Monday, August 11, 2014

The Orpheum Revisited

On Saturday, my mother and I went on a tour of the Orpheum theatre and I got lots of photos. So I am going to rerun some of my earlier entries on the Orpheum theatre with the new images. Enjoy.

Founded in 1886, the Orpheum Circuit was a string of vaudeville and movie theatres in North America. Vaudeville impresario Gustav Walter started the circuit.  Walter opened a 3500 seat Orpheum Opera House in San Francisco that proved to be quite popular and successful.

Walter opened more Orpheums in Sacramento and Los Angeles but soon became financially overextended. He sold the popular theatres to Morris Meyerfield in order to cover a $50,000 liquor bill.

Meyefield hired Martin Beck to manage the theatres. Beck expanded the chain further. On December 22, 1919, the Orpheum Circuit was incorporated in Delaware.

In 1927, the Orpheum Circuit merged with the Keith-Albee theatre chain to become Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) and the year after that it merged with an FBO film company under the aegis RCA. Now we had Radio-Keith-Orpheum, RKO. RKO consisted of the theatre chain and a film studio, Radio Pictures that was to become one of the major Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s.

This brings us to Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre on Granville Street. It was designed by B. Marcus Priteca and Frederick J. Peters. It was financed by local entrepreneur Joseph F. Langer.

This Orpheum - our second - was built in 1927 and cost 1.25 million dollars.

With three thousand seats, our Orpheum was the biggest theatre in Canada when it opened. It must have been so exciting for the first manager William A. Barnes. Such prestige.

However, by the early 1930s, vaudeville's heyday was at an end and the Orpheum became primarily a movie house although live shows were featured occasionally. The grand theatre was under the ownership of Famous Players.

In  1973 Vancouerites were called to action when Famous Players proposed gutting the ornate interior and changing this beauty into a multiplex. A 'Save the Orpheum' campaign began and Jack Benny even flew into Vancouver to show his support.

The City of Vancouver, in combination with the provincial and federal government, purchased the theatre on March 19, 1974.

November 1975 saw the Orpheum close while the architectural firm Thomson, Berwick, Pratt and Partners did the renovation and restoration. Tony Heinsbergen, who you may remember from Monday's entry, was the man who worked with Priteca on the interior design, was brought in to help with the restoration. The interior is apparently gorgeous but I have never seen it.

Since the Orpheum has reopened in 1977 it has been the permanent home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and in 1979 the federal government deemed the building to be a National Historic Site of Canada. Jim Pattison donated the neon sign in the 1970s.

Of course, since Vancouver is a place that is used often for the filming of movies and TV shows, the Orpheum and its neon sign have been used in a few shows such as Battlestar Galactica and The Fringe.

A few Orpheum theatres around North America that are still operating. In New York City, East Village a 1904 Orpheum Theatre is still open. Boston has a 1906 building; a 1911 one in Los Angeles; another 1911 in Flagstaff, Arizona'; one built in 1918 in New Orleans (I don't know if that survived Hurricane Katrina though, my information may be outdated); built in 1921 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; 1922 in Wichita, Kansas; there are 1926 versions in Los Angeles, Madison, Wisconsin, and San Francisco; those theatres built in 1927 include Vancouver, Omaha, Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa; a 1928 version in Memphis and a 1929 theatre in Phoenix.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the above information. And to the historical plaque outside the Orpheum Theatre on Granville Street.

This entry was originally published on May 9, 2012. I will have more entries with interior photos this week.

I hope you find the beauty around you.


  1. Very interesting, Karen. Having lived in Vancouver and still visiting often, I've enjoyed the Orpheum but didn't know its history. Pieces but not all. Thanks for the great coverage here.

    1. Thanks Diana. Like I said, I wrote the original write up a few years ago. It was so neat walking through the theatre and imagining what it must have been like for people in the past to attend a show there.

  2. Great pictures. I was trying to invasion how people dressed and how they might have enjoyed the theatre experience. A walk back in time (time machine) would have been quite a thrill. What perplexed me is how does someone drink up $50,000 worth of booze? Some of these theaters show in the movies that at during intermission time people walking around with a glass of champagne. Suppose that might be why Mayerfield had an extensive bill. I never knew about Orpheum Theaters.

    1. That $50,000 could have been a business expense - booze bought for the theatre on credit. Glad you liked the photos, I have more for Wednesday.

  3. I'm surprised you didn't mention Ivan Ackery? He managed the Orpheum from 1931 to 1969 Then he worked to save the building by putting on benefits with people like Jack Benny. All the kids in town knew him from Saturday Matinees. Best known theatre manager in Vancouver!

    1. I have mentioned Ackery many times over the years Ralph. Mr. Orpheum. I wrote a small piece on him here: I am not finished with the Orpheum or the people it made famous. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    2. when i was 14 yrs old my sister worked for ivan ackery as an usher so i would go with her to work, i remember seeing treasure island 5 times while she worked, i think i explored every part of that theater.

    3. That must have been wonderful Dennis. To be a child and able to explore a grand old place like the Orpheum. Thanks for reading and commenting.