Beginnings & Restoration
Opened on January 5, 1929, it was the pride of Phoenix, a town of 48,000. It had 1,800 seats and an early form of air conditioning, which made it the place to see an be seen in the city! Its 101 feet of stage width and 28 feet of depth made the Orpheum the only theatre between Los Angeles and Denver able to handle the traveling vaudeville shows that changed weekly.
Designed by architects Lescher & Mahoney, the theatre was built for $750,000 by Jo E. Rickards and Harry Nace. The Orpheum was designed in the atmospheric style, with the audience sitting in a garden surrounded by Spanish-style buildings, murals of mountains, and forests, under puffy white clouds moving across a deep blue domed sky.
The first year brought a large variety of shows in "picture, talkies, and stage". It also brought new owners when Rickards and Nace sold interest in their Arizona theatre empire to Publix Theaters Inc, a Paramount Pictures company in November of 1929.
In July of 1946 the Orpheum Theatre was billed as a Nace Paramount Theater with the name officially changing to the Paramount in 1950. Harry Nace continued to manage the theatre, but took on a smaller role due in part to his quest to bring baseball to Arizona.
The theatre was purchased by James Nederlander of the Nederlander Theatrical Corporation in April of 1968 and was added as a stop on the Broadway circuit. During the Nederlander years the theatre was known as Palace West.
Over the years, the theatre played host to many Hollywood and Broadway greats including Mae West, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall.
By 1983 it seemed the best of the theatre's days were behind. Showing mainly Spanish speaking films and hosting the occasional concert booked by Feyline Presents Inc, the tired, worn, and outdated theatre was well on its way to being razed for a parking lot.
Fortunately, the theatre was spared from the wrecking ball when the City of Phoenix acquired the block containing the theatre as a site for its new 20 story city hall in 1984. The next year succeeded in having the theatre placed on the National Register of Historic places.
In 1988 the city voters approved $7 million in funds for restoration. The Orpheum Theatre Foundation was founded the following year to raise the remaining funds and in 1991 the theatre’s original name of Orpheum was restored.
Arizona Republican, January 5, 1929
Arizona Republican, January 5, 1929
The city decided to incorporate the entire Orpheum building into its new city hall plan, with the new high-rise towering behind the theatre, and providing the utilities and services for both structures. The stage was expanded to a depth of 47 feet, the fly was extended upward to 66 feet, and an interior loading dock was constructed underneath city hall to serve the theatre.
The small shops on the ground floor of the theatre were transformed into an expanded lobby and box office area without destroying the integrity of the building. In addition, the street in front of the theatre was closed, landscaped, and incorporated into a plaza.
Seating was reduced to 1,400 with wider seats, and handicapped access provided. Even the clouds, stars, and sunsets have returned, but not without cost. The original building cost $750,000, returning it to its 1929 glory cost $14,500,000.
Today the Orpheum Theatre hosts live performances and the occasional silent movie with live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ.
Learn more about the restoration, view our gallery of photos, and share your personal stories by selecting HISTORY in the menu bar at the top of this page.