Born in 1890. Reborn in 1928. Revitalized in 1977, 1984, and 2015. From vaudeville to Broadway, it is a story of resilience and reinvention that could only happen in Memphis.
The new Grand Opera House was considered the classiest theatre outside of New York City. Vaudeville was all the rage, and some of the best shows in the South could be seen at the corner of Main and Beale.
Construction on a new $1.6 million theatre began. Renowned architects C. W. and George L. Rapp designed the new building, which would be the largest in the Orpheum Circuit. The 2,800-seat auditorium was equipped for silent films and live theatre. The lavish “New Orpheum,” as it was often called, featured brocade draperies, crystal chandeliers, gilded moldings, and a Mighty Wurlitzer organ.
A new era began with evening variety programs of organ performances, vaudeville acts, and a showing of “The Outcast,” starring Corinne Griffith. Some of the decade’s greatest entertainers — Eddie Cantor, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the Folies Bergere, to name a few — graced the Orpheum stage.
The Orpheum closed on Christmas Day for renovations. Thanks to the generous support of the Mid-South community, $5 million was raised to repair the building and restore it to its 1928 opulence, while also making it more accessible for modern performers and audiences. Restrooms and dressing rooms were upgraded. New heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems were installed. Two loading docks were added to better accommodate touring theatre companies. Concession areas, more restrooms, and a new box office were added on the south side of the lobby. In the northeast corner, a green room was added.
The Orpheum Theatre celebrated its grand re-opening. The show would go on.
As Broadway sets grew larger and more elaborate, the Orpheum stage needed to expand in order to accommodate them. The ensuing renovation would be the Orpheum’s biggest yet. The orchestra pit was enlarged, and 13 new dressing rooms and a warm-up area were added backstage. Loading dock capacity was expanded. New technical equipment was installed, and the walls received a fresh coat of paint and gold leaf.
Community and educational programming had reached more than 60,000 students, teachers, and families. To accommodate these burgeoning programs, more space was needed. The Crump Firm designed plans for a new education facility adjacent to the theatre. A capital campaign was launched.
Under the leadership of new President and CEO Brett Batterson, the Memphis Development Foundation rebranded as the Orpheum Theatre Group. The mission 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 & Education.