The Orpheum Theatre is a Gilded Mirror of Phoenix History
The Orpheum Theatre is a gilded mirror of Phoenix history.
By John Roark | Photography by Kevin Kaminski
If the walls of Phoenix’s Orpheum Theatre could talk (the ghosts who reside there have been known to whisper) they would tell colorful tales of nearly a century of performing arts—from vaudeville and silent films to the onset of talkies, touring Broadway productions, opera, ballet, concerts, lectures, podcasts and more. The roster of luminaries who have graced the stage is as legendary as the site itself.
Designed and built in 1929 by founders Joseph Elmer Rickards and Harry Nace to be “the most luxurious movie palace west of the Mississippi River,” the original cost of $750,000 (the equivalent of $12.8 million today) ensured the ultimate theater-going experience at a time when options were limited. “In those days you could read a book, or you could listen to the radio,” says volunteer docent Fay Giordano, who has been sharing the Orpheum’s rich history with tourgoers for more than 12 years. “Here, you could escape to experience the city’s finest entertainment.”
Exquisitely appointed in Spanish Baroque Revival style, the building put downtown Phoenix—which then boasted a population of 48,000—on the cultural map, and the venue’s riches-to-rags-to-riches saga reflects the city’s own evolution. “The Orpheum weathered the Great Depression, World War II, movement of the population to the suburbs, the advent of television and so much more,” says historian and preservationist Steve Schumacher. “The fact that it has been so resilient, has hung in there and become what it is today amazes me. Similarly, Phoenix boomed, declined, came back up, and here we are today, the nation’s fifth-largest city. Much of the evolution of the Orpheum mirrors Phoenix from the early 1900s to the present.”
The theater was purchased by the City of Phoenix, placed on the National Register of Historic Places and went dark in the mid-1980s. Thanks to the efforts of the Junior League of Phoenix, the Orpheum Theatre Foundation and public support, funding was obtained to restore the historic structure. After a massive 13-year, $14.5 million renovation, the Orpheum Theatre reopened for business in 1997.
“Unfortunately, our city has a reputation of knocking things down rather than building them up,” Schumacher observes. “But there are instances when the city not only steps up with the words, but they also put the money and the hands into it as well. This restoration is a symbol of what the city can and is willing to do when the right people are involved.”
Orpheum Theatre, Phoenix, phoenixconventioncenter.com