and Hopkins drew so much harsh criticism that it prompted him to try and sell the theater. He had no such luck until more than a year later, when the theater changed hands to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit. Hopkins died, presumably from kidney failure, just more than two years later. In the New York Times’s public announcement about the theater changing hands, a phrase was used to hint at what kind of theater fare the patrons could expect, and also to appeal to a more elite clientele… this phrase delights me to no end… After the functional portion of the announcement, telling about renovations and the name change, it says, “Advanced vaudeville will be served.”
So finally we’re in 1907, and we have a theater in Memphis called “The Orpheum.” The theater saw great success with its vaudeville acts for nearly two decades. In 1923, a fire broke out either during, or just after (depending on the source) a striptease performance by the famous singer and recording artist, Blossom Seeley. Blossom is credited with playing a pivotal role in bringing jazz and ragtime to the mainstream in the US. Fortunately, no one was harmed in the fire, but the theater was a total loss – it burned to the ground.
The site sat dormant for about 4 years, before ground was broken on a new theater, on the foundation of the old building, but the new building was twice as big, with a much more luxurious appearance. The new theater was designed by sibling architects named Cornelius and George Rapp. Their architecture firm, Rapp & Rapp, has quite the list of well-known buildings that they designed… enough so that they deserve for us to briefly tangent into their works.
Rapp & Rapp were known to be the foremost designers of early 20th century movie palaces, having designed more than 400 theaters in their time. Here are some of the buildings that were designed by Rapp & Rapp.
- The Central Park Theater in New York City
- The Chicago Theater in – well, Chicago
- The Paramount Building in Times Square – that’s the one with the giant four-faced clock on top
- The Nederlander Theater in Chicago, formerly known as the Oriental Theater (the name was changed in 2019). And if you know even basic stuff about Chicago history, you might have heard about the devastating fire that happened in the Iroquois theater in 1903 that killed just short of 600 people, and began theater safety reform in the US… well, the Nederlander Theater, designed by Rapp & Rapp, replaced the Iroquois Theater. Also – I actually performed in that theater for a couple of weeks back in 2000. It’s really a lovely theater.
- Rapp & Rapp also designed most of the theaters in the Orpheum theater circuit… they’re all over the US.
The new Orpheum Theatre was built at a cost of 1.6 million dollars – an enormous financial undertaking. In today’s dollars, that total would work out to somewhere around $23 million. The money was thought to have been well-spent once the theater patrons saw the extravagant furnishings, and the size of the seating area. The theater was built to seat around 2,800 people, making it twice as large as its predecessor, and also making it the largest theater in the Orpheum Circuit. The theater’s new furnishings featured gold and silver leaf, marble, lush carpets, crystal chandeliers, and a brand new Wurlitzer organ that was used for performances and also for accompanying silent films. The newly built theater opened its doors in October of 1928.
The theater was also equipped for talking pictures, which had been introduced a year before the theater’s opening with the release of The Jazz Singer, but like many other theaters, The Orpheum still made use of its pipe organ. The theater owners contacted the Wurlitzer Company and purchased a 3-manual, 13-rank, style 240 theater pipe organ. For those of you that might have just blacked out from technical jargon exposure, let me explain… no, there is too much… let me sum up… Style 240 is basically the model number of the organ. 3-Manual means that there are 3 tiers of keys, and that they are meant to be played with your hands (as opposed to a pedalboard, which is played with your feet). And finally, 13-rank refers to the number of pipe sets available for the organ to play through, which provide different sounds for the player to choose from. There are just over 1,100 pipes, ranging from 16 feet in length, all the way down to the size of a pencil. In the 1980s, an additional set of wooden pipes was donated to the theater to enhance the organ’s bass voice.
The Wurlitzer actually JUST returned in the past two months from undergoing a full restoration. The Orpheum launched a fundraising campaign about three years ago to raise the $500,000 necessary to restore the non-working parts of the instrument and restore the finish to its original beauty. The finish had been damaged during a small stage fire in the 1950s, when part of the original stage curtains caught fire and fell on top of the organ. We were not able to attend the post restoration concert that they held a few weeks back, but from what we hear, the organ looks and sounds fantastic.
