The Early History of the Orpheum Theatre
In the heart of Memphis, Tennessee, on the corner of Main and Beale streets, stood the Grand Opera House, a beacon of entertainment that opened its doors in 1890.
Touted as the classiest theatre outside New York City, it offered vaudeville performances, a unique blend of comedy, dance, and song that captivated audiences of the time.
As the Grand became part of the Orpheum Circuit in 1907, it adopted a new name—the Orpheum.
This marked a new era of entertainment for Memphis, a period that unfortunately ended abruptly in 1923 when a fire razed the theater to the ground, leaving only memories behind.
The New Orpheum
It is said that from the ashes, a phoenix rises. In the case of the Orpheum, this was indeed true.
The date was November 19, 1928, when the new Orpheum Theatre arose, phoenix-like, from the remnants of the Grand Opera House, embodying a grand vision conceived by the celebrated architects Rapp and Rapp from Chicago.
With seating for over 2,300 people, the theater was adorned with glittering gold and silver leaf, marble, lush carpets, and antique crystal chandeliers.
It was a testament to the resilience of Memphis and a symbol of a new era in the city’s entertainment scene.
However, as vaudeville’s popularity waned, the Orpheum had to adapt to survive. In 1940, it was purchased by Michael A. Lightman’s movie theater chain and renamed the Malco.
But in the 1970s, as multiplexes gained popularity, the future of the large, single-screen venue looked uncertain. There was even talk of demolishing the building.
Thankfully, the Memphis Development Foundation intervened, purchasing the theater in 1977, restoring its original name, and ushering in a new era of Broadway productions and concerts.
The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ
A unique feature of the Orpheum is its Mighty Wurlitzer organ.
This remarkable instrument was installed in the theater in 1928, a testament to a time when pipe organs were still a common feature in vaudeville and movie theaters, even with the advent of talking pictures.
The Wurlitzer organ was a superb accompaniment to performances, its music resonating through the grand hall.
Today, it is still in use, a piece of history that continues to make music and evoke nostalgia in the hearts of audiences.
Preservation and Legacy
Preserving a historic building like the Orpheum is no small task.
Thanks to the efforts of the Memphis Development Foundation, the Orpheum has not only been maintained but has also undergone more than $15 million in renovations and improvements over the last few decades.
These enhancements have transformed the Orpheum into a world-class performing arts facility while preserving its historical and architectural integrity.
As a result, it was one of the first buildings in Memphis to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, an honor that underscores its importance to the city and its people.
The Orpheum Theatre Today
Today, the Orpheum is much more than a theater. It is a home for the performing arts, a venue for various performances and events, and a cornerstone of Memphis’s cultural and community life.
Since 1977, it has been the Mid-South home of touring Broadway productions. Its stage has seen performances by Ballet Memphis, numerous concerts, comedians, and even a summer movie series.
Not only that, but the theatre also serves as a hub for local cultural and community festivities, including the much-loved Memphis in May, the International Blues Challenge, and the special events during Elvis Week.
These performances and events, along with the theater’s numerous educational offerings, contribute to the continued revitalization of downtown Memphis.
They testify to the Orpheum’s adaptability and commitment to serving the community.
The Impact and Future of the Orpheum Theatre
The Orpheum Theatre has weathered many storms, from fires to potential demolition, but has always emerged stronger.
It has evolved from a vaudeville house to a movie theater and now stands as a beacon for the performing arts in Memphis.
Through all its transformations, the Orpheum has remained a cherished part of the city’s fabric, where memories are made and stories are told.
The future of the Orpheum is as bright as its glittering chandeliers.
With ongoing support from the community and the Memphis Development Foundation, it will continue to thrive, hosting a myriad of performances and events.
The Orpheum is not just a venue but a testament to the resilience and spirit of Memphis, Tennessee, a city that cherishes its history while embracing the new.
The Orpheum Theatre is a reminder of that spirit, symbolizing the city’s past, present, and future.
So, the next time you find yourself in Memphis, take a moment to visit the Orpheum. Take in a show, explore its history, and become a part of its story.
You’ll find that the Orpheum is not just a theater but a living, breathing part of Memphis, a historic gem that continues to dazzle and inspire.
A New Era Dawns at the Orpheum Theatre, Memphis, TN
The Orpheum, a beacon in the cultural landscape of Memphis, prepares to usher in a season of renewal and revival.
The latest news from the Orpheum is a symphony of anticipation and excitement. The theater, revered for its ornate architecture and rich history, announces its 2023-2024 lineup, promising a season brimming with diversity and enchantment.
The marquee, a kaleidoscope of upcoming attractions, heralds a Broadway season set to captivate hearts.
Leading the charge is the acclaimed revival of “Funny Girl,” a musical enthralling Broadway audiences.
Its story, a tapestry woven with ambition, love, and the pursuit of dreams, resonates with the spirit of Memphis itself. The tale of Fanny Brice, undeterred by skeptics, mirrors the city’s resilience and unwavering spirit.
But the allure of the Orpheum extends beyond Broadway. In its embracing of varied artistic expressions, the theater announces the arrival of “Rumours of Fleetwood Mac.”
This tribute performance, set to echo through the halls in November, is a homage to the timeless melodies of Fleetwood Mac, promising an evening where nostalgia and euphoria dance hand in hand.
In a testament to its versatility, the Orpheum doesn’t stop there. May brings the humor and insight of Trevor Noah, whose “Off The Record” tour is set to grace the stage.
Noah, with his unique blend of comedy and commentary, is poised to transform the theater into a crucible of laughter and reflection, showcasing the theater’s commitment to diverse genres of entertainment.
The season also sees a parade of other spectacular shows, including “Beetlejuice,” “SIX,” and “Les Misérables,” each adding its unique hue to the Orpheum’s canvas.
These shows, from the whimsically haunting to the historically profound, are not just performances but invitations to embark on journeys transcending time and space.
As the curtain rises on this new chapter, the Orpheum Theatre stands ready to weave new memories into the cultural fabric of Memphis. It’s a chapter of rebirth and wonder, where each performance is a gateway to uncharted realms of imagination.