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Orpheum Theatre, Phoenix

Orpheum Theatre, Phoenix

First Opened: 5th January 1929 (91 years ago)

Reopened: 28th January 1997

Former Names: Nace Paramount Theatre, Paramount Theater, Palace West

Website: www.fototphx.org Open website in new window

Telephone: (877) 840-0457 Call (877) 840-0457

Address: 203 West Adams Street, Phoenix, AZ 85003 Show address in Google Maps (new window)

Featured Photos

Overview

The Orpheum Theatre opened in January 1929, at the time the only theatre between Los Angeles and Denver large enough to handle the traveling vaudeville shows which toured the United States on the Orpheum Circuit, changing theatres generally every week.

Announcement of the new theatre
Announcement of the new theatre

Established Arizona theatre operators Jo E. Rickards and Harry Nace built the theatre. The architects were Royal W. Lescher and Leslie J. Mahoney of Phoenix-based architect firm Lescher & Mahoney, with Hugh Gilbert as an associate architect.

Plans for the $500,000 theatre building were announced and a groundbreaking ceremony held in July 1927, with opening slated for late December that year, possibly early January 1928. Rickards & Nace were operating as a subsidiary of the Universal chain at the time, and as reported by The Arizona Republican in October 1927 the theatre was to be called the Granada Theatre.

The theatre was three stories in height but was built with foundations capable of supporting eight stories, the intention being to add office space above the theatre “as local conditions warrant”. In the end additional floors were not built and the theatre did not open until January 1929, by which time Rickards & Nace had changed allegiance the Orpheum Circuit. The name of the theatre was changed to the Orpheum Theatre by the time it opened and the final cost rose to $750,000. The theatrical policy of the new theatre was to be motion pictures, vaudeville, and road attractions.

Spanish Baroque Revival was the predominant style used for the building, with the auditorium being of an atmospheric design. Patrons sat below a vast blue-sky ceiling which featured tiny twinkling lights to suggest stars and projected moving cloud effects, affording a sense of sitting under the twilight sky watching a performance al fresco.

Exterior from Main Entrance
Exterior from Main Entrance

The exterior of the building was said to suggest its function and purpose at a glance, and was completed in Spanish style with finials, brackets, and walls made up of large blocks of vari-colored stone. The masks of Tragedy and Comedy can be found repeating on the exterior in addition to Orpheus playing his pipes.

On the 2nd Ave façade the building features a balcony, called the Balcony of the Dons. The face of the balcony features helmeted conquistadors facing alternately north and south as a nod to those who influenced Arizona’s roots.

The auditorium is designed to evoke the sense of a lavish Spanish walled garden, and originally featured water fountains in the “arbored alcoves” at the Orchestra seating level. The remains of the fountains are still evidenced by the water connections now buried in the tilework floor in the alcoves at either side of the Orchestra level seating. The walls of the alcoves are still painted with garden scenes.

The 1929 Auditorium
The 1929 Auditorium

On either side of the proscenium are monumental companion frontispieces, hiding the organ chambers, which act as ornamental buttresses to the proscenium. The frontispieces are Spanish Renaissance styled in the manner of 17th century artist José Churriguera.

At the top center of each frontispiece is a full size statue of Venus supporting the vase of enjoyment on her shoulders. On both the frontispieces, and around the proscenium, are found symbolical characters of Orpheus and the Greek Muses. Over the width of the proscenium dancing muses in various poses are set within gold medallions.

The balcony is cantilevered on steel trusses and presents a face about 10-12ft high. The front section of the balcony overhangs and is supported on massive concrete cantilever beams projecting out from the main balcony, decorated to give the appearance of carved wooden timbers. A cornice along the balcony front originally concealed hidden cove lighting. The face of the balcony, including ports of the projection booth, mimics the balcony rear wall with its semicircular windows.

The tiled-roof Balcony
The tiled-roof Balcony

At the rear of the balcony, in the center, sits a bust which was said at the theatre’s opening to be a satirical figure gazing down at the entertainment taking place in front of him. The rest of the rear wall contains circular windows suggesting garden views to the rear. Goliath cylindrical Mayan vases sit in some of the alcoves and seem discordant with the rest of the cohesive auditorium style. They are original to the theatre but may not now be in their original locations.

