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The Orpheum Theatre is a Gilded Mirror of Phoenix History

The Orpheum Theatre’s lush decor is primarily Spanish Baroque Revival with touches of Greek mythology. The movie palace embraces “atmospheric theater,” popular in the 1920s, designed to transport patrons to another time and exotic place.

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.

1. Opposite the peacocks on the south end of the “Historic” lobby, the “Phoenix” stairway was decorated in aluminum and gold leaf. Although no official tally exists of the number of mythic birds present, docent Linda Hamm believes the number is close to 50. 2-3. Adjacent to The Orpheum’s Adams Street entrance, the “Historic” lobby was designed to represent the interior of a Spanish nobleman’s lavish manor. The ceiling includes plaster beams designed to simulate wood, intricately stenciled coffers and gold leaf-embellished faces. Doors leading into the theater were originally velvet curtains. 4. Based on archival black-and-white photographs, the carpeting in the Historic lobby, auditorium and stairways replicates the pattern of the theater’s original floorcovering. Colors were selected on a best-guess basis by restorers, but right before the new textile was to be manufactured, a remnant of the original carpeting was found in a crawlspace beneath a piece of equipment, providing the original color palette of red, blue and gold, similar to the hues found on the Arizona state flag. 5. One of the venue’s most-photographed features is the elliptical “Peacock” stairway at the lobby’s north end. Spanning three floors, it presents a total of 13 feathered creatures, detailed in aluminum leaf (chosen over silver, which although less expensive at the time of installation, would have tarnished) and aqua glaze. “The stairway could never have been constructed by today’s structural standards,” says Giordano, noting that the feature (along with the “Phoenix” stairway at the lobby’s opposite end) was grandfathered into the refurbishment.

“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.”

1. The Orpheum’s stucco facade was detailed to simulate stone. 2. In the late 1960s, the landscapes were painted black when the venue was owned by Paramount Theatres, believing they distracted from the state-of-the-art “Wonderama” technology. When renovation began, the canvases were removed from their frames, rolled and shipped to Conrad Schmidt Studios in New Berlin, Wis., where the black paint was removed and the original artwork restored. Remounted on acoustic material to improve sound quality, they now look as they did in the theater’s heyday.
1. Twin nonfunctional balconies flank the proscenium; their gridwork conceals pipes for the theater’s organ, which is housed beneath the stage. The venue’s original Meisel-Sullivan organ, built in the 1920s, had been removed and was replaced with a 1929 Wurlitzer organ originally from a theater in upstate New York. Still used for concerts, silent films and educational seminars, it is maintained by the Valley of the Sun Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society. 2. During the late 1960s, when the building was sold to theatrical producer James M. Nederlander and renamed the Palace West, four of the proscenium’s seven gold leaf-embellished “ropes” were demolished to accommodate the large “Wonderama” movie screen. Viewed in historic photos, the patterns of the remaining trio had been repeated on the missing ropes, and by means of fiberglass molds, the absent quartet was re-created in plaster. The newer ropes are virtually indiscernible from the originals. 3. Over the decades, patrons used the balcony’s large decorative urns to dispose of ticket stubs and candy wrappers, some of which dated back to the 1920s. Above the center urn, a plaster bust of the Greek deity Pan disappeared at the beginning of the restoration and mysteriously reappeared near the project’s completion. “No one knows where he went or how he came back, and no one has ever fessed up,” Giordano says.  Seating in the balcony dates to the venue’s genesis. “As a historian, the fact that those seats were there on the theater’s opening night really moves me,” says Schumacher. 4. The interior of the theater suggests the nobleman’s villa courtyard, creating the illusion of an alfresco viewing experience. The 1,364-seat auditorium is distinguished by a starry sky that changes colors and two sizeable murals, the work of prolific Phoenix artist David Swing, who also created panoramas for the state capitol building, the Masonic Temple and Phoenix Junior College.

Orpheum Theatre, Phoenix,


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