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The Orpheum was originally conceived by a group of 10 local and publicly-spirited businessmen, each contributing $20,000 to kickstart the theatre building project.
When construction completed on the 1,800-seat theatre and its surrounding office building, the final cost had reached $750,000. Vaughan Construction Company of Omaha was the general contractor for the building.
The theatre was leased to Karl Hoblitzelle , the operator of the $6 million theatre chain Interstate Theatres Company, and opened on 4th September 1922 with five acts of vaudeville on stage and the movie Three-Must-Get-Theres (1922) starring Max Linder.
At its opening, the Wichita Eagle reported that “the color scheme of the interior is considered one of the distinct features, boldly reflected in the sunlight but softened and blended harmoniously under the glow of colored lights prevalent throughout the theater. This unique color scheme was the first of its kind in the territory.”
The theatre was an integral part of the famous “Orpheum Circuit”, and in its heyday virtually every major vaudeville star graced its stage, including such luminaries as Houdini, Eddie Cantor and Fannie Brice.
During its vaudeville period, more than 17,000 acts appeared with the playbill changing three times each week.
The theatre retains its original fire/safety curtain: a hand-executed painting on asbestos, designed specifically for the Orpheum Theatre by John Eberson and rendered by Fabric Studio of Chicago.
The Orpheum Theatre was originally equipped with a Kilgen theatre pipe organ. On 20th May 1929 it was equipped for the talkies and the first sound films to be screened were Mary Pickford in Coquette (1929) & Kenneth Harlan in The Alibi (1929) .
According to the theatre’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places , in October 1929 the Orpheum was sold to the Fox Film Company of California.
The theatre operated as a movie house until November 1976 when it ceased regular film screenings. It continued to host occasional concerts and even ventured into screening pornographic films.
The city of Wichita designated the Orpheum Theatre as an historic landmark in 1978, and in recognition of its historical significance the theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
In 1992, a non-profit organization assumed ownership, initiating renovations and reviving the building as a venue for shows.
The Orpheum is the third and final proto-atmospheric theatre to be designed by architect John Eberson. Although it features a symmetrical auditorium design (a feature typically eschewed in Eberson’s later designs), a cerulean blue sky sweeps overhead, bordered at the sidewalls by faux tiled roofwork and lit with concealed cove lighting. There are star-lights in the sky ceiling, and if these are original that is highly significant.
Eberson stated that his objective with the Orpheum was to create “an atmosphere which surrounds the audience with an affect of coolness and repose, of depth and distance...to treat the interior as an exterior”. Eberson’s conception was that of a Spanish garden or court – a garden of old Andalusia – made festive by music and torch light.
Following completion of this third and final proto-Atmospheric theatre, Eberson would next go on to design the Majestic Theatre in Houston, Texas, his first self-declared atmospheric theatre.
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