The walls of the balcony are laid with roof tiles, and beyond the tops of the walls murals afford a view of “a vast expanse [of] richly colored mountain ranges, canyon gorges, with glowing sand in the foreground, and typical Arizona vegetation”. Originally there would have been hidden cove lighting to light the murals in different colors, such as cooling blues in the hot summer and warm reds in the cool winter.

Orchestra Lobby
Orchestra Lobby

The lobbies feature the Phoenix staircase at the north end (nearest the entrance at the West Adams / 2nd Ave corner) and the Peacock circular staircase at the south end, both of which connect the basement lounge/bar/restrooms, the Orchestra-level Grand Lobby, and the Mezzanine Promenade. The Grand Lobby features a ceiling of exposed concrete beams decorated to look like carved and stenciled timbers, with the rest of the decoration suggesting a medieval Spanish noble’s gallery. Brackets featuring small masks of Tragedy and Comedy run the entire length of the lobby. Busts of Eurydice and Calliope are featured above and between doorways.

Mezzanine Promenade
Mezzanine Promenade

At the mezzanine level the design is more Italian with a “tinge” of Spanish, suggesting the rooms of a Davanzati palace. Glazed doors, originally in the cathedral style, lead out to the Balcony of the Dons which affords a fine view over the now-pedestrianized 2nd Ave.

The mezzanine promenade also features a double-height space called the Tower Room directly above the entrance lobby and below the cupola, which was not originally open the public. It is now used to host heritage displays and historic items relating to the theatre. Next to the Tower Room is a round room which is original and was dedicated to the “modern young”. The completely circular room was originally fitted-out with love seats and lit with hidden soft blue lighting illuminating the domed ceiling, giving an intimacy to the whole affair. Although now decorated in a style similar to the rest of the theatre it was originally decorated and furnished in the “mode of the Moderne”. It is known as the Kissing Room or the Room of the Young Modernes.

The Kissing Room
The Kissing Room

The plenum space under the auditorium was originally designed as a massive swamp cooler. External air was pulled down shafts and blown by huge electric fans across a massive pool of water in the plenum. In a dry climate such as in Arizona, this has the effect of cooling the air, which then exited the plenum through mushrooms under the seats. Foul air would have been extracted by exhaust fans in the ceiling. A small area of original paint in the basement indicates the water level for the swamp cooler system. The water would have to be changed-out frequently to ensure it did not go stagnant and create a foul smell.

Less than one year after opening the Orpheum, Rickards & Nace sold the theatre to Publix Theatres (a Paramount company), along with all their other theatre interests, and dissolved their partnership. Rickards moved back to Los Angeles however Nace stayed in Arizona and continued managing the theatres for Paramount/Publix. In July 1946 the theatre started being billed as the Nace Paramount Theatre, and then it became the Paramount Theater in 1950 after Harry Nace retired in 1948.

In April 1968 the theatre was purchased by the Nederlander Organization and renamed Palace West. Jimmy Nederlander saw Phoenix as an important growth town, and it was no doubt also a welcome tour stop for his shows traveling between Denver and cities on the US West Coast. The theatre went on to feature multiple Broadway touring productions.

Stagehouse before rebuilding
Stagehouse before rebuilding

In the 1970s and early 1980s the theatre was leased to the Corona family and a wide range of Hispanic movies and events took place at the theatre. Murals and moldings in the auditorium were painted black, likely in part to hide their poor condition but also because it was felt they would detract from the films being shown.

In 1984 the City of Phoenix purchased the theatre, along with the rest of the block the theatre was built on, for a new City Hall complex.

The theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 as the City began a 12-year $14.5 million restoration. Retail units at street level were adapted into expanded lobby and box office spaces, the stagehouse completely rebuilt including crucial deepening of the stage to enable the hosting of modern Broadway touring productions, and loading facilities behind the theatre were added (as a combination with loading for the new city hall building). The theatre originally sat 1,800 and this was reduced to 1,400 allowing for wider seating and handicap access.

Wurlitzer Organ Console
Wurlitzer Organ Console

The theatre reopened in January 1997 with a performance of Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing. At the end of the performance Channing thanked the audience for “not turning this beautiful theatre into a parking lot”.

