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What was the Orpheum Circuit?

Occasionally in the past, when I’ve been leading tours of the Orpheum, I’d would be asked if the Theatre was part of the Orpheum Circuit. I’ve always answered no; however, now I have research provided by Barry Goodkin (Theatre Historical Society of America) indicating that, when the Orpheum opened in 1929, it was part of the Orpheum Circuit. So, what was the Orpheum Circuit?

The Orpheum Circuit began in the late 1890s in California. The idea was to provide the public with a wide variety of “wholesome” entertainment, provided by a wide variety of performers, from singers and dancers to magicians and animal acts, along with the occasional theatrical and even grand opera. Throughout the 1890s, the Circuit expanded beyond California, purchasing or building theaters in Colorado, Missouri, and Nebraska. Over the next 20 years, a series of mergers, along with an aggressive building campaign, resulted in a national Circuit of 45 theaters in 36 cities.

The typical program could contain anywhere from 10 to 15 “acts”, with a variety of performers (singers, jugglers, dancers, comedians, animal acts, magicians, etc.) and could last anywhere from 90 minutes to almost 3 hours. In many cases, the live performances would be paired with short films. But by the 1920s this was all to change.

By the 20’s, motion pictures had become the prime source of entertainment for many Americans. Films had become longer, and often combined spectacle with sophistication. Theater owners found that they could no longer combine a long vaudeville program with a now longer movie, so they decided to reduce the amount of vaudeville. They could improve their bottom line by having, and paying for, 6 or 7 acts instead of 13 or 14. The ongoing decline in revenue for the Circuit resulted in a merger in 1928 for the Circuit and its only significant rival, Keith-Albee. Later the same year, the new organization merged with RCA (Radio Corporation of America), to form Radio Pictures, better known as RKO, a film studio that existed into the 1950s.

Although there were vaudeville performances at the Orpheum into 1933 (and the Ziegfeld Follies performed in the Theatre in 1935), many vaudeville performers faded away. But a number of them – for example W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Ruby Stevens (aka Barbara Stanwyck), Burns & Allen, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Ben E. Benny (aka Jack Benny), Fanny Brice, Edgar Bergen, Fred Allen, Louise Hovick (aka Gypsy Rose Lee) – went on to long careers in movies and/or radio.

Today, there are less than 20 Orpheum Theatres still operating in the United States; two of them are in Arizona – in Phoenix and Flagstaff.



Downstairs @ the Orpheum is Back!

The next show is scheduled for January 10, where FOTOT will present a night of Latin Jazz. Then on February 14, join us for an evening of romantic classics with the Urban Nocturnes – three members of the Phoenix Symphony!

Happy 88th Birthday to the Orpheum Theatre!

On January 5, 1929 the Orpheum Theatre opened in Phoenix.

Happy 20th Anniversary to the Orpheum Theatre!

On January 28, 1997 the restored Orpheum Theatre reopened with a performance of “Hello Dolly” starring Carol Channing.


What's Coming Up at the Orpheum

January 10 - Free Public Tours Noon 1:00 January 10 - Downstairs @ the Orpheum 5:30 – Latin Jazz w/Beth Lederman & Jazz Con Alma January 13 - Theater League presents “Saturday Night Fever” 8:00 January 14 - Theatre League presents “Saturday Night Fever” 2:00 8:00 January 15 - Theater League presents “Saturday Night Fever” 1:00 6:30 January 24 - Free Public Tours Noon 1:00 February 10 - Theater League presents “Dirty Dancing” 8:00 February 11 - Theater League presents “Dirty Dancing” 2:00 8:00 February 12 - Theater League presents “Dirty Dancing” 1:00 6:30 February 14 - Downstairs @ the Orpheum 5:30 – Classical Selections w/The Urban Nocturnes


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.

Support the Friends, Become a “Star” – A unique way to support FOTOT. For $100 you can purchase a brick which will be placed in the “Avenue of Stars” located just east of the Theatre in the City Hall Plaza. You can purchase a brick to honor your family, a friend, someone you admire, or to celebrate an event (graduation, birthday, etc.). For more information, visit our website.

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.


Visit the Theatre

Did You Know – The light rail has two stops that are less than a 10 minute walk from the Orpheum. Whether you’re coming from the East Valley or from Northwest Phoenix, taking the train allows you to avoid traffic as well as the cost of parking your car.


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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