Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"An Elegant and Unaltered Survivor"

The Los Angeles Orpheum Theatre opened on February 15, 1926. Built at a then staggering cost of $2 million dollars, it was the most elaborate vaudeville house ever constructed in southern California. It was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh of San Francisco. This elegant theatre has survived 75 years without any damaging alterations or make-overs in structure or style.

The organ is an original installation Wurlitzer, Style 240 with 13 ranks (Opus 1821). This three-manual instrument was installed some two years after the opening of the theatre, and a Post Horn was added in recent years. The instrument is one of only three remaining original theatre organ installations in theatres in Southern California. Today, the organ is managed by William Denton and maintained by an all-volunteer crew headed by Cliff Schwander. Regulation and tuning is handled by Tom DeLay,

The Orpheum stage was built to accommodate the largest vaudeville acts, with the most modern lighting and stage riggings of its era. There are six floors of dressing rooms serviced by the backstage elevator. Facilities were included to house circus animals which over the years included elephants, tigers, and lions.

Unfortunately, vaudeville was already rapidly fading in popularity by the time the Orpheum opened, and the theatre soon replaced live entertainment with first-run films. The effects of the Depression and competition from other nearby theatres forced the closing of the Orpheum at the end of 1932.

Los Angeles showman Sherill Corwin had a vision that vaudeville could live again if combined with motion pictures. That dream became a reality and the Orpheum reopened in 1933, showcasing performers such as Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ann Miller, Donald O'Connor, Duke Ellington, Paul Whiteman, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, and others. For the next 20 years, vaudeville survived in Los Angeles.

Vaudeville acts finally ended in the early 50s. By the 60s, the Broadway area had become a major Hispanic marketplace and the Orpheum introduced Spanish language films that proved successful through the 70s and early 80s. But by the 90s, suburban multiplexes had forced the historic Orpheum and many of the major downtown Los Angeles theatres to close.

The Future Appears Bright

The grand old lady at 842 South Broadway was rejuvenated at the age of 75 by Steve Needleman, whose family has owned the property since 1964. The face-lift, begun in January 2001, was unveiled the following October with Swinging at the Orpheum, a gala dance party that benefited the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy. The event raised more than $135,000 for the preservation group.

The doors of the refurbished Orpheum Theatre are now open for all types of gatherings and shows that require a large venue. Walk into the refurbished lobby and you can see plenty. You see a 1926 vaudeville house's past, and a bright future. It is a beautiful sight. Needleman spent $3 million bringing the Orpheum back from frumpdom. The renovations included a new orchestra pit, plush auditorium seating, refurbished dressing rooms and restrooms, new air conditioning, lighting, sound systems, and stage rigging. For the first time since World War II, the gigantic 20,000-watt rooftop sign is illuminated.

Compiled by Dale Wood

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