I always love when I get to geek out about the music-related stuff we run across when we’re writing these episodes… I might go on a little long when it comes to that stuff, but it’s only because I find it fascinating.
OK, back to the subject at hand…
As the popularity of movies increased, the popularity of vaudeville-style acts began to wane. Times were growing tighter and tighter, and when the Great Depression hit, The Orpheum just couldn’t survive. As a result, the theater was sold in 1940 to Michael Lightman, owner of the Malco theater chain. The name of the theater changed from The Orpheum to “Malco”, and they began showing first-run movies. The theater ran under the film-only format until 1977, when it was closed after a period of low attendance. The entirety of downtown became pretty desolate, and most of the businesses in the area were struggling.
After Lightman closed the theater, the building was actually in danger of being demolished. Thankfully, for all of us lovers of theater, this did not happen. In fact, in 1970, a group of concerned Memphians formed the Memphis Development Foundation in hopes of sparking a revitalization of the downtown area. To help this along, they purchased the theater, changed the name back to “The Orpheum,” and made plans to start bringing Broadway-style productions and concerts back to the theater. In 1980, Memphis Development Foundation hired Pat Halloran as its president and CEO. All you have to do is look to the Orpheum’s smaller venue to know how that relationship turned out. That theater is named “The Halloran Centre.” Pat Halloran held his position for 35 years.
In 1982, thanks to some effective fundraising and campaigning by Memphis Development Foundation, acting under the name, “Friends of the Orpheum,” along with the generosity of Memphis and the Mid-South Community, 5 million dollars was raised to fund a full restoration of the Orpheum to return it to its 1928 grandeur. The restoration efforts worked wonders for the theater’s appearance, and they are still evident today – the theater currently looks very much like it did in 1928 when it first opened.
The renovations were also geared toward making the theater more accessible for modern performers and audiences. Restrooms and dressing rooms were upgraded; new HVAC systems were installed; two loading docks were added to better accommodate touring shows; concession areas, additional restrooms, and a new box office were added on the south side of the lobby; and a green room was added in the northeast corner of the theater. Other updates included the construction of an expanded orchestra pit and a hydraulic pit lift that added extra space to the front stage area in the absence of an orchestra. After the renovations were completed, they celebrated their grand re-opening with a concert event called “Champagne and Gershwin.”
In 1996, The Orpheum underwent a second, much larger renovation – to the tune of 8 million dollars. As Broadway shows became larger and more complex, their props and effects also became larger and more elaborate. To accommodate these needs, and to ensure that larger shows would include Memphis as a site on their tours, it was necessary to expand the loading docks, the stage, and the backstage areas. The orchestra pit was enlarged, loading docks were added and expanded, the stage was extended to a depth of 50 feet, new technology was installed, and 13 dressing rooms were added. There was also a warm-up area added behind the stage so that dancers could have enough room to ready themselves for shows.
These improvements garnered interest from many of the larger Broadway shows, such as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and most recently – Hamilton. WIthout these expansions and improvements, The Orpheum could never have accommodated shows of this size. Actually, now that I think of it, the show that I performed with back in the early 2000’s, Blast!, is one of the shows that probably would have had a very hard time fitting on that stage prior to the expansion. I was no longer with the show when it came through Memphis, but I believe it was in March of 2003.
So, ticket sales were growing, thanks to The Orpheum’s last facilities expansion, which began to turn the heads of major Broadway shows like the ones we just mentioned. But, in addition to this uptick in sales, the theater’s community outreach and educational programs became larger than the theater could accommodate inside its walls. In response to this, The Crump Firm drew up designs for a state-of-the-art educational facility that would house a 361-seat performance venue, lots of classrooms, and multi-purpose event spaces. In 2015, just to the south of the theater, the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts and Education was opened. It really is a beautiful venue. We went to see Raul Midon at the Halloran Centre, who, by the way is an amazing guitarist/singer/songwriter… look him up… Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in our first time at the Halloran Centre.
This facility has done wonders for The Orpheum’s education and outreach efforts. They do such a wonderful job with this. It’s always amazing to hear about all of the events that they host for young people, and we’re extremely proud of the work they do. Here are some of the educational programs they host throughout the year, for those of you might not know:
- The Orpheum STAR Council… STAR stands for “Students Take a Role”… This program gives high school theater students an opportunity to learn what goes into hosting events at The Orpheum. They can assist with hosting the theater’s Saturday Series of educational events, help to coordinate the pre-show and post-show events for some shows, and even act as ushers during the performances.
