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Architect: G. Albert Lansburgh
First Opened: 15th February 1926 (97 years ago)
Reopening after major renovation: 20th October 2001
Telephone: (877) 677-4386
The Orpheum Theatre, named for the Greek mythological figure Orpheus, opened in 1926 as the fourth and final Los Angeles venue for the Orpheum circuit, and the second Orpheum Theatre to be built on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. The theatre is home to a 1928 Mighty Wurlitzer organ which is still in service today. Architect G. Albert Lansburgh designed the theatre and it remains one of his most elaborate examples.
Opened mid-February 1926, the Orpheum originally showcased both vaudeville and movies. The theatre was designed in a French Baroque style by Lansburgh, who also designed the interior of the Shrine Auditorium, the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, and The Wiltern in Koreatown.
Much of the inspiration for the interior design of the theatre was informed by King Francis I of France’s (the “salamander king”) patronage of the Arts. The crowned salamander, representative of King Francis, is used throughout the decoration of the theatre.
The elaborately-detailed proscenium arch and gilded sounding board gives way to a series of stepped opera boxes on each side, with the organ chambers located above. The boxes are seemingly supported from below on fanned supports rising from the orchestra (main seating) floor.
The ceiling plasterwork is detailed and elaborate, with the whole lit from the sides by hidden cove lighting which was probably originally multi-colored.
A pair of over-sized chandeliers hang from symmetrically central points in the ceiling. The chandeliers feature slightly mismatched blue glass, a result of the House Right chandelier being non-original.
At an early stage of the theatre’s career the chandeliers were lowered for maintenance (probably lamp replacement), and the morning after they had been raised back up to the ceiling the House Right chandelier was found to have fallen and crashed down onto the balcony cross-aisle handrail, likely due to insecure tie-off after having been winched up to the ceiling the previous night. The chandelier was replaced with the only signs of the incident being the mismatched blue glass in the chandeliers and the balcony cross-aisle handrail which still bears a scar from the chandelier’s rapid and unplanned descent.
The lobby features marble throughout and wows audiences with its opulence and gallery views. A plaster relief of a salamander is present in addition to non-original but still notable chandeliers featuring gold goddesses. The newel post at the bottom of the staircases leading up to the balcony feature curled-up salamanders.
A 3-manual, 14-rank Wurlitzer pipe organ (Style 240 Special, Opus 1821) was installed in early 1928, replacing an earlier organ. The Wurlitzer is still in-situ and used for special screenings. It is one of very few theatre pipe organs still installed in its original home.
Also of note are the theatre’s annunciators: small windows positioned at either side of the proscenium arch containing a series of moving cards indicating the current performing act. Most vaudeville theatres have removed or re-purposed these areas for loudspeakers, however the Orpheum has retained them and currently has TV screens performing the same job as the mechanical annunciators once did.
In 1927 the Orpheum vaudeville circuit (generally covering the U.S. West Coast) merged with the Keith-Albee circuit (generally covering the U.S. East Coast), forming KAO (Keith-Albee-Orpheum). In late 1928 KAO was merged into a new entity called RKO, the ‘R’ standing for Radio Corporation of America.
By the start of the 1930s the Orpheum changed its main programming from vaudeville to movies, and by 1932 business was so bad that the theatre closed. It re-opened in 1933 with broader programming, re-introducing vaudeville, and maintained a solid calendar until 1947.
Throughout the 1950s and beyond the Orpheum tracked changes in popular live entertainment, and in addition to screening movies it hosted vaudeville, comedy, theatre, and music concerts of all varieties.
The current marquee dates from 1941 when RKO updated the original late 1920s marquee. This was in line with many other theatres where marquees were redesigned to be more noticeable to people driving past the theatre in automobiles.
The Needleman family has owned the building since 1964, and in 2001 a major refurbishment was undertaken such that the Orpheum is now arguably the best-preserved theatre of its era in Los Angeles. Its refurbishment has led to other theatre managers realizing there is an audience on Broadway and from the wider Los Angeles area, in addition to the Orpheum being one of the most filmed theatres in the United States.
The Orpheum has hosted some of the most famous names in show business including burlesque queen Sally Rand, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Will Rogers, plus jazz greats Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington.
The Orpheum does not offer its own tours however below are some options for potentially seeing a bit more of the theatre than by simply attending one of the many and varied commercial events it hosts:
Information correct as of March 2017.
Photographs copyright © 2002-2023 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos unless otherwise noted.
Text copyright © 2017-2023 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.
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