Still Mighty at Ninety
On January 5, 2019, the Orpheum Theatre celebrates its 90th birthday!
The excitement began in June 1927 when construction began on what was promised to be "the most beautiful playhouse west of the Mississippi" by theater entrepreneurs Harry L. Nace and Jo. E. Rickards.
Rickards and Nace began their partnership in 1918. Nace handled the business side while Rickards was in charge of publicity. In August of 1925, Rickards & Nace Enterprises purchased property for a new theater at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Adams Street from the Phoenix Lodge of Elks for $100,000. The new theater would join a growing list of theaters already owned or managed by Rickards and Nace in Arizona including, but not limited to, the Strand and Rialto, both located on Washington Street in Phoenix, as well as the still operating Rialto (now Winslow) theater in Winslow, AZ.
Billed as "The Greatest Event in Theatrical History", opening night resembled an Oscar ceremony. Attendees included Governor Hunt, Mayor Paddock, members of various business and civic organizations, and a number of Hollywood celebrities, including the guest of honor, Carl Laemmle. Laemmle (aka Uncle Carl, due to the number of his relations, or friends of relations, on the studio's payroll) was the President of Universal Pictures.
Sparing no expense, the Orpheum boasted the highest standards in convenience, comfort, and modern sciences. Upon entering the theater, patrons were transported "as if by Aladdin's magic carpet into a new land". Its 2,000 leather upholstered seats were surrounded by mission garden with flowers, vines, and "bubbling, glittering, fountains" all beneath a "pure blue sky, twinkling through the clouds floating into endless space". The new $750,000 Orpheum, complete with a large stage, the "very latest word" in projection, a "disappearing" organ, and a special room for animal actors, was proclaimed the "most substantial building" in the city.
Originally to be named Marchita, and later Granada because of its Spanish Baroque architecture, during its construction the theater's name was changed to Orpheum upon Rickards and Nace joining the Orpheum Circuit, which was best known for its vaudeville programing. As a result of its inclusion in the circuit, there was vaudeville at the Orpheum for the first five years in addition to the film. Some of the acts included Burke & Burke ("The Rollicking Ropers"), Chief Eagle Feather ("Indian Tap Dancer"), Gordon & Leroy ("Fun on Wheels"), and Nelson & Thatcher ("Four Feet of Dancing"). During the 1930's and 1940's the Orpheum was "the home of the single feature program" when most of the other theaters in town had double features.
Originally part of Universal Pictures, the Orpheum was sold to Paramount through its Publix subsidiary in November of 1929. The theater, however, did not officially change its name to Paramount until 1951. The Paramount thrived in the 1950’s and early 1960’s with Mae West appearing in person as “Diamond Lil” and movies like “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Psycho”. By the mid 1960’s, however, the downtown landscape started to change and the Paramount closed in December of 1967 due to declining profits and lack of parking, among other things.
The Nederlander Organization purchased the property in 1968 and changed the name to Palace West. Their plan was to tour plays nationally, after closing on Broadway, with Phoenix being one of the stops. The Nederlander Organization also entered into an agreement with the Corona family in Phoenix to show Spanish-language films when live theater was not on the schedule. The plan was to run each show for two weeks, but by the second season it became obvious that Phoenix could not support a run that long. Eventually Phoenix was dropped from their rotation, but the theater continued to show films, along with talent shows on Saturday mornings, concerts, and the occasional boxing match.
In the early 1980's, the City of Phoenix was looking for a site for their new City Hall. The block between 2nd and 3rd Avenues from Washington to Adams Streets was at the top of their list. Included in their plan was building a parking garage where Palace West stood. When their plans became public, the response was dramatic. Protests, initially led by the Junior League of Phoenix, finally convinced the City to save the only remaining movie palace in Downtown Phoenix.
The City purchased the building for $1.5 million in 1984. In 1986 the theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places. And finally, after about 13 years and $14.5 million, raised through bond issues, contributions from local businesses, as well as private citizens, the theater, once again known as the Orpheum, reopened on January 28, 1997, with a week of "Hello Dolly" starring Carol Channing.
Known today as the "Crown Jewel of Downtown Phoenix", the Orpheum Theatre is a Phoenix Point of Pride. Over the years, it has played host to many celebrities, among them Fanny Brice, Charlton Heston, Dick Clark, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Fallon, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, Lauren Bacall, Barack Obama, Joan Collins, as well as the Phoenix Symphony, various ballet companies, the American Theatre Guild, Shen Yun Chinese Acrobats, and Rupaul's Drag Race.
Now, at ninety, the Orpheum is more beautiful than ever, with unobstructed sightlines, exceptional acoustics, and the magnificent Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ. And "The Show Before the Show" - with the sun, clouds, and stars projected on the ceiling of the auditorium once again transporting us to another place and time. Movies and theater, as they were meant to be seen.
And That's Not All, Folks!
The Orpheum continues to gather "rave reviews" from the media. Best Things Arizona ranks the Orpheum as "The Best Historic Theater in Arizona" and Architectural Digest, one of the country's best known design magazines, selected the Orpheum as the "Most Beautifully Designed Theater" in Arizona.