story by Kevin Shaw | photo above by Justin Fox Burks
There is so much about Memphis to love. In fact, if you’re not careful, you can almost forget some of its countless blessings. Whether it be the NBA team or the FedEx Forum or the newly constructed Crosstown, the list of jewels goes on and on. Perhaps the “crown jewel” though of Memphis is the historic Orpheum Theatre. Built in 1928, the Orpheum Theatre now hosts everything from multiple Broadway tours, to well-known musical acts, magicians, movie nights and even the High School Theatre Awards. And, just like anything else that’s been around for over 90 years, the Orpheum Theatre has seen and experienced a lot!
The Orpheum sits at Main and Beale Streets. In the late 1800s, it was originally home of the Grand Opera House which was the theatre was part of the Orpheum Circuit of Vaudeville. In October of 1923 though, just 30 minutes after a musical performance, a fire broke out, completely destroying the opera house. Four years later and at a cost of $1.6 million, a 2,800-seat theatre was built on the site making it the largest theatre on the Orpheum Circuit. The new theater was named the Orpheum Theatre. Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington and everyone in between graced the Memphis stage.
Since the 1800s, Beale and Main Streets in Memphis have been a hub of entertainment. In the 1890s, the Grand Opera House (top), occupied the site. After a fire in 1923 destroyed the building, the first Memphis Orpheum Theatre was built (bottom). It was the largest theatre on Orpheum’s circuit. Malco Theaters purchased the property and showed first-run movies in the space from 1940 until 1976 when downtown Memphis saw a sharp downturn. The theater was nearly razed, but a group raised $5 million for renovations (photo below). The theatre you can see now reflects its original grandeur and plays host to several big stage productions every year. Photos courtesy of Orpheum Theatre Group.
Eventually, as Vaudeville went by the wayside and the Great Depression took a toll on businesses around America, the Orpheum was taken over by Malco Theaters and became a first-run movie house from 1940 to 1976. Unfortunately, everything in downtown Memphis became pretty desolate in the late 1970’s and people just stopped attending the Orpheum. In fact, the theatre was on the verge of being torn down.
At that point, a group of concerned citizens formed the Memphis Development Foundation in an effort to revitalize not just the building, but the whole downtown area. The plan worked and the Malco theatre was re-named the Orpheum (again) with a plan to bring back Broadway tours and live theatre.
In need of major repairs, $5 million was raised by the Memphis community in 1982 to completely renovate the theatre and return it to its 1928 opulence (which is the opulence you still see today).
Community-led efforts are responsible for the Orpheum Theatre being the beautiful centerpiece of downtown Memphis today. This photo shows the interior when it was undergoing renovations in the early 1980s. Renovations returned it to its original majesty. Photo courtesy of Orpheum Theatre Group.
As Broadway shows got bigger and tours got bigger (e.g. Cats, Les Miserable), the small-ish Orpheum realized it was missing out. The stage space, orchestra pit and loading dock capacity was enlarged in 1996 to re-open just in time to finally host the megahit, The Phantom of the Opera.
Twenty two years later, the Orpheum is more vibrant than ever. It continues to expand its audience through programming at the new Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, a 39,000 square foot facility with a 361-seat theatre and multi-use event spaces. Community and educational programming such as theatre camps for children, are facilitated at the Halloran Centre.
It’s easy to take for granted what all Memphis has to offer. There have been moments in history when our community couldn’t enjoy the Orpheum experience, but not today. This crown jewel is beaming. The old cliché, “You don’t miss something until it’s gone,” may be true. Fortunately, we won’t have to find out what that’s like.