The Orpheum Theatre is truly one of Memphis' most remarkable success stories; a theatre able to overcome a variety of adversities that ranged from several untimely bankruptcies, a devastating fire, the decay of downtown Memphis, and the threat of demolition for the construction of an office complex. Yet the "South's Finest Theatre" rose above all this and thrived. With the historic theatre and the new state-of-the-art Halloran Centre for the Performing Arts & Education, the Orpheum is the Mid-South’s premiere performing arts destination.
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 was twice as large as her predecessor and opulently decorated. Lavish tasseled brocade draperies, enormous crystal chandeliers, gilded moldings, and the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ were 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. 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 accommodate 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 the 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 commitment to bringing the best of Broadway to Memphis extends to supporting up-and-coming musicals themselves. The Orpehum has won three Tony Awards as a producer for hugely successful musicals — Thoroughly Modern Millie, Spamalot, and, of course, Memphis the Musical.
Each year, the Orpheum brings in large-scale Broadway shows, like The Lion King, Wicked, Cats and Les Miserables, while continuing to offer performances from great entertainers like Aziz Ansari, Bob Dylan, Jerry Seinfeld, Mary J. Blige, Sarah McLachlan, Tyler Perry, Tony Bennett, and many more.
As the Orpheum improved its on-stage offerings, efforts to advance arts education in the Mid-South were becoming just as successful. By 2011, almost 60,000 students, teachers, and families were participating in education and community outreach programs. With a growing number of workshops, master classes, professional development training, family series productions, and other opportunities, it was time for the Orpheum to grow again.
A capital campaign was launched and The Crump Firm was hired to design a new building adjacent to the Orpheum to house these growing programs. After raising almost $15 million to build the centre, the Board of Directors voted to name it after the Memphis Development Foundation’s retiring president, Pat Halloran.
In September 2015, members of the community were invited to explore the brand new Halloran Centre for the Performing Arts & Education. With its 361-seat theatre, the Halloran Centre also hosts concerts, dance, and other community events throughout the year, including Indie Memphis Film Festival, Collage dance Collective, Beale Street Caravan, and more. The Halloran Centre also serves as a gathering and business space for other nonprofits and corporations, as well as a wedding, reception, and cocktail party venue.
Meanwhile at the Orpheum, ongoing improvements were completed, including eliminating two rows of seats in the center orchestra section to allow for additional legroom, which brought the seating capacity to the current 2,308.
Upon Halloran’s retirement at the end of 2015, Brett Batterson was hired as the new President and CEO.9 With this transition in leadership, the Memphis Development Foundation undertook a self-evaluation process, reimagining its vision, mission statement and name. In May of 2016, the organization adopted its new identity and became the Orpheum Theatre Group, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the mission statement listed earlier in this entry.
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.
Tour the Orpheum
Tours are open to the public at various times throughout the year.
The Orpheum Theatre: Tours are also available for groups of 20 or more. Call 901-529-4234.
Halloran Centre: Call 901-529-4239 to inquire about a tour.