The theatre was originally equipped with a 3-manual, 11-rank Meisel & Sullivan organ, noted at the theatre’s opening as the only disappearing organ in the state of Arizona. As part of the 1980/90s restoration project, the Valley of the Sun Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society Link opens in new window spearheaded a project to re-install a theatre organ at the Orpheum. Organ chambers much larger than the originals were agreed upon which allowed the organ to contain a much expanded 30 ranks. The 3-manual Wurlitzer console was originally installed in the Paramount Theatre in Middletown, NY. 14 of the 30 ranks came from the Roxy Theatre (Radio City) organ in New York. The organ is frequently played at Silent Sunday movie screenings, as well as dedicated organ events.

Movie, TV & Music Video Appearances

Television

Music Videos

Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the Orpheum Theatre?

Tours take place on alternating Tuesdays throughout the year, run by the nonprofit Friends of the Orpheum Link opens in new window organization. Check the theatre’s Events Calendar Link opens in new window for the next available tours. Tours start at Midday and 1:30pm, last approximately 1 hour, and no reservation is required. Tours meet under the marquee on West Adams St.

Call (602) 495-7139 Link opens in new window to schedule a private tour for groups of 10 or more.

Further Reading

Online

Technical Information

Flying System
System Type
Single-Purchase Counterweight System operated from Stage Left at Stage Level or Fly Floor
Batten Length
62ft 2in, however some battens are 76ft long
Fly Floor
Stage Right and Stage Left, 30ft above Stage
Grid Height
65ft
Linesets
50 @ 5-line linesets (2 being Stage Right and Stage Left Tabs)
Lighting
Control System
2 @ GIO 6k consoles
Dimmers
480 ways of Strand CD80SV dimmers
Followspots
2 @ Lycian 1275 (1.2kW HMI) in Auditorium Lighting Bridge; 2 @ Lycian 1290 (2kW Xenon) in Projection Booth
Movie Projection
Projection Throw
87ft to Grand Drape
Orchestra Pit
Pit Lift
Pit level adjustable from Stage level downwards on screwjack elevators
Pit Lift Depth
9ft 6in
Pit Lift Width
42ft 6in
Sound
Main Desk
Yamaha Rivage PM7
Speakers
D&B V-series line arrays (8 per side) and Sl-series subwoofers
Stage Dimensions
Proscenium Height
26ft (16ft at sides)
Proscenium Width
50ft
Stage Depth
42ft working depth
Stage Width
101ft, wall to wall
Theatre Organ
Organ Details
3-manual 30-rank Wurlitzer (Console Opus 2114)
Historic Photos & Documents

Historic files shown here may be subject to copyright; review our “Fair Use” statement here.

Photos of the Orpheum Theatre

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium: Orchestra
  2. Auditorium: Balcony
  3. Auditorium: General Closeups
  4. Auditorium: Proscenium Closeups
  5. Orchestra Lobby
  6. Orchestra Lobby Closeups
  7. Balcony Lobby (Mezzanine Promenade)
  8. Basement Lounge
  9. Exterior: Balcony of the Dons
  10. Exterior
  11. Organ
  12. Control Booth
  13. Stage
  14. Backstage Support Areas
  15. Attic
Auditorium: Orchestra

The auditorium is designed in an atmospheric style to suggest the idea of watching a performance al fresco, sitting in a Spanish walled garden with the twilight sky and twinkling stars above.

The garden walls give way to murals, where “one sees beyond a vast expanse [of] richly colored mountain ranges, canyon gorges, with glowing sand in the foreground, and typical Arizona vegetation”.

The auditorium design featured arbored alcoves at Orchestra level originally sported bubbling fountains. Water features in theatres are extremely rare, the only other we have photographed is at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego.

The proscenium, and the adjoining gigantic Spanish Renaissance frontispieces hiding the organ chambers, feature statues of Venus sporting the vase of enjoyment, Orpheus in various guises, and Greek Muses dancing across the proscenium, each enclosed in a gold medallion.

The blue sky with its twinkling stars also originally featured moving clouds. The projected stars and clouds have been recreated using modern methods.

Auditorium: Balcony

The auditorium is designed in an atmospheric style to suggest the idea of watching a performance al fresco, sitting in a Spanish walled garden with the twilight sky and twinkling stars above.

