Each time you think about Memphis landmarks, there are a few that automatically come to mind: There’s Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum, Beale Street and The Peabody. And, of course, there’s the Orpheum Theatre, the historic venue that has hosted countless legendary performances.
The Original Orpheum
Since the Orpheum Theatre Memphis had its 90th birthday last year, technically it’s the “new” Orpheum. A performance hall called the Grand Opera House was built in 1890 on the corner of Beale Street and Main, over the site of a former coal yard. When vaudeville arrived, the venue was sold to the Orpheum Circuit, a national chain of theatres specializing in touring specialty acts, and the name was changed in 1907.
The revised mission statement of the Orpheum Theatre Group is to enhance the communities we serve by utilizing the performing arts to entertain, educate and enlighten while preserving the historic Orpheum Theatre and the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts and Education.
The new branding elements will be rolled out in phases and will include a redesigned website expected to launch in 2017. The Orpheum Theatre Group says that they have no plans of replacing any original branding in either of their buildings and will preserve the original character that has shaped the building’s development.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Memphis was an important stop for theatrical companies and concert tours because of the Orpheum. Legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, comedian Milton Berle, escape artist Harry Houdini, and composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa all performed at the Orpheum.
Unfortunately, the good times came to an end – or at least a pause – in 1923, when, after a performance by actress and singer Blossom Seely, the Orpheum burned to the ground.
The Movies Count
The fraternal architecture firm of Rapp and Rapp designed the replacement theatre, along with 400 other venues across the country.
Unfortunately, the rebuild was followed shortly thereafter by the Great Depression, and the Orpheum Theatre had to come up with novel ideas to bring in entertainment dollars. One of these was essentially a trivia contest … having a twist.
In June 1937 a stenographer named Mamie Rae Brooks attended a program where she answered ‘Paris’ to the question, ‘What city has the greatest number of art treasures in the world? The Orpheum management claimed that the correct answer was Florence, Italy, and refused to pay her the $300 cash prize. However, the real reason was that they didn’t have the money to pay the price, so they simply closed the theatre for the rest of the year.
The cultural shift from vaudeville to movies came at the perfect time. While built for live entertainment, the theatre made an easy transition to becoming a grand film palace.
“When Michael Lightman was looking for a flagship theatre for his chain, he bought it in 1940, and it became a pure, single-screen, big, downtown movie theatre.
At that point in the Jim Crow South, however, even the universal pleasure of movies was segregated. One distinctive trait of the Orpheum Theatre is that the separate entrance and lobby designated for African-American guests is still intact, although currently an inactive part of the theatre. Brett hopes to renovate the space as a living history exhibit to provide youth with a real-life example of this difficult chapter of the city including history.
If we restored the lobby with some videos of people who remember going into that entrance and seeing the difference between it and the main lobby, they can make that juxtaposition and the Jim Crow laws can become more real,” explains Brett. “It’s really about having an opportunity to help educate kids.
The theatre quietly introduced integrated seating two years before it was required by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but the Orpheum still suffered from the downturn experienced throughout Downtown Memphis in the 1970s. When Malco prepared to sell the building in 1975, the most interested group was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which prompted another local group to consider the theatre as well.
In The Past
The Memphis Development Foundation was formed in 1976 as our city’s precious Orpheum Theatre and came under an all too real threat of demolition. Several Memphians, including architects, developers, and investors, joined together to salvage the seemingly doomed theatre, and their initiative paid off. The Orpheum Theatre now hosts countless Broadway performances, popular bands, and Memphis events. Aside from the Orpheum’s professional prestige, it has fixated itself in the heart of Memphis residents and is surely a staple of Memphis culture.
The Memphis Development Foundation now known as Orpheum Theatre Group was involved in a restaurant around here that had a liquor license, and you couldn’t have a liquor license within so many feet of a church, so what actually motivated them to think about buying the Orpheum was to protect their liquor license. All of the people involved at the time were terrific people with the right motivation it might have been the liquor license that made them first look into it, but they did it for the right reasons to save the theatre.
Recently, the organization has been under an enormous amount of positive transition.
Within the last two years alone, the renowned Pat Halloran decided to relish in the fruits of his labour and retire. Accompanying this monumental change was the opening of the Halloran Centre, a beautiful glass building that serves as an enhancement of the original theatre. It has also recently been announced that the Memphis Development Foundation will be changing its name to the Orpheum Theatre Group.
The Orpheum’s rebirth followed that civic investment, but the ghosts of the past still linger. Literally. The theatre is reportedly haunted by seven spirits, the most famous of whom is an 11-year-old named Mary. Brett Batterson’s wife Veronica has even met her personally.
We were at Jerry Seinfeld, and we’re sitting in the first box closest to the stage, and my wife’s chair was next to open-air space. She was sitting in the chair that’s called Mary’s Chair. She kept thinking someone was behind her, and she looked around and nobody was there — she felt a tapping on her shoulder through the whole show while she sat in Mary’s seat.
There are also stories of a young man trapped in the theatre after his efforts to return Mary to “the other side” failed, as well as a despondent woman named Eleanor often heard moaning with sadness in the balcony. The theatre’s first production of A Chorus Line was even sidetracked by its mysterious guests when an actor’s intentionally off-key singing of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was interrupted by a child’s voice joining in from backstage … perfectly on pitch. To prevent it from happening again, the entire cast was gathered together off-stage the next night … but the same thing happened.
This would have known that song, who also points out that no one has ever been harmed by an Orpheum ghost, and he doesn’t find them difficult to work with.
The Future is bright Orpheum
As the Orpheum Theatre moves forward, space has adjusted to the increasing grandeur of touring productions and the needs of its changing audiences. In 1997, the back wall was blown out to make way for Broadway-sized sets. The Halloran Center next door was completed in 2015 to provide smaller performance space and increased room for educational programs and events. Even the beloved Wurlitzer organ, one of only 11 classic theatre organs in the country still in its original building, is getting some spa time in Chicago so it can come back sounding just like it did on opening night.
Regardless of upgrades, the Orpheum maintains its distinctive character and embraces its role in Memphis.
We’re not the right space for every single performance. We’re able, as an organization, to look at how we can help the city, how we can supplement the city — what is right for the Orpheum, and what is right for FedExForum and the Landers Center and Graceland and the Cannon Center and GPAC and Minglewood Hall. We can all work together in the city to make it a very rich tapestry for culture. That’s a big part of running a historic theatre, especially one as important to the city as the Orpheum is,” says Brett. “Everybody in this town wants to see the Orpheum succeed.”
It will be exciting to see how the new brand will enhance the Orpheum from here. Presently, the
However, summer Movie Series is offering showings of classics like The Sound of Music, When Harry Met Sally, and fan favourite, Grease. Additionally, the 2016 and 2017 Broadway lineups are open to those interested in the beauty of stage performance. Exciting upcoming performances include The Wizard of Oz, Jersey Boys, and a performance by 3 Doors Down. Be sure to come out and invest in your local Memphis culture and downtown excitement!.
203 S Main St., Memphis,
Tennessee 38103 United States