In 1890, the Grand Opera House was built on the corner of Main and Beale Streets. The Grand was billed as the classiest theatre outside of New York City. Vaudeville was the main source of entertainment at the time, featuring singers, musicians and magicians. The Grand became part of the Orpheum Circuit of vaudeville shows in 1907, and the theatre became known as The Orpheum.
Vaudeville at the Orpheum was successful for almost two decades. Then in 1923, after a show that featured singer Blossom Seeley, a fire started and the theatre burned to the ground.
In 1928, at a cost of $1.6 million, a new Orpheum was built on the original site of the Grand, but it was a different theater. The new Orpheum is twice as large as her predecessor and opulently decorated. Lavish tasseled brocade draperies, enormous crystal chandeliers, gilded moldings, and the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ are just a few of its new amenities.
As vaudeville's popularity waned, the Orpheum was purchased by the Malco movie theater chain in 1940 and presented first run movies until 1976, when Malco decided to sell the building. There was even talk of demolishing the old theater to build an office complex. However, in 1977 the Memphis Development Foundation purchased the Orpheum and began bringing Broadway productions and concerts back to the theatre.
Fifty-four years had taken a toll on the “South's Finest Theatre.” The Orpheum was closed on Christmas in 1982 to begin a $5 million renovation to restore its 1928 opulence. Beyond the cleaning, decorative, and lighting changes of this once-beautiful building, significant improvements included heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system renovations; restroom enhancements; and dressing room reconfigurations and redecorations. Other changes involved the construction of two functional loading docks and an expanded orchestra pit, and a hydraulic pit lift added extra space to the front stage area when an orchestra wasn’t required.
Restoration crews also cleaned the exterior of the building, repairing and repainting The Orpheum upright sign and the famous theatre marquee. To meet audiences’ growing needs, a parlor with restrooms, a large concessions area, and a box office were built on the south side of the grand lobby. Later, a “green room” — now Pat Halloran's Broadway Club — was formed in the northeast corner of the lobby, which had previously been a men’s clothing store called Berts. In the end, The Orpheum had a seating capacity of 2,491, including 28 new private suites.
A grand reopening celebration was held in January of 1984, and it signaled the rebirth of entertainment in downtown Memphis.
In 1996, the Orpheum Theatre tackled its biggest renovation ever, at about $8 million, to expand the stage and backstage areas. New productions like The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Beauty and the Beast, and Sunset Boulevard were the talk of Broadway, but needed more space than the Grand Old Lady had. Improvements to accomodate blossoming production scales began in spring of 1996 and continued off and on through the fall of 1997.
When the curtain opened on The Phantom of the Opera in 1997-98 Orpheum Broadway Series, the extended stage was 50 feet deep with a once-again enlarged orchestra pit. The renovation also created 13 new dressing rooms and a special warm-up area for the ballet company. Four loading bays were constructed, doubling the previous capacity. An enormous amount of space for storage and offices was added. The walls throughout the theatre were repainted and gold-leafed, and new technical equipment was installed. The theatre had gotten a complete face-lift.
The Theatre Today
Throughout the last three decades, the Orpheum has brought in large-scale Broadway shows, like The Lion King, Wicked, Cats and Les Miserables, while continuing to offer performances from great entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld, John Mellencamp, Sarah McLachlan, Tony Bennett, the Goo Goo Dolls, and many more.
The Orpheum presents 6-8 Broadway shows each year as well as dozens of concerts, comedy acts and special events. Two of Memphis' local arts groups, Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis, have also called the Orpheum home.
As the theatre ages, the Memphis Development Foundation continues to take special care to preserve the Orpheum's beloved architecture and ornate trimmings while embracing new technologies to present the best audience experience possible. The Orpheum upgraded its sound system in fall 2014 for the first time since the 1996-97 renovation, and planned improvements to seating and restroom facilities will continue throughout 2015 and 2016.
The Orpheum Theatre is a non-profit organization and continues to flourish because of the generous support of the community. For information about how you can support the Orpheum, call 901-525-7800 or visit our Support Us page.