The auditorium design featured arbored alcoves at Orchestra level originally sported bubbling fountains. Water features in theatres are extremely rare, the only other we have photographed is at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego.

The walls of the balcony are laid with roof tiles, and beyond the tops of the walls murals afford a view of “a vast expanse [of] richly colored mountain ranges, canyon gorges, with glowing sand in the foreground, and typical Arizona vegetation”. Originally there would have been hidden cove lighting to light the murals in different colors, such as cooling blues in the hot summer and warm reds in the cool winter.

The blue sky with its twinkling stars also originally featured moving clouds. The projected stars and clouds have been recreated using modern methods.

Auditorium: General Closeups

The gigantic Spanish Renaissance frontispieces framing the proscenium hide the organ chambers and feature statues of Venus sporting the vase of enjoyment, Orpheus in various guises, and Greek Muses dancing across the proscenium, each enclosed in a gold medallion.

At the rear of the balcony, in the center, sits a bust which was said at the theatre’s opening to be a satirical figure gazing down at the entertainment taking place in front of him. The rest of the rear wall contains semicircular windows suggesting garden views to the rear. Goliath cylindrical Mayan vases sit in some of the alcoves and seem discordant with the rest of the cohesive auditorium style. They are original to the theatre but may not now be in their original locations.

The high garden walls give way to murals, where “one sees beyond a vast expanse [of] richly colored mountain ranges, canyon gorges, with glowing sand in the foreground, and typical Arizona vegetation”. This garden view is repeated in the arbored alcoves at Orchestra level which originally sported bubbling fountains. Water features in theatres are extremely rare, the only other we have photographed is at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego.

Auditorium: Proscenium Closeups

The proscenium was partially recreated as part of the redevelopment project completed in 1997. The outer three bands of the proscenium had been largely destroyed by widescreen projection screens installed in the 1950s/60s. Molds of the remaining bands of the proscenium allowed for the replication of the original outer bands.

The proscenium features a Greek Muse in varying poses, each set within a golden medallion, across its width. There are also repeating Comedy and Tragedy masks echoing the masks seen in the Orchestra-level Grand Lobby, symbolical representations of Orpheus, and Spanish finials along the top completing the picture.

Orchestra Lobby

The Orchestra Lobby is heavily ornamented and features a feast for the eyes.

The ceiling is crossed with stenciled faux-wood timber beams constructed in concrete and painted to look like wood, with ornamental brackets facing them featuring a series of repeating Comedy and Tragedy masks running the entire length of the lobby.

Ornamental solomonic (corkscrew) columns feature birds and vines topped by the masks of Tragedy and Comedy on their capitols. Multiple relief busts in portrait form, including Eurydice and Calliope, are featured over the exit doors and the doors leading into the auditorium.

At the north end of the lobby is the Phoenix Staircase and to the south is the circular Peacock Staircase. Both stairs connect the basement lounge/bar/restrooms, Grand Lobby (Orchestra level) and Mezzanine Promenade (Balcony level).

Orchestra Lobby Closeups

The Orchestra Lobby is heavily ornamented and features a feast for the eyes.

Ornamental solomonic (corkscrew) columns feature birds (suggestive of the mythical phoenix) and vines topped by the masks of Tragedy and Comedy on their capitols. Multiple relief busts in portrait form, including Eurydice and Calliope, are featured over the exit doors and the doors leading into the auditorium.

Balcony Lobby (Mezzanine Promenade)

At the mezzanine level the design is more Italian with just a “tinge” of Spanish, suggesting the rooms of a Davanzati palace. Glazed doors, originally in the cathedral style, lead out to the Balcony of the Dons which affords a fine view over the now-pedestrianized 2nd Ave.

The mezzanine promenade also features a double-height space called the Tower Room directly above the entrance lobby and below the cupola, which was not originally open the public. It is now used to host heritage displays and historic items relating to the theatre.

Next to the Tower Room is a round room which is original and was dedicated to the “modern young”. The completely circular room was originally fitted-out with love seats and lit with hidden soft blue lighting illuminating the domed ceiling, giving an intimacy to the whole affair. Although now decorated in a style similar to the rest of the theatre it was originally decorated and furnished in the “mode of the Moderne”. It is known as the Kissing Room or the Room of the Young Modernes.

