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All About Harry

According to Irving Berlin, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” According to Bill Shakespeare, “All The World’s a Stage.” And the lure of the bright lights was enough for many people to seek their fortune in the arts; one of them was Harry Nace.

Harry was born in Railroad, Pa. in 1885. Although his home life was pleasant, Harry dreamed of escape from his small-town existence. He ran away from home twice – the second time successfully – and ended up joining the Sells Floto Circus. He literally started at the bottom (i.e., following the animals), but he loved the circus atmosphere – the lights, music, and the enjoyment and wonder in the faces of the audience.

Eventually, Nace left the circus and joined a vaudeville troupe, travelling the Western United States. Because of a bad case of rheumatism, he decided to settle in Phoenix because of its warm climate.

His first job in Phoenix (in 1910) was at the Airdome Theater, an open-air theater (no roof and corrugated metal walls). There were a number of these theaters in Downtown Phoenix. Harry’s “smarts” and his outgoing personality brought him many friends, one of whom was Art Rick (aka Jo E. Rickards). Rick was a reporter for the Arizona Republican who also managed the Columbia Theater on West Adams St.

In1912 Nace would become the manager of the Arizona Theater as well as manager of the California Film Exchange. In the latter position, he would order and distribute films to the various Phoenix theaters. A few years later, he purchased his first theater, the Lamara, on Washington St. just west of Central.

In 1918, Nace and Rickards formed a partnership, ultimately owning or managing number of theaters in Phoenix and throughout Arizona, making both men wealthy. As Phoenix continued to experience population growth, both men felt that the city was ready for a premier movie palace. Construction began in 1927 at a lot they had purchased on Adams St. and Second Ave. Built at a cost of $750,000 (about $10.3 million in today’s money), and designed in a style called Spanish Baroque, the Orpheum opened in January 1929 with a publicity blitz and with Hollywood celebrities in attendance.

Ten months later, Rickards and Nace sold their Phoenix theaters to Paramount Pictures. Their partnership ended; Rickards re-located to Hollywood (he died in 1943), while Harry remained managing the Orpheum, as well as keeping control of the partnership’s other theaters in Arizona.

During the ‘30’s and ’40’s, Nace expanded his theater empire throughout Arizona, often working with local entrepreneurs. In 1940 he opened Arizona’s first drive-in theater, located at 36th St. and Van Buren. His last Phoenix theater, the Palms, opened in 1945 at Central and Virginia. Among his other ventures, in 1935 Nace donated land to the City at Central and Mohave for a baseball stadium, which became the first Phoenix Municipal Stadium (it was torn down in the ‘60’s). And in 1953, Harry and three partners opened Phoenix’s second TV station (now Channel 12).

Harry Nace retired in 1948, and turned the theater operation over to his son, Harry, Jr. Harry died in 1953. Harry, Jr. retired in 1982; he died in 2002.

(Steve King and Barry Goodkin provided the material for this article.)


What's Coming Up at the Orpheum - Now & Then


July 7 - Rob Bell: Everything is Spiritual Tour

July 14 - Free Public Tours 12Noon and 1pm

July 28 - Free Public Tours 12Noon and 1pm

August 13 - Ru Paul’s Drag Race


March 3, 1951

Live on stage: Mae West in “Diamond Lil”

Although the movie career was virtually over, Ms. West still had her fans, and apparently a lot of them. Both the matinee and evening performances were near sell-outs. “Diamond Lil,” first performed in the ‘20’s, was written by her, and was the basis of her second starring picture, “I’m No Angel.” In its review, the Phoenix Gazette said that “Mae West Sparkles in Comedy at the Paramount.”


Support the Friends

Attention Fry’s Shoppers – Donate to the Friends every time you shop at Fry’s, and it’s free. Fry’s is donating $2 million a year ($500,000/quarter) to Arizona non-profits. To participate, go to and register your Fry’s VIP card, and select Friends of the Orpheum Theatre as your non-profit of choice. Remember: your donation is free, and this program is separate from the gas program. Last year, the Friends received nearly $700 from Fry’s. Also: if you are already a member of the Program you have to re-register in August. Just go to the e-mail location shown above and follow the directions to re-enroll.

Give Kids a Boost – It’s often difficult for young children to see what’s happening on stage because they are “vertically challenged.” Now you can help the Friends solve this problem by purchasing a booster seat. The purchase price is $25, and each seat purchased will be labelled with the name of the purchaser. Visit our website, for more information.

Become a Member of the Friends – Join us as we preserve and illuminate the heritage of the glorious Orpheum Theatre. Visit our website to learn more.


Friends of the Orpheum Theatre

A 501c3 nonprofit whose Mission is:

To support the art, culture, and history of the Orpheum Theatre through outreach, education, and volunteerism.

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