- The Orpheum High School Musical Theatre Awards show is hosted to celebrate and promote musical theater in the Mid-South. This program is part of The Jimmy Awards, the national high school musical theatre awards program produced by The Broadway League that includes over 40 programs across the US.
- The Mending Hearts Camp, which is a performing arts day camp for young people who have suffered the loss of one or both parents. Surrounded by a group of peers who have suffered the same type of loss, they get to build self-confidence and find their creative voice through acting, movement, music, and design classes, culminating in a performance showcase at the end of the camp.
- Camp SAY… SAY stands for “Stuttering Association for the Young”… This is a free, two-day camp involving games and performance activities that are geared toward developing teamwork, communication, connection, and creativity, while accommodating the evolving needs of young people who stutter.
- The Orpheum Theatre Group Teaching Artist training program trains local artists and educators to harness their artistry and creativity to help create high-quality instruction for youth and communities throughout the Mid-South. They look for passionate, energetic, and open-minded artists who represent diverse cultural backgrounds, communities, and artistic disciplines, and their goal is to elevate the standard for teaching artistry in this area, and provide those young people with the skills to develop sustainable careers as teachers, while continuing to share their artistry with their community.
- The Orpheum and the Halloran Centre also host field trips (even virtual ones to cater to our current situation) for student groups, and many opportunities for teacher professional development.
Now, I don’t know what other theaters do for their communities when it comes to education and community outreach, but it seems that if they’re doing even HALF of what the Orpheum is doing, that’s still a lot. I can only hope that other areas of the world have this type of participation in their communities from their local theater.
So, in 2016 the Memphis Development Foundation found itself under new leadership when Pat Halloran decided to retire after 35 years. He was succeeded by Brett Batterson. New leadership also came with a re-branding. The organization was now called The Orpheum Theatre Group, and their stated mission is “to enhance the communities [they] serve by utilizing the performing arts to entertain, educate, and enlighten while preserving the historic Orpheum Theatre and the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education.”
Since then, there has been one more set of renovations completed, involving the addition of more restrooms and restoring much of the gold leaf work and re-painting the auditorium’s ceiling. We can tell you first-hand that the addition of more restrooms has had a huge effect on our Orpheum experience. If you ever went to a show prior to 2016, you might have noticed that being able to say you got to go to the restroom during intermission was like saying you had won a 200 meter sprint. If your fanny wasn’t speed-walking up the aisle before the intermission house lights came up, you were likely to be holding it for another 90 minutes or so. So, we really appreciate those restroom additions.
Counting all of the spaces in both The Orpheum and The Halloran Centre, there are eight different spaces that are available to rent – people host everything in these spaces… performances, company parties, conferences, weddings, receptions… you name it, they’re set up to host it. The Orpheum provides bartenders and housekeeping, and they have a list of preferred catering services that you can choose from if you rent space from them. Between having such gorgeous facilities to the fact that the theater is smack in the middle of downtown, it’s kind of hard to beat when it comes to hosting an event. All of the information can be found on The Orpheum’s website.
So, not too long ago (but prior to the pandemic), when the planets aligned and we both had a weekday off at the same time, we went on one of the Orpheum daytime tours, and it was fantastic! These tours are given by volunteer docents, called FOTOs (which stands for Friends of the Orpheum), and not only did they do a tremendous job, but these two ladies were absolutely adorable. One of them was named Dorothy, but sadly I cannot remember the other one’s name. They were both retirees, and they now volunteer a LOT of their free time to The Orpheum. FOTO Volunteers give guided tours, they help scan or collect tickets at the theater entrance, they assist with pre-show and post-show events, and they are also the lovely, smiling people that hand you your program and show you to your seat at each performance. They selflessly volunteer their time simply because they love The Orpheum.