Basement Lounge

The basement lounge features extended bar and lounge facilities. It has been completely reworked from the 1929 basement lounge when it was described as “expressing the recreating halls of the medieval monasteries with heavy arches and antique plaster”.

The circular Peacock Staircase is located at the House Left end of the lounge and is the theatre’s signature stairway to ascend from basement to Orchestra and Balcony levels.

Exterior: Balcony of the Dons

The shallow mezzanine balcony is located on the east side of the theatre building originally overlooking 2nd Ave, which has since been turned into a “town square” pedestrian area outside City Hall.

The Balcony of the Dons features helmeted conquistadors facing alternately north and south as a nod to those who influenced Arizona’s roots.

Exterior

The West Adams St façade originally housed retail units which were incorporated into the theatre’s expanded lobby and concession/bar facilities as part of the 1990s redevelopment project.

2nd Ave was originally a through street but has since been closed-off, resulting in a large public square outside the main entrance of the theatre. The theatre’s marquee has been rehabilitated and harks back to its original 1920s opulence.

Organ

The theatre restoration project did not include funds to include an organ and so the Sun Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society Link opens in new window committed to assembling, installing, and maintaining a Wurlitzer theatre organ.

The redevelopment project completed in 1997 resulted in new organ chambers which were larger than the originals and allowed for the installation of a larger organ. A 3-manual, 30-rank Wurlitzer has replaced the theatre’s original 3-manual, 11-rank Meisel & Sullivan organ. For more details of the organ, including the origins of some of the organ ranks, go to the Friends of the Orpheum Theatre page all about the organ Link opens in new window.

Control Booth

The Projection Booth, currently a Control Booth (i.e. no permanent projection facilities) is located a couple of steps down from Balcony Lobby level. Large voids to either side of the central booth are original and are currently used to house curtain warming lights. Digital Cinema and Film projection is done from the Booth although no equipment was installed at the time these photographs were taken (Fall 2019).

Stage

The stagehouse was completely rebuilt as part of the redevelopment project completed in 1997. Previously limited by depth and height, it was extended in both directions. The stage is now 42ft (12.8m) deep with a grid 65ft (almost 20m) above the stage.

The theatre hosts a large collection of bathtub ducks. Each visiting production is given a duck upon their arrival which they return to the theatre upon their departure. Visiting Prop and Wardrobe groups customize their duck to represent the show they’re presenting, such as a sailor duck for “Anything Goes” and a duck wearing long sequined boots for “Kinky Boots”.

Backstage Support Areas

The backstage corridor inside the Stage Door (located Stage Left side) is covered with a Signature Wall where visiting productions are given a square to use how they see fit to mark their production’s time at the Orpheum. The central feature of the wall is a massive poster celebrating the reopening of the theatre in January 1997 with Carol Channing starring in “Hello, Dolly!”.

Dressing/Musician/Chorus Rooms, general support areas, and the Green Room are located in the basement. The Orchestra Pit (on a lift) is accessed from the basement level.

The plenum space under the auditorium was originally designed as a massive swamp cooler. External air was pulled down shafts and blown by electric fans across a massive pool of water in the plenum. In a dry climate such as in Arizona, this cools the air, which then exited the plenum through mushrooms under the seats. Foul air would have been extracted by exhaust fans in the ceiling. A small area of original paint in the basement indicates the water level for the swamp cooler system. The water would have to be changed-out frequently to ensure it did not go stagnant...and create a foul smell.

Attic

The auditorium ceiling was fully rebuilt as part of the redevelopment project completed in 1997. Access is provided to modern standards with safe catwalks affording access to all areas. A large air conditioning plant is located above the center of the auditorium. Immediately in front of it, closer to the stage, is the Cove Lighting position. It can be seen from here that the auditorium ceiling is actually a neutral grey and not blue as it appears.

Photographs show the view from above the proscenium looking out over the auditorium. This area was originally left largely unfinished, however in 2020 – after these photos were taken – it was upgraded with catwalks as part of the project to fly the house PA speaker system. House speakers are now flown at either side of the stage rather than sat on the stage floor at either side of the proscenium.



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