Orpheum Theatre Phoenix
Built in 1929 as a premier vaudeville house, the Orpheum was the last major construction project in Phoenix before the onset of the Great Depression. It was converted to a movie theater over time, and by the late 1960s, much of the fine interior work had fallen into disrepair, while some its intricate murals had been painted over, either to hide the decline or to black out the murals in order to focus attention on the silver screen. By the 1980s the theater was abandoned, but a campaign by the Junior League raised awareness of the need to preserve the historic theater. Today, it has been completely renovated and is one of the finest entertainment venues in the city.
Backstory and Context
The Orpheum Theater is of Spanish Medieval and Baroque Revival-style. It is Phoenix's only remaining example of theater palace architecture. Originally built for vaudeville in 1929 shortly before the Great Depression, the Orpheum is the only theater in the Valley designated as historic. In 1987 it was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places and received its landmark designation in 2004.
When television became popular in the late 1950s to early '60s, the Orpheum and other theaters were replaced as mainstream America's main form of entertainment. The Orpheum remained reasonably successful for close to two decades thereafter but changed hands a few times. In efforts to "modernize" the theater and increase attendance, various owners during this time eradicated much of the theater's original artistry. By 1980, the once elegant Orpheum Theater had fallen into disrepair.
In 1984, the City of Phoenix purchased the downtown theater, and together with the Orpheum Foundation (founded by The Junior League of Phoenix), soon began a major restoration project. After 12 years and more than $14 million (about half of which was funded by voter-approved bonds), the Orpheum was restored to its former grandeur, and reopened in 1997 with Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly.”
- The audience chamber (now called the "Lewis Auditorium" in honor of Jewell and Delbert Lewis and family), is an awe-inspiring space that effectively simulates a fine Spanish villa's courtyard.
- The famous ceiling imitates a bright sunset with moving clouds by employing colored cove lights. When the lights go down, the ceiling becomes a dark "sky" with twinkling stars.
- Ornate plaster columnns are covered with gold leaf accents, and a clay tile roof lays atop the rear wall's arched opening.
- Elaborate elliptical staircases and banisters are on both sides of the chamber, one featuring foil peacocks with aqua glaze, the other Phoenix birds, cherubs, and starbursts.
- Beautiful wall murals by David Swing, one of Phoenix’s most prolific and best-known artists of the early 20th century, once again display mountains, canyons and Arizona plants.
- There used to be a special room under the theater where vaudeville acts housed their animals.
- The Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ was restored, thanks to the Valley of the Sun Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society.
- Theater seats are restored originals, and still bear the initials 'N' and 'R' for the Orpheum's builders, Harry Nace and J. E. Rickards.
- The Orpheum Theater, the Herberger Theater Center and Symphony Hall collectively make up Phoenix's downtown theater district.
You can enjoy concerts, plays, operas, dance productions, comedy shows and more at the Orpheum, and can even rent the theater for your own personal or business event.
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