The FOTO volunteers also host cast parties or luncheons for the shows that pass through The Orpheum, where they will actually cook and prepare all of the food for the gathering. These parties are typically held in The Broadway Room, which is in the northeast corner of the theater. We have heard from multiple sources that this is something that touring casts and crews know about ahead of time, and look forward to, when they perform in Memphis. As far as anyone knows, these FOTO cast gatherings are the only time on their tours that a group from the host theater prepares home-cooked food for the casts and crews. They have been doing this for nearly 40 years at this point. They have even recently released a cookbook of some of the favorite recipes from these FOTO cast parties, and we are soon to have one of those on its way to our house! If you’re interested in having a copy of your very own, it’s available on The Orpheum’s website, and it’s called, “The Cast Party: A Collection of Recipes by the Friends of the Orpheum.” I think they sell for $20, which is a great deal.
So, one of the coolest parts of the guided tour we took of The Orpheum was getting to see the show murals that are painted all over the walls in the backstage areas. Typically, when a cast comes through a town, especially if it’s their first time performing a theater, a mural is painted somewhere backstage representing their show… sometimes it’s a reproduction of their show’s Playbill or poster, or sometimes they do a different mural for the specific touring cast… but once it is finished, the whole cast and crew of the show will sign the mural. The walls of The Orpheum’s backstage area are covered in these murals. My show, Blast!, even has a mural backstage at The Orpheum. Like I said earlier, I wasn’t still with the show when they came through Memphis, but about 60% of the touring cast at that point were people that I had performed with, so that was fun to see. For those of you that don’t know this, I performed in the Original London and Broadway casts of a show called Blast!, and between London and Broadway, we did a short test tour in about 8 cities around the US. I left the show in 2001 after we closed in New York. We were one of the shows that didn’t survive the theater closings after 9/11, and we closed a short time later. I’m sad that we closed, but it brought me back to Memphis, so hey… silver linings.
We would be remiss to not talk about The Orpheum’s most popular permanent resident… Mary. And we really wouldn’t be us if we didn’t lean a little toward the spooky when the opportunity arose, now would we? No, we would not. For those that have not heard the tales… Mary is The Orpheum’s favorite resident ghost. Although nobody can say definitively how Mary came to reside in the theater, it is believed that she met her end either by a trolley or car accident near the theater and wandered in after she passed, or that she was injured in the crash and brought inside the theater, where she then passed. Some stories also say that she died in the fire that destroyed the theater in the early 1900s. Mary has been spotted in various places inside the theater, and one of those places is her favorite seat – Seat C5 on the Mezzanine level. Rumor has it, if you sit in her seat for a performance, you just might be in for a little pestering from a cranky, 12-year-old spirit. We won’t go into more detail about other spirits that are said to roam around the Orpheum – this is a Christmas season episode, afterall, not a Halloween episode. We’ll save that stuff for later.
Speaking of Christmas – here’s a gift idea for the theater lover in your world. The Orpheum has a program called Name A Seat where you can personalize a name plate to be installed on any seat in the theater (well, any seat that’s not already taken, of course). I don’t know of a better way to honor your theater-loving friend or family member (or yourself… that’s what we’re going to do) than to make their name a permanent fixture in such a wonderful theater.
At some point we will do this because I definitely want to be immortalized at the Orpheum.
Thanks for listening to the story we unearthed!
This is our last episode for this season! Woohoo!
We’ll be back with season two in February! As always, you can find us on your favorite podcast listening app. Also, check out our website at unearthedmemphis.com, follow us on Instagram @unearthedmemphis, Facebook at Facebook.com/unearthed901, Twitter @unearthed901 or drop us an email at email@example.com. We love to hear from everyone! Questions, comments, suggestions, corrections, or just chatter is appreciated and enjoyed!
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Disclaimer: We are not historians, we are simply two people who are interested in Memphis history. We have done research and are trying to provide accurate history as best we can. There is a possibility some of these statements are incorrect, but we have tried to verify all the info so that we are not putting out any untrue info. To the best of our knowledge, what we are saying is correct, but let us know if you have any things to add or correct. In the show notes, you will find links to the articles we used and book titles, etc to gather our information.
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2 thoughts on “Episode Ten: The Orpheum Theater”
Really nice summary. One correction- the headliner the night the Grand Opera House burned was Blossom Seeley. But she did not preform a strip tease. Yes, she was an early jazz singer, but she and her husband, Benny Fields did a song and dance routine.
Thanks for the info!!